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Britain’s brutal legacy in Kenya

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Fifty years after Kenyan independence Ken Olende looks at the crimes of British colonialism, the Mau Mau rebels who fought back, and their betrayal by Kenya’s new rulers
Issue 2384
Mau Mau veterans in London
Mau Mau veterans in London (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Fifty years ago this month, on 12 December 1963, Kenya gained independence. It poured with rain, but thousands of Kenyans came out to celebrate. 

Pathe news reported the “splendid legacy” of prosperity the British were leaving behind. 

Jomo Kenyatta, who the British had demonised, imprisoned and falsely accused of leading the Mau Mau rebellion, became prime minister.

The BBC reported, “Mr Kenyatta, aged 73 and known by his fellow Kikuyu as Burning Spear, called for tribal and racial differences to be buried in favour of national unity under ‘the principles of democratic African socialism’.”

The ceremony took place just three years after the end of the Emergency, as the colonial authorities called the Mau Mau war. It was only mass resistance from colonial subjects that pushed the British Empire out. 

The radical pan-African journalist George Padmore wrote in 1953 that this was, “The biggest colonial war in Africa since the Boer war. 

“Over 30,000 British troops have been assembled to assist the local police force, the Kenya regiment recruited exclusively from among the European male population, the Kikuyu home guards, and the King’s African Rifles are in open warfare against what the Africans call the Kenya Land Liberation Army.”

This was not the first brutality Kenya’s native population had faced.

The British Empire declared its East Africa Protectorate in 1895, though it would be years before it actually controlled all the territory it had claimed. 

Its first aim was to construct a railway inland to control the headwaters of the Nile. This was built at the cost of 2,500 lives, roughly four for each mile of track. 

Maina wa Kinyatti’s History of Resistance in Kenya 1884-2002 tells the tale of imperial conquest. 

British captain Richard Meinertzhagen arranged a truce with the leader of the Nandi people, Koitalel Arap Samoei. When he came unarmed as agreed Meinertzhagen’s men shot him as they were shaking hands.

Even the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill worried in 1908, “Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”

Once the country was subdued the British took the best farmland. This became the White Highlands, where no African could hold land, but the settlers had to find a way to get their stolen land farmed. 

Historian Colin Leys, in his book Underdevelopment in Kenya, wrote, “Africans had to be compelled to work, partly by force, partly by taxation and partly by preventing them having access to enough land or profitable crops to enable them to pay taxes without working for wages.”  

In the end the Africans paid the bulk of taxation, while the Europeans received virtually the entire benefit of government services.


Africans were particularly angered by forced labour, the requirement to carry kipande identity papers signed by a white employer at all times and the ban on Africans growing the most profitable crops, such as coffee. 

Africans organised resistance through the East Africa Association, led by Harry Thuku.The British arrested Thuku and other leaders. Anger at this led to the country’s first general strike in 1922. When Africans marched on police headquarters demanding their leaders’ release the police opened fire. 

The crowd fled past the Norfolk Hotel where white settlers met on the balcony for afternoon tea. Armed settlers also turned their guns on the demonstration. Around 250 protesters died in the massacre.

Before he was detained for the duration of the Emergency, Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu told the British why Kenyans were so angry. “In the Second World War you came again and asked us to help you fight against your enemies the Germans and the Italians, and our young men were ready to go,” he said.

“Thousands of our people were killed. And those who came back alive were not rewarded for their bravery. Now there are Italians and Germans in this country and they can live and own land in the highlands from which we are barred because we are black.”

Bildad Kaggia, one of the leaders of the Mau Mau movement, reminded people that for years the African opposition “followed constitutional methods. But instead of the settlers or the colonial government granting any concessions, behind the scenes policies were being enacted by the government to maintain settler control.” 

From the late 1940s Africans, often organised through trade unions in the capital Nairobi, started taking oaths of resistance to colonialism. 

They killed collaborators and black police, the latter largely to gain arms. As the rebellion developed several white settlers were also slain. 

An early Mau Mau leaflet said, “They have arrested and detained our leaders, proscribed our political party and declared war on us. 

“We will fight them. Let those who have guns use them. Let those who have swords use them. And let those who have machetes, clubs and arrows use them.”

In October 1952 the colonial administration declared a State of Emergency, the British army was brought in and the urban leadership of the rebellion were captured. 

This moved the rebellion from being a largely urban movement to a protracted guerrilla war in the deep forests around Mount Kenya. 

Guerrillas released leaflets in Nairobi in June 1952 saying, “We are going into the forest, but we shall return like lightening. Those who support the British are not children of our mother; they are not our brothers; they are the enemy. We shall show them no mercy. We are prepared to kill and die for our country.”

The Mau Mau rebellion was largely but not exclusively built among the Kikuyu people, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. However it was not an outbreak of “tribalism” as the British insisted. Supporters came from a range of backgrounds. Indeed one of the people convicted for manufacturing weapons was Jaswant Singh, who was of Indian descent.

The Kikuyu were not a forest people and they were not returning to how they lived before the British came. What training many had they got fighting in the British army in Burma.


Unable to dislodge the forest fighters the British forced the entire rural Kikuyu population into villages. These were surrounded by barbed wire, while more than 80,000 people were held in detention camps. 

During the entire period of the Emergency from 1952 to 1960, 32 white civilians and 63 white military were killed against an official figure of 11,503 Africans. This is a ludicrous underestimate of the number of Africans killed. 

On top of this the Times newspaper reported in 1955, “About 50 men are hanged a month and the total number since the emergency began two years ago is now over 800.” 

A mobile gallows was transported around the country to carry out the executions.

With no outside support the rebellion was effectively defeated by 1956, symbolically so when the main forest leader, Dedan Kimathi, was captured and hanged.

But the British could not hold on to the country. Unfortunately but predictably, the loyalists who aided the British against the freedom fighters benefited from the sacrifice the guerrillas had made. These were the people who became wealthy after independence.

Kenyatta had been a radical, but by the time he negotiated with the British he was a conservative leader. 

The first independent government in 1963 contained a number of radical MPs who supported the Mau Mau, including Bildad Kaggia. 

Historian Marshall S Clough reports that they “demanded more rapid Africanisation of the civil service, attacked the continued influence of Western capital in Kenya, urged the adoption of limitations on land purchase, demanded strong government support for agricultural cooperatives, called for nationalisation of some public utilities and urged greater public expenditure on social services, especially the provision of free education.”

But none of this happened. Instead Kenyatta’s government became ever closer to the former colonial power.

The Mau Mau veterans’ court case against the British was launched so long after the events took place because the movement remained illegal in Kenya until 2003. 

Wanja wa Mugo, a female Mau Mau interviewed in 1978, said, “After our great sacrifice for land and freedom we were not only betrayed by the Kenyatta regime but we were also not officially recognised as freedom fighters. Instead we were ridiculed—treated like pieces of dirt.”

Further reading: 

  • History of Resistance in Kenya 1884-2002 by Maina wa Kinyatti
  • Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
  • Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (Testimonies from the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya) by David Anderson

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