John Saville


Rebellion of the powerless

(October 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.157, October 1992, pp.24-25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya began 40 years ago this month. It has often been described in racist terms or written out of history altogether. John Saville describes a different story of brutal colonial oppression and the fight of the poor against it

In the consciousness of the greater part of the British people, Mau Mau is still synonymous with an African uprising of bestial savagery, directed with indiscriminate terror against the white population of Kenya. The movement, so it is mostly remembered, was conducted with obscene and disgusting practices: elaborate ‘oathing’ accompanied by degrading ceremonies which included the drinking of menstrual blood, sexual orgies, the mutilation of the bodies of the dead and wounded.

A highly successful press campaign convinced the world’s media that here was a primitive Africa in blind revolt, and that the lives of thousands of white children, women and men could only be saved by superior military force.

There has been a large output of writing on the Mau Mau rebellion but for most of the world, including Britain, it quickly became a non-event. In Kenya today, it has no public resonance, although memory among some groups has not faded. Two years ago there was published an outstanding history and political sociology of the subject. This is Robert B. Edgerton’s Mau Mau: An African Crucible.

Edgerton is a professor of anthropology and psychiatry at the University of California, an interesting coupling of subjects. He first visited Kenya in 1961 and over the years has talked with many of the participants. The result is a sober, well documented and a strikingly illuminating account of what he properly describes as ‘the first great African liberation movement.’ It is a terrible history; a story whose ruthless violence illustrates the comment of C.L.R. James that ‘the cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.’

A State of Emergency was declared in October 1952 and although almost all of the fighting was over by the end of 1956 the Emergency was not formally ended until 1960. There was widespread fear among the white settler community and among the many Africans who continued to support the colonial administration during the early years of the uprising; and for settlers especially in the rural areas the fears were not exaggerated. There were some brutal killings of white children and women as well as men. But over the whole period the total number of white people killed by the Mau Mau was 32 (with more white Kenyans being killed in road accidents in Nairobi during these years). Another 69 whites of the security forces were also killed – out of a total of 590 – and about 200 white soldiers or policemen were wounded. Much larger numbers of African loyalists died, together with some Indians: most of the Indian community remained in support of the government.

By comparison, on the other side, the pile of killed and tortured bodies approaches the moutainous. Official figures list at least 11,000 Africans killed, more than 1,000 of whom were hanged as criminals. Many more than the official 80,000 were sent to detention camps, where beatings, torture and starvation were routine. White vigilante groups killed at will. The many stories of frenzied brutality provide another bloodstained page in the history of white civilisation.

Kenya had begun to be settled towards the end of the 19th century. A railway was being built from Mombasa on the coast to Uganda and most of its track passed through what is now Kenya; and during the first half of the 20th century a white settler society was established in Kenya which took over large areas of land in the central highlands which had originally been the homelands of the Kikuyu, the largest tribe in the country.

The white settler community in Kenya was an exceedingly unpleasant society, shot through with racist attitudes of the most degrading kind. The Afrikaner groups who came up from the south, as would be expected, were among the most violently racist, but there were not any significant differences among the British. There were, of course, some decent people among the settlers, but most were bitterly prejudiced. Most whites believed that their African labourers and servants had mental levels of a twelve year old. Africans generally were often referred to as ‘monkeys’ and house servants were often given English nicknames as ‘stupid’ or ‘damn fool’. The Kikuyu were widely regarded as lazy, cowardly, ungrateful and well known for their thieving and lying. A colour bar as rigid as the worst years in South Africa operated at all levels.

In the half century to the Second World War an African labouring class was brought into existence by the usual methods of colonialism: a high poll tax to be paid in money; a tight restriction upon African ownership of land; a ban on certain profitable commercial crops. As the African population grew, employment problems became severe. Three thousand European families owned more arable land in the highlands than was available to the one million Kikuyu in their reserves. Wages in the areas were at bare subsistence level. At the time the Emergency began in late 1952, Michael Blundell, the leader of the white community and by their standards a political moderate, paid his labourers 12 shillings a month when the poll tax per year was 20 shillings. A labourer could only exist by cultivating the single acre he would be lent as a tenant farmer. These squatters, as they were called, were required to sell the produce from their land to their employer at a fixed price, and through the operation of government regulations the same produce could be resold at about double the Africans had received.

Jobs, land, wages, racism: it was colonial exploitation that provided the seedbed to the rebellion that became known as Mau Mau. There had long been political protests from among the Kikuyu, and the enlistment of over 100,000 Kenyan Africans during the Second World War inevitably encouraged ideas of independence. ‘Oathing’, which came out of Kikuyu tribal traditions, was used to develop solidarity among its peoples, almost all of whom were illiterate (of the 30,000 or so fighters in the forests only three had had a secondary education). The ceremonies associated with oathing were gruesome to Europeans, but there was also much exaggeration, often beaten out of captured Mau Mau.

Against the forest fighters were six regiments of the King’s African Rifles, officered by whites, the equivalent of a full division of British troops, 21,000 paramilitary police, many thousands of armed ‘loyalist’ Africans, and an RAF force of heavy bombers and Vampire jets. When British troops first arrived in Kenya some units set up scoreboards listing the number killed, and in a certain number officers offered a bounty for each company’s first kill, usually of £5. Identification of kills had to be made, and since transporting bodies was difficult and unpleasant, hands were cut off and brought back as proof. These and other degrading practices were stopped with a change in higher command in mid-1953.

Mau Mau were defeated for a variety of reasons. They received no help from outside; their arms and ammunition were in short and decreasing supply; they were never able to establish a unified command; and within the Kikuyu some groups always remained loyal to the administration. The years of Mau Mau were also years of a civil war within the Kikuyu and between sections of different tribes; but overwhelmingly it was the superior strength of the colonial regime. Let Edgerton sum up:

‘Those who had power in colonial Kenya – the whites, the Indians – and the African elite – were the natural enemies of Mau Mau. Some wealthy and powerful Kikuyu, like the Koinange family, supported the rebellion, as did a few wealthy Indians, but they were exceptions. Mau Mau was primarily a rebellion by the poor and powerless. Unless most of the educated, wealthy, Christian government loyalists joined Mau Mau – something equivalent to Tsar Nicholas and the Russian nobility joining the communist revolution – conflict between the poor and powerful was inevitable. As it happened, the earliest victims of Mau Mau violence were wealthy Kikuyu and headmen who opposed the movement.’

Jomo Kenyatta returned to Kenya after many years in England in September 1946 and immediately became one of the major figures in the national movement. Attempts to build a truly national movement from among the many tribes in Kenya largely failed. Kenyatta himself emerged as a moderate nationalist, and although he publicly dissociated himself from the growing Mau Mau movement, he was arrested immediately the Emergency was proclaimed.

Edgerton gives a fair summary of the trial of Kenyatta and others – it was a monstrous travesty of justice – but curiously fails to refer to the detailed account written by the leading defence barrister. This was D.N. Pritt, whose name will be familiar to the older readers of this journal as a vigorous apologist for Stalinist Russia, but who was also the outstanding British lawyer in civil liberties cases within colonialism.

The long chapter in volume 3 of Pritt’s autobiography (1966) provides a withering indictment of colonial ‘justice’. The Kenyatta case ought to have been held in or near Nairobi. Instead the administration chose a remote outpost with no hotel, no telephones, no restaurant, inaccessible by railroad and 29 miles from the nearest town and 280 miles from Nairobi, the location of the usual reference material. In many respects it was a rerun of the Meerut trial in 1929-32 which ought to have been heard in Bombay or Calcutta – when it would have been a trial by jury; so Meerut was chosen where the ‘judge’ was a District Officer, with five advisers of whom no notice was taken and without a jury. In the Kenyatta trial, it was difficult to find a judge. The man chosen also had no jury, had already confided before the trial that Kenyatta would be found guilty, demanded a gratuity of £20,000 for his services, and once the trial was concluded was immediately flown to Britain.

There are two final points to be made. Edgerton comments that the attitudes of Kenya’s white settlers were not an aberration peculiar to Kenya’s society, but ‘they had deep roots in British culture and society.’ This is a matter of great moment to us. The English have a record of racism and colonial exploitation, beginning in Ireland, that lasted for centuries, and it has become deeply embedded in our national traditions. Its history is absent from our school textbooks and from the lecture rooms of universities. When we ask that other peoples should acknowledge the political sins of their forbears, let us also ask the same question of ourselves.

And what came of it all? Mau Mau was defeated, but it became clear to Whitehall after the Hola camp massacres of 1959 that Kenya could not be held down by force; and Britain was no longer capable, politically and economically, of maintaining an empire by force in the old fashioned way. So Kenya got its independence and Kenyatta became its first president in 1963. During the next two decades a black elite replaced the former white administration. The veterans of Mau Mau remained poor and were pushed aside.

There was no revolution in Kenya, and the Mau Mau liberation movement remained uncelebrated, its story wiped out of the school texts in Kenya. Corruption steadily increased and on Kenyatta’s death in August 1978 his vice president Daniel Arap Moi succeeded him, surviving several attempts from internal coups and intensifying the oppression. Let us not forget, forty years later, that the colour of the oppressors has only changed from white to black; that it was the poor and the lowly who took to the forests, and that whatever their brutalities, which no one must deny, they were fighting for political freedom, economic opportunity and social justice. Their aims are still in the future.

Last updated on 4 July 2010