The British in Kenya: How Industrial civilization wrecks sustainable indigenous societies and replaces them with corrupt and unsustainable ones.
Prologue: The Lari Incident.
Kenya: 26 March 1953. Tribesmen armed with machetes fall on Kikuyu homesteads at Lari ridge, near Nairobi, by night. They set fire to scores of huts, and hack to death or mutilate anyone who tries to escape. By morning, when the world’s press arrives, ninety-seven men, women, and children are dead, two hundred huts are smouldering, and dozens of head of cattle have been slaughtered.
The perpetrators, landless Kikuyu peasants, are members of the sinister anti-colonial Mau Mau movement formed around 1949. Their main target is fellow tribesman Chief Luka, whose body, with those of his eight wives, lies among the corpses. A government ‘loyalist’, Luka has previously been granted ‘chief’ status by the British, in return for assisting them in a land-transfer favoring white settlers.
Though conflicting claims will be made over the Lari massacre – among them that security forces were responsible for the lion’s share of the killings – it is the key moment in the development of the Mau-Mau emergency. For Mau Mau fighters, it moves the campaign to another level – within days tens of thousands of them will have taken to the dense forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares.
For the British, Lari becomes an infallible symbol of African savagery, justifying their presence as ‘stewards’ of uncivilized peoples, and removing from them the responsibility for restraint. In the long term, though, this incident heralds the beginning of the end of the British dream in Africa: the spark igniting the last great conflict of the Imperial age.
Veneer of Civilization.
The British colonial government claimed Lari as an image of what they called a ‘return to the atavistic tribalism of pre-colonial days’. The Revd. John Carey, Anglican Bishop of Kitale, a Bedford-born cleric who had served his apprenticeship in South Africa, took great pains to make this clear to a skeptical British public in a series of articles for the London Evening Standard:
‘The basic question in Kenya is how to turn a wholly savage way of life into a life of Christian civilization. Sixty years ago the picture of African life … was of almost unrelieved savagery and beastliness.’ ..’Africans do not know the meaning of ‘gratitude’, ‘honour’, ‘integrity’ or even ‘love’… ‘In the last 50 years these savages took on a veneer of civilization. This veneer has been torn away by Mau Mau and its ruthless leaders.’
One Briton at odds with the picture painted by Carey and others, though, was Louis Leakey (Right), himself the son of Christian missionaries, born at Kabete, near Nairobi, in 1903, and brought up amongst the Kikuyu. Speaking their language perfectly, he had been initiated into the same age-set that had produced many Mau Mau leaders: his claim to know the Kikuyu better than any living white man was probably true. A Cambridge-educated paleontologist, world famous for his fossil discoveries, Leakey had attempted to persuade Kenya’s governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, that it was no longer possible to continue with the old system of administration. Sent packing, Leakey would claim for the rest of his life that had Mitchell taken his advice, ‘the whole miserable episode of the “Mau Mau rebellion” might have been avoided.’
“Unrelieved Savagery & Beastliness.”
Leakey was the first to argue that, contrary to Carey’s image of pre-colonial Africans as ‘cannibals eating brains from a skull with a spoon’, the traditional life of the Kikuyu and other groups of the east African central highlands, had been anything but ‘beastly’. In fact it had been disciplined, highly religious, and ecologically harmonious. It was Leakey himself who came up with archaeological evidence showing that organized agriculture and animal husbandry in the highlands went back at least three thousand years: hominid presence in this part of Africa, he later proved, extended back two million.
Kikuyu society, like that of neighbouring tribes, had evolved over these millennia in balance with the landscape, without overpopulation, and without destroying the natural world. Highly egalitarian, they had no chiefs: their society was made up of tightly knit communities in which decisions fell to councils of elders chosen by unanimous consent. Individual poverty was unknown: land was owned by the entire sub-clan, but any landless person could claim tenant’s rights. The land was so fertile that, in all but famine years, the Kikuyu had more food than they could eat. Crime was rare: social discipline was maintained not by police, courts, or prisons, but by a deeply imbued sense of loyalty to the community. Initiation into an age-set made every young adult one of scores of ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, to whom he or she held absolute responsibility. Theft, drunkenness, or any other anti-social behaviour was a disgrace to the age-set’s honour, and would be punished by exclusion.
God, Ngai, was believed to be ever present, but to reside particularly in Mount Kenya (left) and other isolated hills. The Kikuyu revered the spirits of their ancestors as the collective soul of their tribe: they also believed that the Earth was alive, and that spirits were manifest in trees, rocks, waterfalls and other sacred sites. These animistic beliefs entailed a special care for the natural world: animals were not killed at random, trees were felled only reluctantly, after sacred rites had been performed. Kikuyu lands were subject to drought and famine, but communities were sufficiently nomadic to be able to move their homesteads to other areas when crises occurred. There were periods of conflict with groups such as the Maasai, and mutual raids for livestock, but peaceful relations were the rule. Indeed, Kikuyu and Maasal families frequently ‘adopted’ each other.
Though parts of Africa had been disrupted by the slave trade before Europeans arrived, life in the interior was far from the brutal Hobbesian war of all against all that whites liked to imagine. Certainly, wars were less frequent than in Europe, and far less devastating. This, then, was the ‘savage’ and ‘beastly’ society the British claimed to have taken on the unasked-for burden of ‘civilizing’: ‘backward natives’ who had ‘not yet reached the point on the evolutionary scale to develop or make responsible decisions on their own.’
White Man’s Country.
In 1896, Hugh Cholmondely, 3rd Baron Delamere (3rd from left), arrived in Kikuyu country at the head of a caravan of two hundred camels, having just marched inland from the coast. Delamere, a descendant of Sir Horace Walpole, owner of estates in Cheshire, had come under the spell of Africa five years earlier on a hunting expedition in Somaliland. The subsequent mauling by a lion that had left him with a permanent limp, had done nothing to extinguish a fascination with the region that would last his entire life.
Around the sacred mountain known to the Kikuyu as Kirinyaga, Delamere discovered rolling, green, well-watered slopes that recalled the Wiltshire downs, yet on a colossal, almost supernatural scale. Standing at over 1000 metres, the plateau was too high for malaria, and enjoyed an almost ideal climate. From then on, Delamere became determined to turn this idyllic ‘wilderness’ into what he called ‘White Man’s Country.’
In the same year, the British government began work on the Uganda Railway, from the port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria, opening up the African interior to European trade. The railway’s first major junction would be sited on the southern edge of the Kikuyu plateau, where at 1500 metres, the city of Nairobi would one day stand. The railway line was not established without great human cost. About one third of the Indian labourers brought over to build it died during construction. Local tribes whose land it cut through, resisted. One of them, the Nandi, fought an eleven year campaign against the invaders, only terminated when their spiritual leader was murdered by a British officer, Harrow-educated Captain Richard Meinertzhagen, during peace negotiations. The leader’s entourage was mowed down with a machine gun.
The Kikuyu proved an even sharper thorn in the side, provoking an almost continuous series of punitive expeditions. ‘There is only one way of improving the Kikuyu,’ wrote another officer, Francis Hall, ‘and that is to wipe them out.’ In a letter home, Hall described proudly how he had decided to ‘teach the local Kikuyu a lesson’, sending his soldiers to surround their homesteads at sunrise. ‘My fellows fought splendidly,’ he reported, ‘and the enemy came so close they couldn’t miss them: the slaughter was heavy.’ Ninety Kikuyu were killed in this incident. Meinertzhagen, who was later sent home as a ‘bad example’ of British authority, bragged that Kikuyu country was ‘acquired by violence and murder’, and described another raid against the tribe by his unit, the King’s African Rifles, that resulted in the death of 1500 tribesmen, and the confiscation of 11,000 head of cattle. Describing this slaughter, David Lovatt-Smith wrote triumphantly:
“The Kikuyu soon learned that it was not worth messing with the British … They were here to stay, so better they fall in line and accept their fate.’
Britain’s Youngest and Most Attractive Colony.
In financial terms, the Uganda Railway cost a record £6.5 million. In 1901 the governor of the newly formed British East Africa Protectorate, Sir Charles Eliot – an Oxford-educated classical scholar – seeing no immediate possibility of any financial return from the natives, decided to advertise for white settlers who could use the fertile land to produce cash crops. There was no hint of a ‘civilizing mission’ in the advertisements as they appeared in British newspapers of the time: ‘Settle in Kenya, Britain’s youngest and most attractive colony. … Its valuable crops give high yields, due to the high fertility of the soil, adequate rainfall and abundant sunshine. Secure the advantage of native labour to supplement your own effort.”
Those who responded have been described as ‘tinkers, tailors, soldiers and sailors’. Many were ex-South African small-holders: others came from Canada and Australia: the majority, though, hailed from the British upper and upper-middle classes. They included a fair smattering of nobility – three members of the House of Lords were among the first batch, and many younger sons of landed peers. More so than any other British colony, including India, the settler culture as it was to develop in Kenya would be distinctly aristocratic.
Delamere himself returned to the highlands in 1903, where after several failed attempts, he managed to buy 100,000 acres of land near Naivasha, with another 60,000 acres later. The first and ‘largest’ of the white settlers, he was soon to become their unofficial spokesman and leader. Most of the three thousand other expatriates who arrived in Nairobi that year were satisfied with modest acreages: many were given title deeds to land in the Kiambu area, where the richest soils were to be found. No proper survey was undertaken, and no research conducted on native ownership customs. ‘When the settlers arrived in the ‘White Highlands,’ Bishop Carey later assured the British public, ‘they found nobody. The Kikuyu had never settled, and the land was empty.’
It is difficult to say whether the British actually believed this propaganda at the time, or whether the ownership question was quietly swept under the carpet. They were aware that Kikuyu resistance had been suppressed earlier by military force, and some of those who were to become settlers had even taken part in punitive raids. Louis Leakey chose to give his own people the benefit of the doubt, maintaining that the ‘alienation of land, was done in good faith.’
If this is so, the assumption turned out to be a grave mistake. Though there were few Kikuyu living in the Kiambu area at that time, this was due to the fact that many had moved away as a result of drought, and epidemics of rinderpest and smallpox (probably also brought by Europeans.) In Kikuyu custom, though, occupation of the land did not alter its ownership, even if it had been seized by force. Land was sacred, and under the protection of the ancestral spirits of the sub-clan who owned it: no cultivation could succeed without the sanction of these spirits, and it could never be disposed of in perpetuity.
First, the land could only be sold ( that is, exchanged for goats and sheep) with the agreement of the entire sub-clan, and then only if no member of the clan wanted to buy it. Second, no sale was valid unless a ceremony of mutual adoption had been conducted between buyers and sellers, making them part of the same family, and uniting their ancestral spirits. Third, the buyers could not sell to another party without the consent of the original owners, who always had first refusal if it were for sale. When Kikuyu clans began moving back to the Kiambu region during the first decade of the 20th century, therefore, to find their land occupied by ‘red strangers’, and fenced off with wire, it was not theft they encountered, but a threat to the entire fabric of their cultural life.
Happy Valley: ‘Not to give a damn for all convention.’
By 1906, established on his newly acquired estate of Soysambu, Delamere had become the kingpin of settler society, and the centre of a circle of friends, many of whom he had personally attracted to the country by promises of large tracts of land adjacent to his own. Delamere was a man of contradictory character, on the one hand dedicated to the establishment of European-style agriculture in the heart of Africa, on the other, given to fits of irrational rage and infantile antics. A great admirer of the Maasai, whose language he learned, he also considered the natives ‘barbaric’:
“The British race is superior to the African races … the opening up of new areas by means of colonization is to the advantage of the world.”
Delamere’s ‘Happy Valley’ crowd, world-renowned for drunkenness, drug-taking, promiscuity, and endless partying, however, hardly displayed this ‘superiority’. Rather, these were examples of Cyril Connolly’s ‘theory of permanent adolescence’ – men and women of privileged background so deeply conditioned by their early education, that they were unable to mature beyond it. To many, the effects of finding themselves in a landscape of cosmic dimensions, unfettered by the constraints of their own country, were intoxicating. As Karen Blixen, (above, right) a gifted Danish author who bought a coffee plantation in Kenya in 1914, remarked, ‘Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all convention, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams.’
This ‘new kind of freedom’ was in marked contrast to the lives of the socially-disciplined Kikuyu, a people for whom showing any public emotion between the sexes was taboo. It was ‘an absolutely hedonistic lifestyle,’ as one observer wrote, ‘filled with sex, drugs, drink and dance, followed by more of the same. In Nairobi they congregated in the Muthaiga Club (where) they drank champagne and pink gin for breakfast, played cards, danced through the night, and generally woke up with somebody else’s spouse in the morning.’ ‘
‘Eccentric, but rather conservative.’
Though all settlers in the colony might have aspired to this lifestyle, for the majority, life was harder. There were no roads and few motor vehicles – horses often succumbed to disease, and the main form of transport was the ox-cart. Cattle and sheep fell prey to sickness: droughts, floods, and crop diseases might wipe out an entire harvest. ‘One day a farmer could be looking for a cloud the size of a man’s hand, as plants withered under a pitiless African sun,’ wrote an observer, ‘and the next, heaven could open, raising water levels, sweeping away seedlings and dam walls.’
For many, the ‘African dream’ turned into a nightmare, as, already deeply in debt, their livelihood was wiped out by failed harvests, causing bankruptcy, and an ignominious return home. Douglas Cooper typified the ordinary settlers: an upper-middle class Englishman with farming experience in Chile, remembered as ‘upright, strict and fair,’ he bought 3000 acres at Kabete in 1904. ‘The only other Europeans in the area at that time,’ his son recalled, ‘were Canon Leakey and his family at the Church Mission Society mission, about 2 miles further up the track.’ In 1909, after experimenting with maize, potatoes, linseed, sisal, and various vegetables, Cooper obtained coffee seeds from the French mission, and took a gamble by planting 45 acres with coffee. The gamble succeeded, and Cooper sent the first ever shipment of Kenyan coffee, establishing an industry that remains important today.
Cooper founded the Nairobi Turf Club, and his brother, A.S. Cooper, won the first ever steeplechase at the Nairobi racetrack, which, like the Muthaiga Club and the Norfolk Hotel – referred to as ‘the House of Lords’ – would become icons of the settlers’ world. While many settlers in the highlands enjoyed these facilities when they could, though, few were the ‘rakes and harpies’ of Happy Valley legend. ‘Most people were delightful and rather conservative with a small ‘c’,’ recalled Richard Cox, ‘although it is true to say that they were usually eccentric. After a few months in Kenya one began to look out for their idiosyncrasies as instinctively as if one were gathering the evidence needed to certify a relative.’ Cox described how, far from ‘dressing for dinner in the jungle’, most settlers would take dinner in their pyjamas – a practice that disgusted at least one of the colony’s governors.
The psychologist Carl Jung (left), who visited the colony in 1925, though, was not impressed: he concluded that white men who remained in Africa too long went ‘black under the skin’ – meaning that they either succumbed to savagery, or developed an irrational hatred of the Africans. He opined that their feeling of superiority over ‘native superstition’ was in fact an unconscious envy – a ‘deep-down realization of their own spiritual emptiness’. This spiritual void, so clearly observed by Jung, was filled with a faith in ‘progress’ – the central tenet of what was essentially the religion of industrial man. At the same time, though, Jung recorded the feelings of a medicine-man, who told him that he had not experienced prophetic dreams to guide his people since the British had arrived.
The British administrators believed that they were here to dispel the darkness, and build a material and technological paradise on Earth. As pro-settler propagandist and author Elspeth Huxley (right) – wrote:
‘This was the justification for moving forward, if necessary, on to land which could be put to better use than by its previous owners.”
Casualties that occurred along the way of this ‘progress’ – – ancient, sustainable cultures that had to be destroyed, resisting natives who had to be ‘punished’, sustainable life communities that had to be wrecked – were necessary evils: nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the ‘better life’ of which the British were the chosen harbingers. As colonial secretary Sir Joseph Chamberlain, announced:-
‘‘You cannot have omelettes without cracking eggs,’and you cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition, without the use of force.”
White settlers and Kikuyu, then, were exponents of two diametrically opposed world-views. The British believed that ‘civilization’ was a continuous war against nature, itself a commodity that existed for the purpose of making a profit. The Kikuyu, like other African peoples, believed that man was part of nature, which, if treated correctly, would provide sustenance and bounty for all. The Mau-Mau tragedy that loomed in ‘Happy Valley’s’ future, was a direct result of the systematic destruction of the Kikuyu way of life.
The Breakdown of Kikuyu Society.
In 1950, Louis Leakey took a sabbatical from his excavations to begin writing a momentous two-volume work on the history and culture of the Kikuyu. The work was halted two years later, when Mau Mau hostilities broke out: it was never published in his lifetime. Instead he issued a much shorter volume, explaining how the wrecking of Kikuyu society over the past half century had created the Mau Mau problem. He outlined a number of closely linked factors.
Christian missions enticed youths to Christianity with promises of free medical treatment, and a chance to master the mysterious arts of reading and writing. Once a youth had become a Christian, though, he was no longer able to take part in ceremonies vital to Kikuyu culture. These rites, in turn, could not be performed unless the entire family was present. The only solution was to ‘disown’ the missing person, leading to the first ruptures in the tightly-knit structure of society. Many of the youths educated at the missions were Christians only in name, and were henceforth stuck in a limbo between two worlds, disowned by one, but not truly part of the other.
Unable to deal with slow, consensual Kikuyu decision-making, the British administration appointed its own ‘chiefs’ as representatives. Not only was the ‘chief’ institution alien to the Kikuyu, but the individuals so elevated were chosen as advocates of colonial interests, not the tribe’s. The presence of these ‘chiefs’ caused bitter internal conflict in a society that had previously been highly egalitarian.
The system of ‘paying’ livestock to the bride’s family had for centuries worked as a means of preserving Kikuyu marriages. If the marriage broke down, the animals had to be returned to their original owners with all the offspring produced: this was a major factor stabilizing matrimony in a society where divorce was heavily frowned upon. By acquiring large areas of bushland, the British prevented the Kikuyu from rearing flocks of goats and sheep they needed to pay this ‘insurance’. The groom was now forced to pay in cash, which could not be paid back if the marriage failed. For the first time in Kikuyu history, the marriage institution was shattered: abandoned wives turned to prostitution, short-term liaisons produced a crop of fatherless children. ‘Once the European economic structure and way of life had been introduced,’ Leakey explained, ‘the whole marriage custom started to lose its meaning. … I believe the breakdown in marriage is a real contributory factor in the current unrest and discontent.’
In pre-colonial Kikuyu society, the population had remained stable for centuries. Women were forbidden to get pregnant until after the previous child had been weaned – a process that might last 3 or 4 years. This taboo was maintained by traditional methods of contraception. The closely-woven nature of the community meant that there was no advantage in any one family having large numbers of children: infant mortality may have been high, but in any case the community was able to regulate its own population depending on the land’s current carrying capacity. In addition, young men were prohibited from marrying until after they had served as warriors, and pre-marital sex was strictly forbidden. These restraining factors were destroyed by colonial impact, leading to an population explosion whose effects were first felt just at the time that some Kikuyu were losing their ancestral lands.
Traditionally, Kikuyu councils of elders (left) had a judicial function: legal decisions were made on the basis that ‘the good’ was the outcome least disruptive to the community as a whole. In extreme cases, legal contenders would take an oath – a ceremony of the gravest character, invoking such severe retribution for perjury, that no Kikuyu would dare attempt it. The setting up of native tribunals by the British administration disrupted ancient practices that had been effective from time immemorial. With its judicial focus on private property rather than the good of the community, the new system encouraged corruption, hitherto alien to Kikuyu character. ‘Bribery,’ Leakey commented, ‘is one of the greatest evils in the native courts today, and probably one of the hardest to put a stop to.’
The initiation of age-sets of boys and girls was the most crucial aspect of Kikuyu culture – indeed, Leakey called it their ‘form of government’. Entailing circumcision for both sexes, it marked the transition from child to adult, and was the culmination of years of instruction in the rules, manners and responsibilities of adults. All children belonging to a particular age-set would be initiated at the same time, and would thereafter be bonded together by close ties of loyalty. This loyalty demanded a very high standard of honesty, honour and integrity, which was maintained by strict discipline within the age-set itself. Though the initiation ceremony continued into the colonial period, it was reduced to a pale imitation of what it had been. The superficial ‘book learning’ missionary-school educated Kikuyu had imbibed, could not replace the moral instruction of the old system: ‘It can thus be seen,’ Leakey said, ‘that the failure to find a substitute for the age-old initiation rites, is just one more cause of the present sad state of affairs in the Kikuyu tribe.’
In all, 60,000 acres of Kikuyu land had been acquired by white settlers, who now regarded it as their ‘private property.’ This was untenable under customary law. For the Kikuyu, ownership could not be ceded without a ceremony of mutual adoption, and the agreement of the entire sub-clan. According to Leakey, most dispossessed Kikuyu at first believed that the European occupation was only a temporary affair. Some migrated to land belonging to other sub-clans, and became tenants on farms they could not bequeath to their children. Others became squatters on European farms, on land they had once owned, and from which they could now be evicted at any time. The colonial government did create reserves for the Kikuyu at Kiambu, Nyeri and Fort Hall, but the land soon became insufficient for the rising population. The increase in population also led to evictions, both of tenants and of squatters on European farms. This second wave of dispossessed Kikuyu simply had nowhere to go: the reserves were already overpopulated, and there was no room on the non-reserve land. Many had no choice but to migrate to Nairobi, where they created the now notorious slums.
The situation was made even more difficult when the government began to levy a poll and hut tax. Many Kikuyu living on the reserves could not pay, obliging them to leave home in search of work. To control their movements, the British forced them to carry identity cards. Those remaining on traditional land were prevented from competing with white settlers by a ban on their growing cash crops. Within a few decades, colonialism had destroyed the ancient, harmonious, sustainable culture of a free people, replacing it with a way of life that, though called ‘progress’, was not sustainable in the long term. It was amongst this turmoil that the Kikuyu Central Association was born.
‘Save Our Lost Lands’
Trouble began in 1922, when Harry Thuku, a popular Kikuyu leader (right), was arrested by the British for organizing a campaign against identity cards and forced labour. On March 16, Police and settlers opened fire on a crowd of 8000 gathered outside Nairobi police station to demand his release: 25 Kikuyu were killed, some of them shot in the back. Thuku’s work was carried on by the Kikuyu Central Association, which, by the late 20s was led by a mission-school educated Kikuyu named Jomo Kenyatta.
In 1929, Kenyatta went to Britain to lobby the colonial office for the restoration of Kikuyu land, and on his return found himself in the middle of a new dispute over female circumcision – a vital part of the Kikuyu initiation rite, which had been banned by church missionaries. This attack on one of their most sacred institutions galvanized Kikuyu opinion against the colonial authorities. Thousands abandoned the mission churches and joined the KCA, even creating their own independent churches and schools. The British labelled KCA a subversive organization, and later banned it on the pretext that it was negotiating with the Italians in Ethiopia. By this time, however, Kenyatta was studying at the London School of Economics, and writing his book, Facing Mount Kenya, a vigorous defense of Kikuyu culture. In the mid 1930s, the Kikuyu reserves faced an ecological problem. As a result of population pressure, unknown before colonial times, the topsoil had become degraded and was no longer fertile.
The British response was to draft men and women into forced labour on soil-conservation programmes, when the obvious solution would have been to extend the Kikuyu reserves or allow the tribe to cultivate in the White Highlands. ‘Additional land must somehow be found to satisfy this legitimate need,’ Louis Leakey wrote. His was a voice crying in the wilderness: the British authorities blamed African inefficiency, superstition, or simple inferiority for the inadequacy of their own administration, washing their hands of responsibility for the incipient collapse of Kikuyu society which they themselves had brought about. When, in 1947, Kenyatta returned after 16 years abroad, he was hailed as the hero who would deliver the Kikuyu from their plight.
Long before this, though, in 1943, a group of several thousand Kikuyu squatters who had been evicted from white farms, had taken a mutual oath to resist the British and their hated stooges, the colonial chiefs. Despite what was later said, the oath was a traditional bonding mechanism the Kikuyu used in times of emergency, the only new aspect being that it was now administered to women and children as well as men.
Secret anti-British oathing spread rapidly during the late 1940s, probably given its main impetus from Kikuyu ex-soldiers who had served in the British army during the war. They had seen the world outside Kenya, had seen the brutality underlying European civilization, and had returned to their own country expecting a hero’s welcome, only to find that life for their people was worse than it had been previously. By 1948, hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu had taken the anti-colonial oath, forming the loose federation of groups that would coalesce as the Mau Mau, sparking off the bloodiest war of de-colonialism in British history.
At the end of September 1952, Evelyn Baring, 2nd Earl Cromer (left), arrived in Nairobi to take over as governor. A tall, suave, sandy-haired man, who had served in the Indian Civil Service in the footsteps of his famous name-sake father, Baring lacked the elder’s phlegmatic character: essentially a weak man, he was not ideally suited to lead Kenya in the crisis which was now brewing.
On his desk at Government House, Baring found a memorandum from the chief commissioner for native affairs: it informed him that an atavistic, anti-British organization known as ‘Mau Mau’, had taken control of three Kikuyu districts. There had recently been a spate of murders, including the stabbing of a white settler woman: farms had been burned and cattle hamstrung. Despite curfews and collective punishments, the colony’s security was deteriorating rapidly. The mastermind behind this movement, the report claimed, was Jomo Kenyatta. Baring was staggered. His predecessor, Sir Philip Mitchell, had deliberately kept him in the dark about the situation, so as not to mar his retirement. In doing so, he had exacerbated it.
A few days later, Baring received a further shock: one of the government’s most trusted agents, Senior Chief Waruhiu, had been shot dead in his car in Kiambu district, by three men posing as colonial police. The murder was being celebrated with beer-parties among the Kikuyu, who hated Waruhiu as a heinous traitor. ‘When I was young,’ recalled former Mau Mau fighter Karari Njama, ‘ I used to hear a song that wished Chief Waruhiu … to be buried alive.’
Baring responded by bringing in a British battalion from Suez to augment local forces. Two weeks later, on October 20, 1953, he declared a state of emergency. Eighty Kikuyu leaders, including Kenyatta, were arrested in a single swoop. Despite being defended by a British QC, Dennis Pritt, and despite the fact that there was no evidence connecting them to Mau Mau, Kenyatta and six other Kikuyu were convicted and sent to Kapenguria, in local exile.
Baring’s calculation that this would solve the problem was based on the conviction that Mau Mau was a conspiracy rather than a grass roots movement. He, like almost all Europeans involved, simply could not bring himself to face the fact that the Kikuyu had genuine grievances stemming directly from the injustices of British occupation: this would have meant accepting that the British were the very tyrants their mythology abhorred, the likes of whom they had recently spent six years fighting in the second world war. Instead, they convinced themselves – and many remain convinced – that the ordinary Kikuyu – whom they believed had nothing to complain about – had been ‘cleverly manipulated’ by power-seeking intellectuals like Kenyatta. This conclusion was a mistake.
The truth was that Kenyatta (left), like most other western educated Kikuyu, was a moderate, whose policy had exerted a restraining influence on Mau Mau extremists. In exile, he became a martyr, and the radical young leaders, unchecked by a balancing influence, let violence spiral out of control. Eric Bowker, a settler near Naivasha, was found disemboweled: Ian Meiklejohn, who farmed near Thompson’s Falls, was slashed to death and his wife mutilated: Chief Nderi of Nyeri district was chopped to pieces together with three tribal policemen: Tom Mbotela, a Kikuyu member of Nairobi Council, was found dead in a muddy pool near Nairobi’s Burma Market, which was burned down. In November, police opened fire on a crowd in Kiruara, Fort Hall district: the number of Kikuyu killed is estimated at between 15 and 100 depending on which account one accepts. In January 1953, came the killing of the Rucks, a settler family of four including two children, set upon by a Mau Mau gang led by their own servants.
In March, there was a well-planned attack on Naivasha police station, in which firearms were seized, followed by the massacre of Chief Luka and ninety ‘loyalists’ at Lari. The settlers were terrified by this sudden upsurge of violence. Many joined the exclusively white territorial unit, the Kenya Regiment: some started taking the law into their own hands with burnings, beatings and killings of Kikuyu. As Margery Perham observed ‘a pathological atmosphere reigned’. When settlers began to clamour for the annihilation of the entire Kikuyu tribe, Baring realized that he might soon have a civil war on his hands: ‘Britain’s newest and most attractive colony’ had become a political catastrophe.
That May, General Sir George Erskine (right), a no-nonsense veteran soldier and personal friend of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, arrived to take charge of military operations: his first act was a strict ban on any unauthorized violence by the army or police. Erskine detested the settler population, and despised Baring’s administration. He saw at once how much they had all misjudged the situation: the colony had been misgoverned for years, and the settlers simply did not understand how much they were hated. Erskine took every opportunity to snub the settlers, and to ignore Baring, whom he thought incompetent.
Though he never declared martial law, he had a letter from Churchill authorizing him to do so if necessary, and used it as a lever in council, making him the de facto power in the colony. Up to 20,000 Mau Mau ‘gangsters’ were by now holed up in the dense forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. Though poorly armed with only pangas (machetes) and home-made guns, they were, as Frank Kitson wrote, ‘organized in great detail and extremely complex.’
Their active wing was set up along the lines of the British army, with companies and platoons, and its leaders held military rank. The fighters were supported by a ‘passive wing’, based on committees in each district, which supplied food, equipment, and ammunition, to the ‘gangsters’. The fact that the Mau Mau was organized along such lines suggests that much expertise had come from among those Kikuyu who had served in the British army in WW2. The British army was already fighting a guerilla campaign against Chinese communists in the Malayan jungle.
There, the problems had been solved by pulling out regular soldiers and replacing them with a special forces unit – the Malayan Scouts (SAS) – selected and trained to ‘live, breathe and have their being in the jungle, like the guerillas.’ Though there was no equivalent force in Kenya, there did exist the Kenya Regiment, a unit recruited entirely from white settlers: it was intended as a training cadre for potential officers, who could be transferred to the King’s African Rifles. By 1953, some NCOs from the Kenya Regiment were being posted to Kikuyu districts to work alongside police Special Branch officers as ‘Field Intelligence Assistants.’
In November 1953, Sgt. George Hales, an FIA from Fort Hall, and a group of Kikuyu ‘loyalist’ soldiers in mufti, were on patrol in the Aberdares area. They had stopped to converse with some local Kikuyu farmers, when a force of about two hundred guerillas, led by a wanted Mau Mau leader, General Kago Mboko, suddenly emerged from the forest some distance away. Knowing that he would be killed instantly if spotted, Hales walked calmly off in front of them and squatted behind a bush. To his astonishment, none of the Mau Mau noticed that he was a white man, nor realized that his soldiers were other than Mau Mau supporters: they chatted with them amicably. As soon as the gangsters had gone, Hales and his men rushed to the nearest security post and arranged an ambush: after a gun-battle lasting eight days, most of the Mau Mau were killed, including Kago – a great coup for the security forces.
Hales’ odd story reached the ears of Captain Frank Kitson (Left), a 26-year old Military Intelligence Officer assigned to the Kiambu district. Kitson, an incisively-minded Rifle Brigade man, new to Kenya, had been looking for a more effective way to gather information since witnessing the killing of Major the Earl Wavell of the Black Watch, and seven Kenya Police Reserve officers, by Kago’s gang, the previous Christmas. Kitson blamed himself for not having obtained the vital intelligence that the gang was operating in his area. Not only was he delighted that Hales had ‘bagged’ Kago, he was also struck with the ease with which he and his men had escaped detection.
He began to wonder if it might be possible to dress up Kikuyu ‘loyalist’ soldiers as guerillas, and send them into the forest to gather information from the real gangsters. These faux guerilla patrols would be divided into two halves – a ‘forward’ section consisting of Kikuyu speakers who would mix with the enemy – and a backup section, which would include a white officer or FIA, his skin blacked, wearing a wig and dressed like a guerilla who would remain in the background. Kitson – later to become a Field Marshal, CIGS, – had hit on the perfect counter-insurgency strategy: the so-called ‘pseudo-gangs’ were born.
Anvil and Pipeline.
In April 1954 the British arrested the entire native population of Nairobi, about 100,000 people, selecting from them members of the Kikuyu and closely related Embu and Meru tribes, for interrogation or ‘screening’. This action, known as ‘Operation Anvil’, had been prompted by two factors – first, the idea that Mau-Mau’s recruiting and supply base was Nairobi, and secondly, the suggestion by Louis Leakey that the Mau-Mau oath was non-traditional and could be erased by public confession. The detention of ‘hard-core’ Mau Mau suspects on ‘Operation Pipeline’, brought out the very characteristics the British had been trying so hard to deny in themselves, and has been called ‘a disgrace to the British nation’.
The idea, essentially the same as the methods used by the Chinese against European POWS in Korea – was ‘rehabilitation’: to persuade Mau Mau supporters, by force if necessary, that the ‘civilized’ way of life, was superior to their own. No doubt some accounts of it have been exaggerated, but it is certain that torture, mutilation, sexual abuse, and even murder were perpetrated by the British during this operation. Canon T.F.C. Bewes, who had been in Kenya for 20 years, showed himself to be a clergyman of a very different stamp from Bishop Carey, when he complained directly to Baring about atrocities being committed against the Kikuyu in the detention camps.
His ‘private and confidential’ report is one of the few surviving Mau Mau documents in Colonial Office files – most of which were burned before independence. Bewes describes ill-treatment and torture, ranging from suspects being thrashed on the genitals, beaten through steel buckets placed on their heads, having objects forced into their anuses and or vaginas, to having their penises or fingers cut off with castration implements, and other mutilations. ‘The information was given to me from such widely separated sources,’ Bewes said, ‘that I am sure it was at least based on fact’.
The Turning Point
While Anvil had damaged the Mau Mau supply-base in Nairobi, it also gave the pseudo-gangs the services of several former gangsters whom they had ‘turned’. By mid-1954, gangs were out in the forest for fifteen days a month, gathering information from Mau Mau sympathizers, learning all their tricks, ‘from how to scratch on a door, the wearing of beads, the handshakes, forms of greeting, whistles, to the correct wearing of belt buckles.’ Kitson’s FIA, Sgt. Eric Holyoak, became one of the most adept operators. ‘I would always be there with them in the background,’ he recalled, ‘then one night … a gang member came over to talk to us – we grabbed him and bundled him into our Land Rover …This for us was the turning point – from just being an intelligence gathering group to becoming a gang … we started converting Mau Mau to our cause.’
The pseudo-gang idea soon spread to all districts, and quickly became the most successful security force operation in Kenya. Between 15 May and 30 June 1954, Holyoak’s gang alone captured two Mau Mau leaders, 34 active guerillas and many support staff. This was equaled by gangs led by Special Branch officers in other districts. Kitson formed a ‘Special Force’ to handle all pseudo-gang operations, and to run a ‘Special Methods’ training centre for ‘turned’ Mau Mau and others, which was personally visited and approved by the GOC. Originally geared to intelligence gathering, pseudo-gangs now focused on the total elimination of the Mau Mau guerilla force. Of the estimated 2600 gangsters left in the forests by mid-1954, 1930 were accounted for by the following January. The GOC decided that the Mau Mau was all but defeated – final victory did not require the eradication of the remaining 770 terrorists, but the capture or death of the 27 major gang leaders still at large, the most notorious of whom was Dedan Kimathi.
Born at Nyeri in 1920, Kimathi (right) had as a child been fascinated by Kikuyu tradition, now being undermined everywhere by European culture, and was aware of the female circumcision question. Educated at a Kikuyu separatist school, he had later served two years in the King’s African Rifles. He had taken the Mau Mau oath in 1952, and had shortly become one of the leading oath administrators. An orator of rare skill, and perhaps the most astute of all Mau Mau guerilla strategists, Kimathi had personally led the attack on the hated Chief Nderi in Fort Hall district.
It was Superintendent Ian Henderson, a Kenya policeman from a settler family, who was given the task of tracking down Kimathi: his death or capture would ‘give an appropriate psychological ending to the Emergency’s active phase.’ Henderson, who called Kimathi the ‘Kikuyu Hitler’, would himself later be dubbed ‘the British Klaus Barbie’, and accused of torture by Amnesty International. Using several pseudo-gangs, Henderson searched the forests for weeks. Kimathi, the last of the top Mau Mau leaders, was eventually forced to leave the forest to find food, and was spotted, shot, and injured by Henderson’s men.
Kimathi was hanged in 1957, after a trial in which his leadership of Mau Mau was never mentioned: the British wished to avoid any political show-trials in which it might be argued that the rebels had had been resisting a foreign government that was not properly constituted, and whose sole authority was force. Kimathi’s death brought to an end the Mau Mau campaign.
The detention and trial of ‘hard-core’ Mau Mau, however, continued for a further two years, culminating in the notorious ‘Hola Massacre’, during which it transpired – after an attempted cover-up – that eleven Kikuyu prisoners had been beaten to death by British-led guards. The concealment might have worked had not Dennis Pritt QC, the famous radical lawyer who had defended Kenyatta, been in Kenya at the time, and gained access to the post-mortem reports. He immediately rang Labour MP Barbara Castle, who was so furious she decided to bring up the matter in the House.
The House of Commons debated Hola in July, 1959. Castle called it, ‘the worst cover-up in the whole history of colonial government.’ The complicity of the most senior officials in the colony became obvious, not only in the attempted whitewash, but also – horrifyingly – in the massacre itself. Castle’s case was supported strongly by Tory back-bencher Enoch Powell, who declared that ‘Britain had no right to an empire, if it could not show moral leadership of a higher order.’ Powell had put his finger astutely on the key problem. At last, the colonial charade in Kenya had been exposed for what it had always been – an amoral profit-making enterprise, thinly disguised as a humanitarian mission. The dream was over: the game was up.
A Strange Uhuru
Within a year, after discussions at Lancaster House in London, it was decided that Kenya should become an independent sovereign nation – a parliamentary democracy with a universal franchise. The settlers were beside themselves with fury – they had won the war against the Mau Mau, but lost Kenya. For some, it was the ultimate betrayal: many packed up and headed home.
They need not have worried that the country would fall into the hands of their former enemies, though. The man who emerged as the new president of Kenya and took the country to independence on 11 December 1963, Jomo Kenyatta, showed himself the moderate appeaser he had, in fact, always been. Despite his claim that ‘we all fought for freedom’, the real spoils of Mau Mau went, not to the former freedom-fighters, but to a clique of loyalists who had not fought in the campaign, and the few settlers who remained. Kenyatta would later mock ex-Mau Mau fighters living in poverty, and remark how little they had profited from the struggle. The country has since remained under the control of the same clique, who have continued – as they did before uhuru – to sell out their heritage to the interests of the industrial world, for their own private gain.
The effects of the colonial occupation of Kenya are still with us. The Europeans had found here in the heart of Africa a country unspoiled and unchanged since time immemorial, whose people lived a happy, harmonious life in tune with nature, without tyranny and without poverty, guided by a strong moral system that nurtured a sense of identity and belonging, and a deep respect for the community and for nature: not a perfect society, but a sustainable one.
In less than a century the colonial regime had destroyed it: they had come here to consume the country’s resources, and left behind them a social and ecological nightmare. In place of the old equality, they had created a culture where a few were fabulously rich, but the majority lived on the edge of starvation. In place of the old moral code, they had – as Joel Kovel has written – left a moral vacuum, ‘a nihilism that brings out the predatory remorseless killing potential in human beings, and that appears in surging megacities such as Nairobi.’ – a world of slums, corruption, violent crime, unemployment and environmental degradation. Here, at last, was the final truth behind ‘Happy Valley’ – the European dream of Africa: the reality behind a promise of mythical ‘progress’, that could never be fulfilled.