Mau Mau rebellion

The Mau Mau rebellion was a mass peasant uprising against the repressive British colonisation of Kenya. See that page for a bit more context for this one.

The rebellion began with mass oath-swearing ceremonies, where thousands of people pledged themselves to the liberatory cause. Conflict then broke out – mostly between the Mau Mau and the “loyalists”, those who had collaborated with the colonisers and been rewarded materially. A state of emergency was declared on 20 October 1952, and 180 people were arrested who the British believed to be leaders of the uprising, along them conservative politician Jomo Kenyatta. The actual leaders, however, were hiding away in the forests, training themselves for war.

Britain spent years fighting this war, had to deploy 20,000 military personnel, killed over 11,000 Mau Mau rebels but 1.5 million Kikuyu people overall (with the help of the “loyalists”, even though many of them were also Kikuyu), and detained between 160,000–320,000 people in a horrible system of detention camps and prisons, where torture was systematically deployed. Conversely, the Mau Mau killed about 1,800 “loyalists”, 200 security personnel, and 58 civilians (32 British and 26 Indian).

Starting in 1954, the British removed over a million Kikuyu people from where they were living and corralled them into “emergency villages”, surrounded by barbed wire and spiked trenches, where they would be forced into hard labour with blaring sirens to dictate their schedules. The British’s goal was to sever the supply lines between the Mau Mau and the people. There were severe food shortages in the “emergency villages”.

The Mau Mau rebellion was effectively crushed by the end of 1956. In January 1960, the first Lancaster House Conference was held, which marked the beginning of negotiations for the British to return control over Kenya to Kenyans. There is scholarly debate over the degree to which the Mau Mau rebellion pushed the British to negotiate. The usual narrative is that the British change of heart was down to a judgement call that continuing to enforce colonial rule in Kenya was going to require a higher amount of brutality than the British public were willing to stomach. The counterargument is that this doesn’t really explain why the British were willing to use that amount of brutality suppressing the Mau Maus just five years earlier. Another explanation is just that Kenyan nationalists (you know, the “respectable” ones, with Western educations) became increasingly intransigent and unwilling to go along with official development plans over the course of the 1950s, to the point that by the end of the decade, Britain decided to acquiesce and instead moved to co-opt the nationalist movement’s leaders into allowing continued British/Western “investment” (profiteering) in a post-independence Kenya.

When Kenya did achieve independence in 1963, it was Jomo Kenyatta who emerged as its first president. As the British had falsely credited him with masterminding the whole rebellion, so did the Kikuyu, and initially they greeted his leadership with jubilation. But it didn’t take too long before Kenyatta was arresting previous Mau Mau rebels for continuing to demand the return of their ancestral land, and the colonial-era ban on Mau Mau membership wasn’t actually lifted until 2003. Under Kenyatta, Kenya took a big loan from Britain in order to pay off British colonial landowners for their farms, then turned around to resell it at market prices, snidely declaring that “nothing comes for free”. The only people who had money to do buy that land were “international investors” and the loyalists who had collaborated with the British during the colonial era and amassed sufficient wealth as a result. Loyalists were also rewarded with high-ranking positions in the new post-colonial regime. The Kenyatta family itself owns 500,000 acres of land in Kenya, with many other similarly illustrious families owning comparable tracts of land. The surviving Mau Mau rebels, however, remain desperately poor, even though the British government was recently reached a settlement to pay £19.9 million in compensation to 5,228 survivors.

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