Soldiers guard Mau Mau fighters behind barbed wires, in October 1952, in the Kikuyu reserve.
"Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale." – Winston Churchill, 1908.
When British settlers began pouring into what is now Kenya in 1902, they intended to set up an agricultural colony whose surplus could help pay the costs of other imperial projects in East Africa. To do this, the British needed land and labor, which led them into a series of policy decisions that culminated in a grotesque genocide that the history books have largely overlooked.
The Kikuyu genocide took place in the 1950s, a decade after the Holocaust and the West’s promise to never again allow the destruction of entire peoples, and it saw virtually the entire population of 1.5 million Kikuyu locked up in concentration camps, where they were starved, beaten, and tortured to death by the tens of thousands.
To terrorize the natives, colonists enacted medieval-style public executions and plumbed the depths of what a diseased imagination can inflict on conquered people.
To this day, no serious reckoning has taken place, nor does it seem likely to, as most of the perpetrators are either dead or old enough that prosecutions are virtually out of the question. This, then, is the secret history of the British rule in East Africa.
The Scramble for Land
Governor Evelyn Baring takes charge of the Kenya Colony at the very beginning of the crisis.
British presence in Kenya began a century prior to the genocide, when missionaries and traders leased land for their projects from the Sultan of Zanzibar in the mid-19th century. In the late 1880s, the British East Africa Company formed to organize the colony, but it ran into financial trouble almost immediately and folded up within a decade.
In 1895, the future nations of Kenya and Uganda became the British East Africa Protectorate (EAP) as an emergency measure. In 1902, control shifted to the Foreign Office, a new governor was appointed, and a wholesale colonization effort begun.
The plan was simple: Flood the land with settlers who would set up farms, and then use their surplus to cover the cost of the Uganda Railway, which had just been finished. After that, whatever surplus flowed out of the EAP could be used for other initiatives that the Colonial Office (which had taken over control from the Foreign Office) had in mind, such as conquering Sudan or putting down the Boer revolt in South Africa.
Kenya has a lot of arable land in its hilly central highlands, and its relatively cool temperatures made it such that malaria wasn’t much of an issue. Thus, the Colonial Office decided to start the farming here. To kickstart that project, they needed to shove the native tribes off of the land and turn them into cheap (or preferably unpaid) laborers.
Squatters and Casual Laborers
A press gang of Kenyan laborers work to lay railroad bedding under white supervisors.
British authorities turned natives into laborers with a terrifying efficiency that they had practiced in colonies all over the world for over a century.
The first step involved importing huge numbers of foreigners to disrupt the local tribes’ balance of power. In practice, that meant transporting thousands of Indians and other Asian laborers to the EAP for work projects all over the country.
This deprived locals of work in the towns and made them more desperate for any jobs the British had for them to do. It also focused native resentment squarely on Indians, rather than on the white administrators who had them shipped in.
The EAP government then began expropriating large tracts of land in the highlands, with or without compensation, and evicting people whose ancestors had lived there for a thousand years. The British set up reservations to house the newly landless peasants, which quickly got crowded and overtaxed the marginal lands they were sited on.
Given these conditions, an internal refugee crisis was well underway by 1910: Masses of native people, most of whom had no connection to their reservations and no reason to stay, started drifting out of their pens and across their old lands in search of income. The roughly 1,000 British settlers now had around 16,000 square miles of prime farmland under their control, and their cheap labor came to them looking for work.
To manage these refugees, the British established three tiers of laborers – Squatter, Contract, and Casual – and gave each its own privileges and obligations.
At this time, the British were only farming around five or six percent of the land they had seized. They classified any native Kikuyu or Luo farmer caught sneaking back onto the land to start a garden as a Squatter. He could stay there, but at the cost of 270 days of unpaid labor per year as rent — days which correspond to the planting and harvest seasons.
Contract labor, those who signed agreements to leave their reserves and work for British planters, hardly had it better. Casual laborers were cheap scabs for major road-building projects and other itinerant work around the colony. They became wholly dependent on British wages for their living and owned virtually nothing.
Regardless of tier, throughout the British rule, natives who transgressed against any of a thousand unwritten rules were routinely flogged, sometimes at the order of the Crown Court, and sometimes on the settlers’ own initiative, and acts of open rebellion were routinely put down with hangings.
Furthermore, to keep all of this straight, the British imposed a pass system, called kipande, a paper document that all native African males over 15 had to wear around their necks. The kipande listed the worker’s classification level and included a few notes about the man’s history and character, so that any police or farm official would know at a glance whether he could be trusted with a job or should be hauled off to jail for another whipping.
Restrictions and Legal Challenges
Captured suspected Mau Mau fighters are marched towards Githunguri court in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule, April 1953.
None of this happened without resistance from the native people. The Kikuyu were then the largest and strongest tribe in the colony, and they made life difficult for the settlers in whatever ways they could.
From individual acts of secret sabotage to the rare open revolt by one or another faction of the tribe, the Kikuyu kept pressure on the British to renegotiate some of the harsh terms that they had set for the colony. Some Kikuyu even hired lawyers and sued the Crown over the uncompensated land grab. The British-dominated Kenya High Court heard the case in 1921, and in the opinion of the judges:
“This judgment is now widely known to Africans in Kenya, and it has become clear to them that, without their being previously informed or consulted, their rights in their tribal land, whether communal or individual, have ‘disappeared’ in law and have been superseded by the rights of the Crown.”
In other words: finders, keepers.
As the legal avenues for redress closed, extralegal routes opened for settlers who grew to hate and fear their own workers.
For a time in the 1920s, the two populations’ relationship resembled a slow-burning war of attrition. Black servants who spent the day serving gin and tonics – or morphine concentrate, which was also popular in the EAP – to their white employers might, after dark, be the very “kukes” who snuck out to hamstring the master’s cattle in the field.
The white landowners retaliated with repressive laws stripping even more rights from the natives and taxing them into penury. Extralegal whippings and murders came frequently.
Settler began to restrict the natives’ freedom of movement to an obscene degree. In Nyanza Province, for example, the region’s 1.1 million blacks were confined to a reservation that covered around 7,100 square miles, a density of 141 people per square mile. The district’s 17,000 whites, however, had nearly 17,000 square miles of good farmland to themselves.
The Beginnings of Armed Resistance
Deprived of their land and their rights, squeezed out of the economy, and herded into reservations that had become little more than rural ghettos, the Kikuyu began organizing. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, tribal leaders circulated petitions and organized boycotts to pressure the British into making concessions to their people.
The advocacy groups demonstrated and led strikes, but colonial authorities countered almost every move they made. The British imposed a strict surveillance state in which any black could be stopped and questioned or searched for any reason, and they began to cultivate Kikuyu allies with grants of land and other inducements to provide intelligence on their kinsmen’s increasingly secretive political operations.
These collaborators were exceptionally effective in exposing and cracking open liberation movements, and so they became the principal targets of other Kikuyus’ hate. To thwart spies, the Kikuyu joined with a few other tribes and formed a secret society based on a blood oath.
Members swore to fight off, sabotage, and kill their oppressors, and to keep the secrets of the society unto death. The oath-takers called themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), but the British authorities came to call them Mau Mau.
Then, in 1952, a vehemently pro-British Kikuyu chief named Warhuiu was shot to death in his car. His death was all the excuse that the new governor, Evelyn Baring, who had arrived in Kenya all of three days earlier, needed to declare an emergency and impose martial law on Kikuyu areas.
Nothing provokes a reaction like having soldiers on every street corner, so assassinations and sudden nighttime attacks became common. Very soon, the British in Kenya were stuck in a situation similar to the American position in Vietnam a decade later – by day, the whole territory was peaceful and quiet; at night, the streets and fields belonged to the Mau Mau, who weeded out informants with ruthless efficiency and butchered them so brutally that many of the witnesses preferred arrest and torture by the Home Guard rather than to inform on the killers.
Terror and Counter-Terror
Survivors gather the victims of a massacre of suspected Mau Mau fighters.
The British in the colony had limited options for dealing with the Mau Mau. The group had spent years organizing underground, and none of the captured fighters seemed willing or able to provide useful intelligence about the higher-ups. Informants were hard to come by, and those whose cover was blown died horribly before they could be moved to safety.
In this vacuum of information, and with nothing but their experiences and prejudices to guide them, the British developed a narrative of the Mau Mau as ignorant savages who acted without reason; merely a kind of brute animal that had gone wild, rather than as an emerging black political movement.
This led the authorities into a series of miscalculations that ultimately doomed their position in Kenya.
One of these miscalculations was to try using counter-terror to crush the popular support for the rebels. Mass arrests were followed by beatings and killings. Public whippings and hangings became commonplace events. Native, predominantly Kikuyu, women were fair game for any British or allied native rapist who could get at them.
Colonial administrators became obsessed with the secret Mau Mau oath, and they arrested tens of thousands of Kikuyu to learn who had taken it and who had not. Interrogators burned suspected Mau Mau, deprived them of food and water, and sometimes crushed their testicles with pliers or hammers.
Surprisingly few subjects confessed to having taken the oath, though whether this means the Mau Mau were doing worse things to turncoats or the British were arresting innocent people is not known even today.
Mass Arrests, Public Executions
British Home Guard troops hold suspected rebels under guard during a mass arrest.
To facilitate the interrogations, the British built a network of concentration camps across the colony to hold suspected rebels. They divided internees into three classes, according to their degree of perceived cooperation.
The British sent Kikuyu who confessed to taking the Mau Mau oath and fully cooperated with investigators to relatively mild camps, where they were fed and housed as long as they were willing to help their captors. Resistant, or “Grey” prisoners went to harsher camps, while “Black” detainees, who flatly refused to cooperate at all, went to maximum security facilities for more starvation and torture.
In time, the camps expanded to hold hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu. On one single day in Nairobi, the British arrested something like 130,000 men and shipped them off to the camps, while another 170,000 women and children were sent to the reservations. Even some “loyal” Kikuyu were herded into the camps as the British policy seemed to shift into full-scale genocide.
Very little food made it to the prisoners in these camps, and hunger-related disease was rife. Tens of thousands of inmates had to use just two or three outbuildings for sanitary purposes, and Kikuyu women carried out the buildings’ waste atop their heads in large bowls for rinsing in nearby water.
Those Kikuyu lucky enough to not be arrested or shot on sight found themselves forcibly relocated to rural “villages,” ringed with barbed wire and trenches and patrolled by guards with orders to kill escapees.
Outside of the camps, reservations, and “villages,” the colonial government had resorted to open violence and routinely displayed the corpses of executed prisoners at crossroads as a warning. Even the Royal Air Force got involved, while British manpower was tied up in population centers.
In just 18 months, RAF Lincoln bombers dropped over 6 million bombs into Kenya’s forests to disrupt guerrilla activity. After one particularly gruesome massacre, the RAF dusted Kikuyu areas with photographs of mutilated women to intimidate the populace.
While initially set to expire in the summer of 1955, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorized the campaign’s indefinite continuation.
Independence and Inaction
Elderly survivors gather at the Crown Court in London in 2011 to press for reparations.
All of this transpired against a backdrop of increasingly extreme propaganda in Britain and America. The BBC and Times of London breathlessly reported the names of every white civilian killed by marauding Mau Mau (all 32 of them), and hailed the dead police (about 200) as fallen heroes.
They barely uttered a word about the approximately 11,000 Kikuyu who were outright murdered in the eight years of the conflict, much less of the 150,000 who died in the camps.
This may have backfired, because in 1959 the recently reelected Tory government in London decided to virtually sever ties with its Kenyan dependency, effectively a grant of independence. The rebellion ended by 1960, full independence granted by 1963, and the initially white-dominated government gave way to a black government that reflected the massive disparity in population between the two groups.
In 1999, a group of survivors formed a trust and sought £5 billion in compensation for victims of the genocide. Nothing came of this, but in 2002 another group presented 6,000 sworn affidavits attesting to British crimes and demanding compensation.
In response, the British government denied responsibility and put the blame on the current Kenyan government, citing as legal precedents a treaty dispute over Patagonian toothfish and something about martial law in Jamaica in 1860.
Ten years later, in 2012, a British court ruled that the dwindling number of claimants had the right to sue the government. David Cameron’s cabinet appealed this decision, more or less on the grounds that the Mau Mau were terrorists.
After courts rejected that line of legal legerdemain, the Conservative government put a freeze on further court proceedings while the Foreign Office “negotiated” individual settlements. The idea seems to be to run out the clock until the last victims are dead, which is actually a promising strategy, since none of them is currently under 80.
And as of early 2017, exactly £0 has been paid in reparations.