British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A state of emergency had been declared in colonial Kenya in 1952 to combat an indigenous uprising known as Mau Mau. The British security forces were largely successful in this campaign but evidence of their brutal methods became known to the British public by late 1955. This created a political scandal that led to Kenyan independence in 1963.

Summary of Event

The British colony of Kenya during the 1950’s saw a rise in tension over a land policy that reserved much of its richest acreage for white settlers. Thousands of the Kikuyu people participated in an oath-taking campaign in which they pledged to resist European agricultural encroachment. The movement gradually became known as Mau Mau, a word of unknown origin that could have developed from the Kikuyu muma, or oath, or perhaps from the name of the Mau escarpment, a geographic region in the area with some guerrilla activity. By November of 1952, scattered violence associated with Mau Mau led Kenya’s colonial governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, to declare a state of emergency. [kw]Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed, British Atrocities in Kenya’s (Late 1955) Hola massacre Mau Mau rebellion Baring, Sir Evelyn Kenya Hola massacre Mau Mau rebellion Baring, Sir Evelyn Kenya [g]Africa;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [g]Kenya;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Government;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Racism;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Colonialism and imperialism;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Social issues and reform;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Violence;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Human rights;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] [c]Military;Late 1955: British Atrocities in Kenya’s Mau Mau Rebellion Are Revealed[00980] Castle, Barbara Henderson, Ian Kenyatta, Jomo Lyttleton, Oliver Macleod, Iain

Jomo Kenyatta returns home in 1961 after being imprisoned.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The colonial government reacted to the instability with several initiatives. Jomo Kenyatta, a populist Kikuyu political figure, was incarcerated even though he had publicly denounced Mau Mau activities. Thousands of troops were deployed in Kenya, including British army regulars, African soldiers of the King’s African Rifles, white Kenyan settlers of the Kenya Regiment, and nearly ten thousand local home guards. Security forces gained the upper hand by detaining tens of thousands of Kikuyu suspects and forcing 300,000 more into fortified villages. Special counterinsurgent pseudogangs made up of former Mau Mau fighters led by Ian Henderson were particularly effective. By the end of 1956, all of the major guerrilla leaders, including the elusive Dedan Kimathi, had been captured or killed.

At the beginning of the crisis, public opinion in Great Britain was decidedly against the rebels, who were portrayed as bloodthirsty, barbaric savages inspired by dark and superstitious rituals. Gruesome photographs of murdered Kenyans, particularly victims of a notorious massacre at Lari in March of 1953, graphically reinforced this image. Sensationalized stories of advanced oath-taking ceremonies similarly emphasized the role of black magic and hinted at the menace of African sexuality. Colonial secretary Oliver Lyttleton seemed to believe that the devil himself was at work behind the chaos.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that once the Mau Mau threat began to seriously recede there was a corresponding surge in humanitarian opposition to the conduct of the war. In December of 1954, concerns were raised by the trial of loyalist leader Muriu Wamai, who confessed to murdering two suspected insurgents, thus contradicting earlier testimony by several officials who had tried to cover up for their local ally’s crime. Several days later, Arthur Young, who had been sent to Kenya specifically to clean up abuses on the part of some security forces, resigned his position as commissioner of police in protest against the brutal methods he claimed were being condoned by the state. A little over a month later, Governor Baring announced a general amnesty for crimes that had been committed during the crisis. The program applied in theory to rebels and security forces alike, but its primary thrust was to safeguard the latter from prosecution. One of the immediate beneficiaries was Wamai, who received a quick pardon for his actions.

All of this added fuel to the growing fire of criticism being directed at the situation in Kenya, beginning in late 1955. Religious groups, in particular the venerable Church Missionary Society, expressed concern over the growing reports of brutality and abuse. A faction of the Labour Party in Parliament led by Barbara Castle also had begun to campaign against the Tory government’s heavy-handed response to the crisis. Castle conducted a personal investigation in Kenya and began contributing to the emerging storm of criticism appearing in left-leaning newspapers such as the Daily Mirror. Conservative publications shot back by continuing to emphasize the purported savagery and backwardness of the Mau Mau fighters. Throughout 1956 and 1957, the tide of public opinion gradually shifted against the government, especially after two former security personnel, Eileen Fletcher and Philip Meldon, went public with their insider information about abuses.

The major blow did not come, however, until the so-called Hola camp incident, also known as the Hola massacre. Early in the crisis, the colonial government had created a so-called pipeline system through which detainees could be rehabilitated. In this system, suspects were classified as “white,” “grey,” or “black” according to their presumed loyalty to Mau Mau. Whites were considered eligible for release while greys were subjected to a forced rehabilitation program structured around Christian morality. Blacks were considered to be hardcore prisoners who would be the toughest to crack. This color-classification system was clearly racially based and was later changed to a letter system. Detainees could move through the pipeline from the more severe categories to the more moderate ones if they responded to rehabilitation. By 1959, most detainees had been released but several thousand hardcore prisoners were still being held, including more than one hundred twenty people at the Hola camp. In accord with the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on forced labor, these particular prisoners had been refusing to work.

On March 3, the camp commandant tried to break the impasse by having the resisters beaten until they started working. The technique was not called off until eleven prisoners were dead. Feeble and contradictory attempts were made to blame the deaths on the prisoners themselves (they drank water on a hot day, drank bad water, or drowned after being sprayed with water during a riot). A storm of controversy broke out, culminating in a debate in Parliament on July 27. The government narrowly avoided an embarrassing defeat on the issue, but the episode persuaded the conservatives that it was time for a change in direction in Kenya.


The Hola camp incident convinced Iain Macleod, the new colonial secretary, to end the state of emergency in Kenya in 1959. While the security forces succeeded, their brutal actions had called into question the very idea of a British “civilizing” mission. Close to twelve thousand Mau Mau and their presumed supporters had died during the uprising (more than one thousand were hanged), along with about two thousand loyalists. The Crown also had spent nearly sixty million pounds in suppressing the uprising. Retaining the colony was no longer considered worth the cost in blood or treasure.

Kenyatta was released after reiterating his opposition to Mau Mau, and negotiations were held for a one-million-acre land transfer to further reduce tensions. National elections were held in May of 1963, and after a few months of transitional government, independence was granted to Kenya on December 12. Kenyatta become Kenya’s first president.

The legacy of Mau Mau has been a mixed one. Although most Africans in the colony eventually denounced the rebellion, independent Kenya retroactively embraced Mau Mau and used its legacy to justify Kikuyu political domination. Leftist opposition politicians likewise tried to interpret the movement as a classic communist insurgency, even though these leaders likely had never read the foundational works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, or Mao Zedong.

For Britain, the aggressive manner in which it crushed the uprising created a domestic scandal that made continued political domination of the colony impossible. The British had managed to defeat both Mau Mau and themselves. Kenya Hola massacre Mau Mau rebellion Baring, Sir Evelyn

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, David. Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. An impressive study of the state of emergency. Highlights the issue of brutality in a logical and sobering manner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerton, Robert. Mau Mau: An African Crucible. London: Collier Macmillan, 1989. A readable, insightful, and interesting study of the Mau Mau crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. Contains intriguing anecdotal evidence but lacks balanced scholarship. The author’s extraordinary claims of genocide created a media stir and won for her a Pulitzer Prize but have been heavily criticized by academics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lonsdale, John. “Mau Maus of the Mind: Making Mau Mau and Remaking Kenya.” Journal of African History 31, no. 3 (1990): 393-421. Argues that of all colonial factions the military best understood the political motivations of Mau Mau fighters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maloba, Wunyabari. Mau-Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. A respected scholarly book on the subject, this work comprehensively examines the social and economic structure of Mau Mau.

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