Many of the darker stories of the Cold War
come from the brutal struggles for decolonisation. Especially after the draining efforts of the
Second World War, many European colonial empires found themselves without the resources available
to maintain dominance over indigenous peoples across their holdings. Anti-colonial movements
began to rise, and desperate empires would go to more and more desperate lengths to stop
them. We’ve seen this in cases such as the Malay Emergency or the rise of Sukarno in
Indonesia, which we talked about previously on this channel. And today we’re going to
talk about another similar story when a group opposed the white supremacist rule of Britain
in Kenya. Today’s topic is the Mau Mau Rebellion. I’m your host David and this is the Cold
War. To start, Kenya was a British colony, a land
not only rich in agriculture, but highly strategic for British transportation conduits on the
African continent. With British holdings in the African interior and a railroad to maintain,
Kenya was of vital importance to British rule. But it all sounds rather banal if you talk
about resources and logistics. The Kenyan people, made up up a wide number of different
ethnic communities including but not limited to Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, Kamba, Kisii,
Somalis, Mijikenda, Meru, Turkana, and Maasai had been conquered and subjugated by the British.
The Mau Mau rebellion was merely the result of systematic and constant resistance to the
British ever since it became a protectorate in the late 19th century. And the response
to this resistance has always been bloody and brutal.
White settlers in Kenya enjoyed significant privileges when it came to making money and
owning the best and most land. Kenyans had to keep identification on them to move about.
There was an attempt in the 1930’s to improve conditions called the Carter Land Commission
but still, they recommended next to nothing for the Kenyan people, and many Kenyans started
to conclude that there was no path to liberation through peaceful means.
The material conditions they lived under were designed to keep native Kenyans in systematic
poverty. The British put laws in place to force Kenyans to become wage workers through
taxing huts, forcing ethnic groups into overcrowded reserves, banning Kenyans from farming the
most profitable crops, and attacks on squatters and tenants rights. White settlers paid almost
no taxes, and the services and infrastructure Kenyans paid for were mostly enjoyed by white
settlers. Lastly, the working conditions for native Kenyans were often horrible, with beatings
being a frequent occurrence, and the legal system having little to no sympathy for them.
All of this is the context for a movement called the Mau Mau. They were a militant group
of Kenyans fighting for greater rights and freedoms for themselves. Originally a student
movement, its attempts at making reforms through activism failed. It grew to encompass more
native segments of the population, and more militant members began to take over.
The militant activity started to increase throughout 1952. The colonial government,
however, was slow to respond. They assumed that their overwhelming military power and
resources would be more than a match for any native uprising. It had been the case in the
past, and apparently, the realities of guerilla warfare are a very slow lesson to learn for
empires. The new governor Evelyn Baring had no warning of the growing uprising in Kenya
as he took office. The first act of violence came with the stabbing
of a woman on October 3rd. A week later, Mau Mau militants shot a key colonial official.
A chief who supported the British regime. The attacks would continue using principles
of asymmetric warfare. They attacked at night, in areas loyalists had weak influence and
used hit and run tactics. On October 20th, Baring declared a state of
emergency, ordering the mass arrests of any known Mau Mau leader they could the next day.
The idea was that doing so would destroy the organisation early by removing the leadership
in one fell swoop in something called Operation Jock Scott. The problem is that info leaked
to Mau Mau about the planned arrests. Any moderates left in the organisation accepted
their fates, leaving only the most militant and radical who had escaped capture to steer
the movement. They responded with a series of gruesome murders I’ll spare the details
of here just in case someone’s watching this video during lunch. Upping the ante,
the UK raised an entire 3000 man native army as well as dispatching a battalion of British
troops to put down the resistance and then put the leaders arrested through a notoriously
unfair trial. At the same time, the continued efforts of the British to stop the movement
radicalised a majority of the Kenyan people to sympathise with the Mau Mau.
As the British began to use the army to crack down on the Mau Mau, they retreated to rural
areas, to the forests, to commit guerilla… this is starting to get a bit familiar isn’t
it?? It took the British four years to wipe out the Mau Mau. Some vital intelligence from
captured leaders and continual pressure caused their decline.
What sticks out is how the British “pressured” the Kenyan people. There’s a lot to go into,
and it shows the scale of violence we will see as colonised people struggled for rights
and freedoms. The British dropped on Kenya nearly 6 million
bombs. They stormed the city of Nairobi, a city with heavy Mau Mau presence, displacing
about 50,000 people to those overcrowded reserves. People of the Kikuyu ethnic group, who made
up a significant part of the Mau Mau, were deported en masse to reserves. To screen them,
the British had to make massive detention camps in a system that has been compared to
Stalin’s gulags. In these camps talking in public was forbidden, families were split
up, and they transferred prisoners for days with little to no food and water. Camp diseases
spread like wildfire without sufficient sanitation. The British then used the detainees in these
camps for forced labour. Many infrastructure projects in Kenya were built on the backs
of prisoners in forced labour camps. Later in the conflict, the British decided to commit
mass relocations of the peoples in their prison system. These ‘villages’ were not unlike
the ones rural Malayan people had to live in during the emergency there. To cut off
rebel support, thousands of people had to live behind barbed wire and armed guards.
They were concentration camps. The British were using concentration camps. And in these
concentration camps, people started to starve. Aaaaand the British prioritised food to loyalists…
They even called the ones they starved “punitive villages”. A shockingly high number of the
50,000 deaths which occurred during this whole conflict were children in these camps. Now
I haven’t checked in a while, but this is some severe war crimes territory right here.
Speaking of war crimes…that’s a weird way to start a sentence. BUT let’s look
into the war crimes the British imposed on the Kenyan people. Civil liberties were suspended
during the state of emergency. In those concentration camps, also a war crime, by the way, that
targeted starvation was a form of collective punishment. Many were tortured and even sexually
assaulted for information. Again for those eating, I won’t go into details, but suffice
it to say, this was particularly grotesque. I feel it is important to note here that over
1,000 death sentences were handed out during this State of Emergency; that is actually
twice the number handed out by the French during the Algerian War. Which of course could
just mean that the French were more comfortable with extra-judicial killing while the British
prefered to have a veneer of legality to their executions.
The Mau Mau weren’t off the hook either in the violence department. From retaliatory
violence to massacres of loyalist troops, to the poisoning of cattle, the Mau Mau killed
almost 2000 fellow Kenyans in the uprising. By the end in 1955, Baring offered some massive
concessions to the Mau Mau, including land reform, relaxations on the native population’s
right to grow cash crops, increased wages, and even the right to vote in democratic elections.
How kind. By the end of 1956, the uprising had been
largely put down but the State of Emergency remained until 1960, as the last of the rebels
were tracked down. But, the elected government that was formed after 1956 would lead to eventual
majority rule, and would eventually move Kenya towards independence, finally gained in 1963.
The question we all have, and is still debated by historians and many Kenyans is whether
the uprising was the reason for all of this progress. Is the Mau Mau uprising part of
Kenya’s story of decolonisation, or an unfortunately failed attempt going on while the slower path
moved forward? The debate is whether the British gave all of these concessions as they realised
Kenya was not worth the investment of blood and treasure to maintain control, or if it
was a mere sideshow. The Kenyan government does recognise several
Mau Mau fighters as national heroes, and Kenyans do honour them every October 20th. Though
this was not always the case. After independence, discussion of the Mau Mau was conspicuously
absent. It is a more modern reassessment of the Mau Mau, or according to some a political
ploy. So, the legacy and feelings towards them are complicated even today.
A couple of Mau Mau veteran’s groups have tried to sue the British. While many weren’t
successful, the continued pressure in the early 21st century did make an impact. Eventually,
the British did pay Kenya reparations to Kenya for the torture and mass cruelty they committed
during the uprising and even funded a little statue in Nairobi to it.
Oftentimes, our education on this period of world history is heavily skewed by which side
our country of origin took in the Cold War. As we move forward on this channel, I want
you to know that this was a conflict with no heroes and no villains but a lot of cruelty
and an overwhelming amount of injustice. The scars of colonization in Kenya are deep, and
remain to this day. When you look at the news, think about the layers of history which might
underwrite the issues of our day. Some of you will have noticed that this is
our first video on Sub-Saharan Africa. There will be many more to come over the life of
this channel as we move into the bitter struggles of decolonization. Themse of social injustice,
of freedom and oppression, and of horrific violence will run throughout. We are approaching
stage of the Cold War where direct conflict between the superpowers was becoming less
likely but highly destabilizing proxy wars were becoming the norm.
We hope you have enjoyed todays video and thank you to Tristan from StepBack History
for todays script! Please make sure you are subscribed to our channel and to make sure
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