In the 1950s in Kenya, British settlers lived in terror of an “evil” that was sweeping the country, threatening to wipe out their aristocratic enclave: Mau Mau. In reports to the Home Office, colonial authorities described a satanic primitive religion that was turning previously content and compliant servants and laborers into bloodthirsty butchers wreaking havoc across the land.
But for Africans, Mau Mau was the sound of liberation. Although there’s no expert consensus on its origins, a Ugandan writer I know who spent twelve years in Kenya tells me that in Kiswahili, Mau Mau is recognized as an acronym: it means “British go back to Europe; African gets Freedom.” As a child, he and his friends would whisper it at baffled white visitors.
Whatever its origins, Mau Mau was a cry of political rebellion. And it was the inevitable outgrowth of a half-century of repressive rule by the British in Kenya. By the 1950s, the British “civilizing” mission had ejected Kenyans from their land, destroyed their communities and transformed them into squatters, tenant farmers or low-wage laborers. It’s hardly surprising that some of those Africans had grown restive, and that most thought it was time for the British to go home. But for the British, the sinister pall cast over Mau Mau served an important purpose: It justified the hidden torture and brutality they used to retain their grip on power long after the myth of benevolent empire could possibly be sustained.
Two new books–Caroline Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya and David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire–cast the notorious Mau Mau uprising and the British response in a new light, revealing the astonishing lengths to which the British went to forestall the inevitable demise of their imperial enterprise.
Most Mau Mau leaders were drawn from the ranks of the Kikuyu, one of Kenya’s leading tribes. The Kikuyu had long been the country’s most prosperous farmers, until the British arrived in the late nineteenth century and white settlers began to appropriate their most fertile lands. Over time, the Kikuyu were forced onto tiny “reserves” that couldn’t possibly sustain them. The lucky ones were allowed to squat on settlers’ farms but were forbidden from growing the most profitable crops or owning more than a paltry amount of cattle. Mechanization and a rapidly intensifying land grab soon drove many off even these meager plots.
Recognizing that the deteriorating situation could explode, the British named Kikuyu “chiefs” to lord over their neighbors, handing them power, money and arable land in return for their loyalty. Chiefs enforced the colonial government’s strict tax laws and rules requiring all Kikuyu to carry identification and employment cards. So as African nationalism fostered calls for decolonization across Africa in the 1950s, it’s no wonder that in Kenya, where Africans were denied even the vote, those with the least land, education and prospects decided to take matters into their own hands. Reviving an old Kikuyu solidarity oath, they added a commitment to band together to eject the British and win their freedom.
The picture the British have painted of Mau Mau is one of striking brutality, of men who, via magical oath-taking ceremonies, were transformed into monsters who hacked their victims to pieces and displayed the remains for all to see. No doubt, many of the murders were gruesome and spread understandable alarm among Kenya’s white elite. But the image of Mau Mau has also overshadowed its reality: During the eight-year war, Mau Mau warriors killed only thirty-two European civilians and fewer than 200 British soldiers and police. Mau Mau violence was far more lethal to the Kikuyu who refused to join the cause: Mau Mau assassinated close to 2,000 Kikuyu civilians. Far from representing all Kikuyu, the movement began as a militant fringe, its terror tactics against its fellow tribesmen a response to the hierarchies the British themselves had created. But it is the British response to Mau Mau, which likely left more than 20,000 Africans dead (there is still no accurate count), that will most shock readers familiar with the official story.