Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

To cope with the Mau Mau uprising against their rule in Kenya, the British declared a state of emergency and gave security forces special powers to locate, quell, imprison, and even kill insurgents. Although Mau Mau failed in its immediate aims, there is little doubt that it served to hasten British withdrawal, not only from Kenya but from East Africa as a whole.

Summary of Event

The Mau Mau uprising, aside from being one of the most serious nationalist challenges to British colonial rule in Africa, was to a large extent a conflict over land. Kenya was a British settler colony, meaning that European immigration was encouraged. The settlers, who never numbered more than 1 percent of the population, occupied much of the best land of the country, the so-called White Highlands, beginning in the early twentieth century. Although few in number, settler farms could be quite large and accounted for the bulk of Kenya’s agricultural exports. The settlers also exercised considerable power in the government. The African residents of this area, mainly the Kikuyu, provided much of the labor for the white farms, and large numbers were tenants (squatters) on land claimed by whites. As many as one-fourth of all Kikuyu lived on white farms. The remainder were restricted to their own reserve areas. Land hunger increased as the Kikuyu population increased. Anticolonial movements;Kenya Nationalism;Kenya Mau Mau uprising (1952-1957) Civil unrest;Kenya British Empire;dissolution [kw]Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya (Oct. 20, 1952-1957) [kw]Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya, Mau Mau (Oct. 20, 1952-1957) [kw]Kenya, Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in (Oct. 20, 1952-1957) Anticolonial movements;Kenya Nationalism;Kenya Mau Mau uprising (1952-1957) Civil unrest;Kenya British Empire;dissolution [g]Africa;Oct. 20, 1952-1957: Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya[03900] [g]Kenya;Oct. 20, 1952-1957: Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya[03900] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 20, 1952-1957: Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya[03900] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Oct. 20, 1952-1957: Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya[03900] [c]Independence movements;Oct. 20, 1952-1957: Mau Mau Uprising Creates Havoc in Kenya[03900] Kenyatta, Jomo Baring, Sir Evelyn Kubai, Fred Kaggia, Bildad Mwanganu Kimathi, Dedan Kungu, Waruhiu

By 1952, at least ninety-five thousand Africans had moved into Nairobi, where they crowded into urban “locations.” Although the British government had declared in 1923 that “Kenya is an African territory” and “the interests of the African native must be paramount,” Africans were in fact treated as second-class citizens Human rights;Kenya and possessed few of the civil or political rights enjoyed by whites. They did not have the right to travel freely in the country or to reside in certain areas.

By the end of World War II, various segments of the population were showing signs of frustration. Educated Kenyans in general chafed at discrimination and lack of a political voice (Africans were subject to their traditional chiefs). In 1944, the Kenya African Union Kenya African Union (KAU), representing a cross-section of Kenya’s ethnic groups, was founded, overlapping to a large extent the previous Kikuyu Central Association Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), banned since 1940 but still active. In 1947, Jomo Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) became chair of the KAU and campaigned for greater African representation in government. A more militant element was introduced with the return of African veterans from the war. Kenyans who had served in the British military faced unemployment, discrimination, and landlessness upon their return, and many turned to political agitation. Most of the organizers of the Mau Mau uprising were former soldiers.

Outside the reserves, the 200,000 or more Kikuyu squatters in the White Highlands were becoming increasingly impoverished and were worried about their security. Over the years, more and more land had been taken away from squatter cultivation by white farmers who wished to expand their own activities and limit the squatters’ independence. Wages, however, did not rise, leaving squatters working longer hours for lower wages with less access to land than previously. Thousands of British soldiers were encouraged to settle in Kenya after the war, adding to squatters’ fears of displacement. Some well-publicized evictions in 1946 only served to heighten their anxiety. Squatters received little education and few social services from the government. Many were beyond the reach of their landlords or the government, forming virtually independent communities. It was these increasingly marginalized squatters who provided much of the support for Mau Mau.





In 1950, police claimed to have uncovered a Mau Mau “association” (the origin and meaning of the term “Mau Mau” is still debated), which sought to drive the whites from Kenya. This organization was said to use secret oaths in recruiting its members, and several people were arrested for administering the oaths. The government quickly banned the organization. The Mau Mau association to which the government was referring actually consisted of militant elements, led by Fred Kubai and Bildad Mwanganu Kaggia, of the KAU and KCA. Both organizations used oaths and ceremonies that contained vows of unity, loyalty, obedience, and secrecy. These oaths varied according to purpose and became much more elaborate and serious during the state of emergency. By the time the government banned Mau Mau, Kubai and Kaggia had spread these oaths throughout Nairobi and the Kikuyu area.

Kubai and the other militants associated with the “oathing” began collecting weapons for an armed uprising, but the government struck before the militants were prepared. Acts of violence had been increasing in Kikuyu areas, and in November, 1951, a white settler was killed. Kikuyu who publicly supported the government were assassinated, the most dramatic of these assassinations being that of Senior Chief Waruhiu Kungu, an outspoken opponent of violence, who was shot in his car by men disguised as police on October 9, 1952. The result of these incidents was something of a panic among the settlers, who armed themselves and demanded firm action from the government. The governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, an aristocrat who had been in the country only three weeks, obliged by declaring a state of emergency on October 20.

Although martial law was not imposed, the declaration of the state of emergency gave the military authorities wide powers. Forest zones where Mau Mau operated were declared “prohibited areas” in which the army could fire at will. Elsewhere, the army and police had the right to search houses without a warrant and detain suspects indefinitely on the basis of an accusation by a single witness. Political meetings were banned. Collective punishment, including the confiscation of cattle, was imposed on communities that helped the insurgents or did not help the authorities. Illegal possession of weapons carried a death penalty, as did administering certain oaths and aiding insurgents. Movement of Kikuyus was controlled through a passbook system, and many were forced to relocate to special government-controlled villages. African areas in Nairobi were fenced in.

An attack on a European, although relatively uncommon, could result in the removal of thousands of neighboring Kikuyu. Each murder of a white settler provoked revulsion, fear, and panic in the white community, which continued to pressure the government for more decisive action. Some settlers took matters into their own hands, killing anybody suspected of being a Mau Mau follower. One consequence of the fears among the settlers was that they pressured the government to expel Kikuyu squatters from the farms and replace them with workers from other ethnic groups. Some 100,000 Kikuyu squatters were sent to the reserves, which were already overcrowded. This and many other government actions during the emergency served to provide more recruits for the insurgents.

The first action under the state of emergency was Operation Jock Scott Operation Jock Scott on the night of October 20. In this sweep, most of the major African political leaders and trade unionists, including Kenyatta, Kubai, and Kaggia, were arrested. Kenyatta had had little to do with the spread of oathing and the increasing violence. His repeated public condemnations of the Mau Mau tactics notwithstanding, he was regarded with great suspicion by the government and as a hero by the Mau Mau fighters. Along with Kubai, Kaggia, and three others, he was convicted in 1953 of leading or being associated with Mau Mau and was sentenced to seven years of hard labor.

These prominent activists were followed over the next few years by tens of thousands of others who were detained for being associated with Mau Mau. Conditions in many of the detention camps were brutal. In addition to various forms of hard labor, corporal punishment, and solitary confinement, detainees were put through “rehabilitation” programs designed to extract confessions and cure the Mau Mau of their “disease” through education. Many former guerrillas were recruited for the government forces in this way.


With the declaration of the state of emergency, Africans were forced to take sides in the conflict. Many, if not most, Kikuyu supported the aims of Mau Mau, although they often opposed its violent strategy. Large numbers of people were forced by insurgents to take oaths, and persons suspected of collaborating with the government faced death. Tom Mbotela, vice president of the KAU and an opponent of Mau Mau, was assassinated in 1952.

In the infamous Lari massacre of March 26, 1953, insurgents killed at least ninety-seven people, mostly women and children. Lari was a settlement established by the government in 1940, on land claimed by other Kikuyu, for a group of people who were moved from the Highlands to make way for white settlers. Its inhabitants were regarded as traitors by the Mau Mau and squatters for having agreed to leave their original homes.

On the British side, there were numerous cases of torture and summary execution committed by security forces. Few of these cases were investigated, and only a small number resulted in prosecutions. Particularly notorious were the Home Guard, Kikuyu irregulars who bore the brunt of Mau Mau attacks. The biggest scandal involved the detention camps and did not come to light until very late in the emergency. The camps were found to have poor sanitation, and hundreds of prisoners died of disease. Detainees were often overworked, underfed, beaten, and kept for long periods in solitary confinement. The most notorious case was the Hola camp, which was investigated in 1959 after eleven men died after being beaten when they refused to dig a ditch.

In 1954, one of the most important Mau Mau leaders (known as General China) was captured. Soon thereafter, in Operation Anvil Operation Anvil (Kenya) , security forces swept Nairobi sector by sector, rounding up some 16,500 people, mostly Kikuyu, and severely damaging Mau Mau operations in the city. The same procedure was carried out in the countryside, with areas cordoned off and their inhabitants screened for insurgents. New passbooks, which carried photographs, were introduced and had to be carried at all times. Loyal Kikuyu were organized to police their own areas.

By 1956, the British had reduced the insurgents in the forest to manageable numbers and were removing troops from Kenya. White settlers had already begun trying to recruit Kikuyu workers again, having been disappointed with their replacements. Dedan Kimathi, a Mau Mau field commander, was captured in October, 1956, and hanged in 1957. This event marked the end of the insurgency, although mopping-up operations continued for some time. In 1956 and 1957, some of the more severe regulations under the emergency, such as the death penalty for possessing weapons, were dropped. The state of emergency was finally lifted in 1960.

Official figures list 11,503 Mau Mau insurgents killed in the fighting, although the death toll was probably higher. More than one thousand people were executed for murder, administering oaths, or possessing firearms. A telling statistic is that only 5,299 insurgents were captured or surrendered. Security forces lost 590, while 1,875 civilian killings were attributed to Mau Mau, of which only 32 were of Europeans. Kenyatta emerged from prison in 1961 as a hero and led his country to independence on December 12, 1963. The settlers were forced to reconcile themselves to African rule. Anticolonial movements;Kenya Nationalism;Kenya Mau Mau uprising (1952-1957) Civil unrest;Kenya British Empire;dissolution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnett, Donald L., and Karari Njama. Mau Mau from Within. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966. The first major account of Mau Mau to be based on the reminiscences of a prominent insurgent leader. Contains a wealth of information about the organization and activities of the movement, and about Dedan Kimathi and other leaders. Glossary, index, and short bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerton, Robert B. Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York: Free Press, 1989. A very readable account of Mau Mau, and thoroughly researched. The work avoids historical analyses and concentrates instead on telling a story. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. Harvard historian Elkins, after years of research and interviews, provides a history of British imperialism in the face of an emerging independence movement in Kenya. Argues that the British colonialists were brutal in their attempts to quell the Mau Mau uprising. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Füredi, Frank. The Mau Mau War in Perspective. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989. Critiques previous interpretations of Mau Mau and carefully differentiates Mau Mau from other forms of resistance in Kenya and from the elite politics of the KAU. Includes a long discussion of the impact of Mau Mau on the process of decolonization. Bibliography, index, and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kanogo, Tabitha. Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905-63. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987. Focuses on the squatter factor in the origins of Mau Mau and carries its discussion through the period of the emergency. Based on extensive interviews with former squatters. Bibliography, index, glossary, and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kariuki, Josiah Mwangi.“Mau Mau” Detainee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. The experiences of an insurgent who spent more than five years in detention. Includes descriptions of conditions in the camps, the screening process, and “rehabilitation” programs. Also contains an account of the “oathing” ceremony. Index, photographs, no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Likimani, Muthoni. Passbook Number F.47927: Women and Mau Mau in Kenya. New York: Praeger, 1985. Collection of short stories written by a woman who lived in Nairobi during the emergency. Although fictional, the stories highlight the varied experiences of women during the Mau Mau uprising. Glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macharia, Kinuthia, and Muigai Kanyua. The Social Context of the Mau Mau Movement in Kenya, 1952-1960. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2006. Examines the “social climate that united different clans and ethnic groups and sustained the Mau Mau movement” for independence. Analyzes movement literature and historical accounts. Recommended as a study of a little-examined part of the Mau Mau uprising and movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosberg, Carl G., Jr., and John Nottingham. The Myth of “Mau Mau”: Nationalism in Kenya. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1975. The first major scholarly study of Mau Mau and the first to argue that Mau Mau was not a deranged rejection of modernization, as the government preferred to believe, but rather was a nascent nationalist movement. A thorough account, in spite of the lack of access to archival materials. Index, maps, and a good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spencer, John. The Kenya African Union. Boston: KPI, 1985. A study of the KAU up to the conviction of Kenyatta in 1953. Highlights the struggles within the party over platform and strategy. Particularly important for the information the author has gathered on the nature of links between the KAU and Mau Mau. Based on extensive interviews. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Throup, David. Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau, 1945-53. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988. Discusses events leading up to Mau Mau, covering much the same material as Kanogo. Also has an interesting discussion of the outlook of British officials before Mau Mau. Concludes that the government had lost control of the Kikuyu countryside as early as 1947. Useful biographical appendix, bibliography, index, several maps.

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Categories: History