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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 01:22 GMT 02:22 UK
Bloody uprising of the Mau Maus
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

Legal action taken against the British government to secure compensation for a dozen Kenyans allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau uprising will cast the spotlight on one of the Empire's bloodiest conflicts.

Mucheke Kioru
Mucheke Kioru is among those taking the government to court

The uprising is now regarded in Kenya as one of the most significant steps towards a Kenya free from British rule.

The Mau Maus were mainly drawn from Kenya's major ethnic grouping, the Kikuyu.

More than a million strong, by the start of the 1950s the Kikuyu had been increasingly economically marginalised as years of white settler expansion ate away at their land holdings.

For years, nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta of the Kenya African Union had been pressing the British government in vain for political rights and land reforms, with valuable holdings in the cooler Highlands to be redistributed to African owners.

But radical activists in another grouping, the Kikuyu Central Association, had been moving during the same period to militancy.

Basically you could get away with murder... It was systematic
Professor David Anderson,
Oxford University

By 1952 Kikuyu fighters, along with some Embu and Meru recruits, were attacking political opponents and raiding white settler farms and destroying livestock. Mau Maus took oaths, binding them to their cause.

By the end of 1952, the British had declared a state of emergency and began moving reinforcements into Kenya.

So began an aggressively fought counter-insurgency, which lasted until 1960 when the state of emergency was ended.

The numbers killed in the uprising is a subject of much controversy. Officially the number of Mau Mau and other rebels killed was 11,000, with 2,000 Africans fighting under British control also losing their lives.

Included in the Mau Mau death toll were the 1,000 suspects hanged by the British administration. Just 32 white settlers were killed in the eight years of emergency.

Professor David Anderson, director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University, says he estimates the death toll in the conflict may have been about 25,000. The vast majority would have been Mau Mau suspects or civilians linked to them.

Kenyan demonstrators
Demonstrators air their views in Kenya

He said: "Everything that could happen did happen. Allegations about beatings and violence were widespread. Basically you could get away with murder. It was systematic."

The African home guard, recruited by the British, used oppressive violence as a means of controlling the population, Prof Anderson suggests.

He said: "The British armed the militia, rewarded them, incentivised them, allowed them to pillage property of the nationalists.

"Mau Mau families were subject to pillage by their neighbours. People would simply walk up to the farm and walk away with things."

Terrible suffering

In addition to search-and-destroy missions against Mau Mau fighter bands operating in the forests, the British also strategically resettled Kikuyu and detained many in camps.

Martyn Day, the British human rights solicitor acting on behalf of the 12 Mau Mau veterans and civilians, says his clients had suffered terribly in the camps or at the hands of British-led soldiers.

He said: "They were put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted. Two of the 12 were castrated. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine.

"A lot of the officers involved were white, they were controlling the violence against these Mau Mau. It wasn't just isolated individual officers. It was systematic. The whole purpose was to break the Mau Mau."

They [the Mau Mau] were put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings
Martyn Day, solicitor for the Mau Mau

But it is clear that brutal violence was exacted on both sides.

Prof Anderson explains: "There was lots of suffering on the other side too. This was a dirty war. It became a civil war. That idea is extremely unpopular in Kenya today."

One example was the Mau Mau raid on the "loyalist" village of Lari, where the majority of the men were away fighting with the British Home Guard. The rebels killed at least 70 women and children.

But Mr Day insists: "The proportion of atrocities committed by the Mau Mau was a minute fraction compared with the British. They were massively frustrated and did some terrible things. You are talking about tens of people as opposed to tens of thousands."

It has long been suggested that the suppression of the Mau Mau was more brutal in nature than the action taken against other colonial uprisings across the British Empire.


Some historians have posited that white settler pressure on the British government and the characterisation of the Mau Maus as the epitome of savagery may have been behind this.

The Kikuyu themselves were split, with "haves" often siding with the British against Mau Mau "have-nots" and many happy to take the confiscated land of their fellow villagers.

Prof Anderson notes that one of the things marking the battle against the Mau Mau was the number of hangings, with capital offences extended by the end of the emergency to include "consorting" with Mau Mau.

Some attention was paid to allegations of atrocities at the time, with questions asked in Parliament about the 11 Africans beaten to death in a British camp at Hola.


Among those who spoke out were the Labour MP Barbara Castle and the Conservative Enoch Powell, now best known for his "rivers of blood" speech.

He suggested at the time that if such killings were to go unpunished Britain did not deserve an empire.

"I would say it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgment on a fellow human being and say, 'Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow."

Even though the Mau Mau were thoroughly defeated by 1960, the exact reforms that nationalists had been pressing for before the uprising had started, and by 1963 Kenya was independent.


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