The Mau Mau: A Movement for Land Liberation

photo by Carol Duff

Health Editor’s Note: Not related to medicine or health care, the following is a paper I wrote on the Mau Mau explosion and how it coincided with an agrarian revolution, ineffectiveness of nationalist politicians, and general radicalization……Carol  

Mau Mau:  A Movement for Land Liberation

The coincidence of an agrarian revolution, ineffectiveness of nationalist politicians, and general radicalization explain the Mau Mau explosion.  After the British colonial authorities unleashed a premature program of repression against the Kikuyu of Central Kenya they forced the militants’ hands. The Mau Mau was a nationalist movement with legitimate economic and social issues with the British colonial government.  The British public relations launched a campaign to present the Mau Mau as a criminal organization who used irrational force of evil influenced by world Communism. Rather than being a Kikuyu murder cult, as represented in the Western press, literature, and even movies, the Mau Mau was a broad based, sophisticated social and political movement, strong in economic, political, and social theory.

Although Rudyard Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden” in response to the American takeover of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war, its sentiments would also reflect British attitude about their colonization of Kenya.  The first few stanzas of the poem seem to give the Caucasian the duty to colonize and civilize the “uncivilized.”  Most certainly the African were considered to be uncivilized by all European nations who carved up the continent of Africa.

Take up the White Man’s Burden

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered fold and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half –devil and half-child.

The Mau Mau nationalist struggle started long before the Kenyan state of emergency was declared on 20 October 1952. The Kikuyu mistrust of the British was in place by 1890.  The IBEA (Imperial East Africa Company), after building a railroad, had helped the British government move into Kikuyu land.  The ill trained IBEA forces were soon assaulting the local native population.  “Kikuyu, who had welcomed the foreigners, were subjected to the theft of their crops, rape of their women, and the murder of those who resisted British rule.

Much of what is written about the Kikuyu nationalists’ movement focuses on the oaths and violence but does not address the economics and social persecution of the Kikuyu.  The level of persecution varied over the years, but was always designed to protect the British settlers’ economic interests. Great care has been given to some writings to describe the individual attacks upon white settlers.  Often names and descriptions of the white victims are given to personalize them to the reader.  The settlers are described in such a way that they are almost innocent of whatever they had done to oppress the Kikuyu. “The British refused to see any legitimate reasons for the uprising.  Britain propaganda also portrayed the Mau Mau revolt as a barbaric, savage revolt against benevolent white.”

When the British colonized Kenya they brought with them their colonial currency.  With the introduction of British currency,  the colonists were able to control and immobilize existing Kenyan economics. Where native practices of money or goods exchange had worked for the Kikuyu, the British now demanded that the British pound would be the measure of currency and in order to have British currency the Kenyans would have to work for the British.  Hut and poll taxes imposed on the Kenyans created the situation where Kenyans were forced to work for the Europeans or be arrested for non-payment of taxes.

Fifty years before the Mau Mau emergency the rage against the white settlers had reached a peak.  The Mau Mau torture and murder of a white man in one instance provoked the murder of an entire Kikuyu village.  “The military leader of the British contingent in the area commented on how “surprisingly” easy it was to put a bayonet into a human body.”   The killing of the Kikuyu continued for many years, sometimes with the help of their neighbors, the Maasai, who sided with the British.

Before colonial arrival, the Kikuyu people had farmed the same lands that were given to the colonists and were a land and wealth conscious community. Initially the Kikuyu thought that the British invasion would be for their good since they had guns and would be able to protect them from their enemies. “Being a Kikuyu meant having the right to own a share in Kikuyu land; status and position depended on the degree that one could assume such rights; being deprived of land and status had led to the protest of the Mau Mau.” The best lands were fenced and the Kikuyu were denied access and could no longer cultivate or graze their goats and cattle on the land.  The ownership of land then passed through British families rather than the Kikuyu who originally had possessed and farmed the land.

The Kikuyu were the Kenyan population that was most disrupted by Kenyan British rule because many lost their land and were forced to work for the colonists.  The Kikuyu were educated about the ways of the colonial system and were the most politicized African community in Kenya. The undermining of Kikuyu civilization by the presence of the British was caused by both denying the Kikuyu economic gains and by restricting the Kikuyu to a reservation blocked any expansion they may need to meet their increasing census.

As if the land confiscation was not enough, the British enacted legislation to control the Kikuyu both politically and financially.  The settlers required cheap labor to work their hundreds of acre holdings and were able to convince the government to tax the Kikuyu.  The main aim was to insure that the Africans did not become self-sufficient or to become a threat to the monopoly the British had over the capital gains derived from Kenya.  Kenyan colonial land policy was to establish a lucrative European managed agricultural area. By 1920, 5.5 million acres of African land had been taken for European use. The British never intended to engage in political negotiations with Mau Mau. The government focused on harassing the Africans with night raids in which they entered homes and beat whomever they found there.  “The war against the Mau Mau illustrated that counterinsurgency operations were bloody, protracted, and ruthless.”

The British put controls on the Kikuyu by passing a system of identification for the Africans.  The Kipande system was based on the enforced carrying of photograph identity card for any Kikuyu who was outside the native land unit.  The pass was worn around the neck in a metal container.  Understandably the Kikuyu took offense at this forced social control.  “It jingled like a bell as a person walked.  The Kikuyu called it mbugi (goat bell) and detested it as a mark of their servility.”

The Kikuyu were part of several political groups that evolved during the years of dissatisfaction with the lack of response they received from the colonial government.  Harry Thuku organized the Young Kikuyu Association in the early 20s to protest such government policies as hut taxes, labor laws, and the kipande identification system.  In 1925 his organization was replaced by Kikuyu Central Association, which would carry on the same protest but in a more circumspect manner. Jomo Kenyatta, aka Kamanu Ngengi, was sent to London to make political contacts to help the Kenyans.  Upon his belated return he started the Kenya African Union (KLU), which replaced the KCA.

During the depression of the early 1930s, the African peasant was encouraged to produce cash crops in order to finance the British colonial bureaucracy and keep the farms of the British settlers intact.  The colonial government stepped in to tell the Kikuyu how and what to farm.  This often forced the Kikuyu to neglect their own claims.   Although the land was already in desperate need of ecological reform, any thought of that was put on the back burner as the peasants were strongly encouraged to grow as much coffee, tea, and pineapples as possible.  The programs to conserve soil and cattle grazing land reduction in the reserves were abandoned in favor of increased productions.  The ten years of land abuse left Kenya with devastating erosion problems.

After the threat of the depression had passed, the Kikuyu were forced to abandon cash crops since the British would again monopolize any wealth gained from this type of production.  The government started a forced program of terracing to belatedly start the abandoned land conservation program. “Three mornings every week, peasant women were compelled to labour on communal terracing or grass-planting campaigns.”

Before World War I, European farmers, who had the money to pay labor, to work on their vast properties, had invited squatters.  The Kikuyu were given as much land as they needed to graze their cattle and to grow food in exchange for labor.  The Kikuyu on these estates were pleased to get out of the crowded reserves, where they were taxed and bullied by their chiefs.  After World War II, when war production had fattened the pockets of the settlers, the 200,000 squatters who lived on settler farms were regulated by cultivation rights and cattle numbers.

During World War II the European settlers had realized a substantial economic advance and by 1942 did not want to loose land control so metropolitan authority was tightened.  Under British indirect rule the appointed chiefs dictated to their people, but did not possess the power to be involved in decision making on the governmental level.  This disturbed the Africans, as they saw no proof that their own good wishes would be incorporated into government.  These people soon turned to the nationalist militants who seemed more potent than the co-opted chiefs.

The Mau Mau used political and social movements to try to gain the return of their lands, to gain a voice in colonial government, and to stop social discrimination against them.  They were a politically organized peasant movement and very similar to the Viet Cong in Vietnam.  The Kikuyu were a broad-based group in a country where British has been playing one group against another since the beginning of colonialism.   By 1947, the peasants had started to revolt and were able to receive the right to grow the cash crops of coffee, tea, and pineapples and were rewarded for building terraces to stop erosion.  Kikuyu capitalism was still strongly discouraged and the Kikuyu, who were in position to be capitalists, were members of the Kenya African Union, which was made up of political rivals of the colonial appointed chiefs for power and had some access to money made by the colonial state. This placed the KAU in conflict with the paternalistic traditions of the district administration.   Post war chiefs were given no respect and African politicians at the district level were excluded from economic and political influence but had expectations for more. The rise of the Mau Mau grew as a militant wing of the KAU, which in itself has chosen militant nationalism.

The second colonial occupation of Kenya gave purpose to the KAU movement as the peasants opposed communal fencing and their turncoat chiefs, who would be treated more favorably and would lean toward pro-colonialism for fear of losing any positive position they might possess in the colonial scheme of conducting business. “Despite the administration’s intentions, the second colonial occupation increased the disparities between the favored few and the African masses.”

The displaced squatters were ripe for Mau Mau politics.  The relocation of the squatters to less desirable lands cemented Kikuyu distrust of the British.  Olengurume, where squatters, who had gained from the high commodity prices during the first eight years of the 1940s, and had settled on land that became one of the centers for political subversion.  The other center for organization for the nationalist battle that would start in earnest was Nairobi, where squatters would immigrate to after being squeezed off of the settler farms.  The Kikuyu were removed from land that they had ancestral lineage rights to.  In Nairobi incidents of crime increased as unemployment rose.  By 1950 Kikuyu street gangs were in control in Nairobi.  These gangs aligned with the militant politicians and trade unions.  “The strategy switched to the infiltration of constitutional nationalist movement, the Kenya African Union, and mass oathing of Kikuyu underclass of criminals, prostitutes, taxi drivers, vagrants, and casual laborers.”

The Mau Mau Movement was an alliance between three discontented groups of Kikuyu.  These groups were the urban unemployed and destitute; disposed squatters from the White Highlands; and poor peasants, tenants, and members of those who were denied their lineage right to property. Social polarization along with class conflict prevented a united nationalist movement.  The educated activists had little influence over the landless.  The widening gap between the militants and those who wanted moderate reform further alienated the opposing factions from each other.

Many of those who organized the Mau Mau had served in the British military during WWII.  These men returned to Kenya and found that the sense of equality they had shared during their military experience vanished when they returned to the landlessness and joblessness.  They found that Kenya was firmly entrenched as “white man’s country.”

The Nairobi based Forty Group was one of the most powerful of the Kikuyu organized gangs.  Their hope was to drive all Europeans out of Kenya.  Fred Kubai, was a member of this group whose members would took an oath to obey orders to kill if necessary.  Taxi drivers would provide secure transportation for the Mau Mau.  Prostitutes collected information and ammunition.  Carefully selected individuals were assigned to steal guns and ammunition.  Oaths were administered and taken to insure loyalty to the movement. The Mau Mau was organized by the Kikuyu war council into military units.

The Mau Mau was directed by the Central Committee, which was composed of twelve men.  When this group became the target for police attacks during oathing ceremonies, the committee created the “30 Committee” which would run interference for the Central Committee. These 30 members, under Fred Kubai’s leadership coordinated the local leaders in the tribal reserves.  An advisement group, the KAU Study Circle had four or five KAU members who were in agreement with the goals of the KAU.  The members were able to research policy matters and define ways to gain foreign support for their movement. Three non-African members were included in the study circle, but when British officials knew their identities, they were detained or deported.

Meetings were conducted in secrecy in the slums of Nairobi.  The Mau Mau knew government plans since Kenyan clerks in the government were co-opted and secret files were accessed.  The warrior of batuni oath was administered and often forced upon potential allies to the Mau Mau cause. Strategically the first aim of the Mau Mau was to bind Kikuyu people together whether they were willing to support the movement or not.  By mid-1952, ninety percent of all Kikuyu women and men had taken a version of the oath.  Courts were set up by the Mau Mau to try people who betrayed the movement. The penalty for betrayal was death.

If the Mau Mau was simply a peasant revolt why did the British work so hard to find the leaders of a leaderless revolt? The eventual arrest of the leaders left the movement in the hands of the more violent members.   This nationalist movement was not a headless snake, but one that was organized.  The infrastructure started in Nairobi and moved outward to the countryside.  The British chased and imprisoned and killed as many Africans as they could in order to squelch the revolt.  Britain denied Kenyans the right to participate in the economic system that required money and the ability of free participation on a non-barter market economy.

The British reaction to the revolt of the Kikuyu was armed action.  “The final resort to violence was provoked by the Emergency, rather than the cause of it; that only the arrival of troops, the arrest of political leaders, and the imposition of harsh emergency measures (including forced repatriation of squatters) drove the Kikuyu into open revolt.” The British treated the Kikuyu with extreme harshness and used capital measures to try to control their rebellion.  “The death of eleven hard-core prisoners at Hola Camp at the hands of African warden…evidence of inefficiency and neglect in detention camps, but also violent methods being use against prisoners…”

The Mau Mau were so successful in rallying the peasant Kikuyu to their ranks that the British requested that Kenyatta and other African leaders give speeches to denounce the Mau Mau.  After busing 30,000 to the sports ground in Kimabu Township, this speech was taped and this anti-movement propaganda was shown across Kenya.  The British planned to arrest 187 Mau Mau leaders on the night of 20 October 1952.  Three battalions of King’s African Rifles were called from Uganda, Tanganika, and Mauritius.  They would join the three battalions who were already present.  The census of the six battalions was 6,000 British led African soldiers.  The Kenya Police Reserves was put on active duty and another 400 whites who served in the Kenya Regiment were called to arms.  Additional battalions in Egypt were put on alert.

In 1954 Britain launched “Anvil” which was a major search and interdiction operation.  In less than six weeks, 20,000 Kikuyu were arrested in Nairobi and imprisoned without benefit of trails.  The British also used “an African will be shot on sight” approach to threaten the Mau Mau Movement in a type of free fire zone in the Mount Kenyan region.

When the British has suppressed the Mau Mau nationalist movement, only 32 whites had been killed. Of the 120,000 Kikuyu partisans who started the revolt, only 15,000 were alive and free in 1955.  There were 11,000 losses of guerrilla members, 2,000 collaborator African losses, and one may choose to accept either 30,000 arrested and 30,000 deceased Mau Mau or the numbers of 80,000 detained and another 14,000 deceased and 100,000 arrested.  What is quite apparent in reviewing the numbers is that the Kikuyu lost a great deal more lives than the white settler population did.  The total number of incidents against the Europeans was small.  The Mau Mau leaders simply wanted to intimidate loyalist members of the tribe.

The British generalized view was that the Mau Mau was uncivilized.  “These white expatriates were living uncomfortably with their African slaves who were in turn caught between the demands of their employers and the threats of the Mau Mau who acted like savages because most often than not they were savages.”  Statements like this were used to denigrate the Mau Mau and what they were really striving for.

What the Mau Mau was able to achieve with their movement did not immediately give them back the land they desired.  The Europeans realized that African Kenyans knew they had rights and were prepared to fight and die for them.  The Mau Mau movement also brought the African Kenyan’s plight to the world and made it impossible for Britain to claim that the Kenyans were satisfied with British rule.  Britain learned that their rule in Kenya would only be maintained with massive military force, which would be cost, prohibitive and that colonial government in Kenya could only be maintained by this costly military force.  The white settlers learned that Kenya would not achieve independence under white military rule.

Usually a triumphant liberation movement becomes a political power and is able to shape the government.  The Mau Mau in its failure to achieve political power, was not able to provide any direction toward the outcome of the free Kenyan government.  The guerrilla freedom fighters and detainees had no voice in how their country would be run or for that matter how their side of the Mau Mau nationalist story would be interpreted, discussed, and placed in historical context or literature.  The Mau Mau has not been given the respect it id due in its part of achieving Kenyan independence. The Kenya political elite have studiously avoided awarding the revolt any central role or acknowledging it as the key factor in the struggles for and attainment of independence.”

The description of the Mau Mau as a savage, blood thirsty, unorganized movement is false. The Mau Mau were generally denigrated because they were a movement led by peasants and the not “schooled.” They were organized politically, militarily, and then socially through their oath systems.  Outside Kenya the view of what happened is colored by interpretation of events by those who had no involvement in Kenyan liberation or have been influenced by ideological aspirations. Interpretation of how a far different culture was forced to deal with their oppression should not simply be viewed through the eyes and minds of those of other cultures and countries who were living under far different circumstances.  Whether the Mau Mau was aiming for personal gains or for the larger picture of national liberation, they were at least the spark that helped to ignite the Kenyan nationalist movement.


Brown, Eric

Edgerton, Robert B.  Mau Mau An African Crucible.  First Ballantine Books                                    Edition.  February 1991.

Ferudi, Frank.  The Mau Mau War in Perspective.  Ohio University Press.  1989. p. 3-4.

Githango. John. The East African National Group. Why Does Kenya Hate Its Heros So Much?  Opinion, Monday, February 28, 2000.

Kariuki, Josiah Mwangi. Mau Mau Detainee. London: Oxford University Press.  1963.

Kershaw, Greet.  Mau Mau from Below. Ohio University Press.  1997.

Leakey, L.S.B. Defeating Mau Mau. London: Methuen and Co, Ltd.  1954.

Maloba, Wunyabari.   Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt. Indiana University Press.  1993.

Slaughter, Barbara.  How Britain crushed the “Mau Mau rebellion.” Channel Four TV’s Secret History-Mau Mau document.

Throup, David. Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau 1945-53.  Athens: Ohio University Press. 1988.

 Warwick, Mark. Mau Mau-Messengers of Misery.

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  1. Great article, Carol. I would only say one thing, as a historian, the British have been great in showing their lack of respect for anything “not British” and especially not white. The Africans were and still are not respected by whites because of the stereotyping. Yet, these people are the oldest people on the planet today. I would say that jealousy can be a bitch. I would think that the African must think that the “white man” is their “burden.” One thing the British do quite well is going into another’s culture and turning the people against each other. So we cannot blame the Masai for just wanting to stay alive. The British are great teachers on what it takes for people of all nationalities to come together. And if being a nationalist in Africa is the only way to do that, then they should do that. It is too bad as Africans that they did not see this sooner. The Zulus certainly did. The British vs the Israelis, I do not know which is the worse offenders of people different then they are.

  2. Very informative article. To which I would add that it wasn’t just the Masai who aided the British. Obama’s grand-father’s tribe, the Luo too were on the British side. Perhaps it was so because they are a much smaller tribe. Also hand-in-hand were were the people from the Bombay Presidency, mainly Gujarat. That included Hindus, as well as Muslim sects (Sunni, Ismaili, Bohri) who worked in support roles to the British administration. Though many came in as bonded laborers. Punjabis (Sikh, Hindu, Moslem alike) also served in many roles. This history formed the justification for their removal by successive rulers in East Africa. The real irony is that the best land still continues to be held in abstentia by the families of colonists. Their main produce are cash crops like cashews & the tropical flowers sold in Britain.

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