British Colonialism & the Kikuyu Resistance

Colonisation appears to invariably cause conflict. Even where the proto-indigenous population is totally eliminated or absorbed, as in South Africa and Canada, and supplanted by new aboriginals (Canada) or settlers (South Africa), conflict will ensue as either new colonists arrive (Canada) or another wave of settlement arrives and collides (South Africa). The point might be, colonialism ends in violence. It enervates one group to fight the other, no matter the odds. Colonialism must adapt to a new reality for peace to arrive.
Much like the North American aboriginal experience, two major shifts occurred in the late 19th century Kikuyu area of Africa. First, a mass outbreak of epidemics took a catastrophic toll its the indigenous population. Then, the ensuing famine forced the devastated populations to vacate the areas they had traditionally farmed. These favourably fertile lands, coined as the White Highlands, became the focal point for British colonialism in Kenya. Parliament then encouraged its subjects (i. e.
British citizens, East-European Jews, and United South African Boers) to settle the recently acquired land, marketing it as a “paradise lost”. This marked the second, more influential and important shift in Kenyan society: an influx of white-foreigners. Kikuyu resistance was limited and sporadic, as they ‘lacked a cohesive organized administration’, suppressed by the British colonials as ‘an assault on public order. Violence was sporadic and limited. The East African Protectorate did not command sufficient importance in London politics, and thus received little attention.

In 1902, the East African Protectorate acquired fertile lands around Lake Victoria marking the beginning of railway expansion. The completion of the Mombasa-Victoria railway in 1903 shifted London’s perception on the importance of its newly acquired African land. Subsequently, with significant Parliamentary encouragement, European settlement surged into the East African Protectorate. Although seemingly a principle tenet of colonialism, the last priority of the settlers seemed to be the working of the land that they had acquired.
Rather, they opted for cheap local labour, namely the Kikuyu, to work their plantation ‘cash crops’. Soon, London issued a sequence of edicts, laws, and policies to “encourage local support”. This ‘general policy’ removed the native Kikuyu from their traditionally perceived lands, and forced them either into remote and infertile reservations or semi-urban communities where they constituted a source of inexpensive labour. Such repressive policies were regarded as appropriate actions on the basis of racial supremacy, and therefore justifiable in the eyes of white-settlers, if executed within that perception of fairness.
The locals were black, and perceived by whites as un-equal humans. In their eyes, the natives had no inherent right to the land and certainly it was widely-held by the colonists that they, the kikuyu, didn’t utilize it efficiently anyway. During the 1920s, Kenya’s white society reached a politically critical mass. British administration recognized its increasing affluence and influence. Consequently, London decisively established Kenya (named after the great mountain) as a colony, thereby trapping its indigenous population within a colonial system.
They could not get rid of it and instead faced two options: be put to work as virtually another domestic animal, or be forced into a remote reservation. *Despite social repression, a relatively small number of Kikuyu were educated through established Missionary schools. Soon enough, this educated minority realized that the people were being ruled for and by European settlers. Natives were prohibited from cultivating the colony’s primary cash crop, or able to own land in ancestrally-farmed areas. Administratively held to low-wages, natives required ‘settler-controlled passbooks’ to travel freely.
In light of these, and other, discriminatory state-sponsored practices, the Kikuyu Central Organization was formed. However, the evolution of the Kikuyu’s political and intellectual state was fought and opposed at every turn. During a 1920 peaceful protest over the arrest and exile of one of its leaders, uniformed police and settlers fired upon the Kikuyu Central Organization’s street gathering. This incident cemented the white’s discriminatory view of the natives, and further exacerbated the fear amongst the Kikuyu people. In 1925, London ruled that 150,000 Kikuyu “squatters” had no traditional ownership rights in settler areas, effectively eliminating the Kikuyu’s surviving economic and legal defenses. *Furthermore, the Kenya Land Commission of 1934 affirmed European title rights to virtually all fertile land within the colony. While the consequences were not immediate, they became increasingly visible as the Kikuyu population’s growth surged, creating severe overcrowding within reserve confines. The inverse relationship between power and population became apparent during the Second World War; when Kenya’s native opulation numbered 4. 3 million, while the white-settlers remained at around 25,000. There was no real cohesive political structure – a British appointee governed the colony. Despite a native population of over four million Kikuyu, the white minority completely dominated all colonial life. Aside from serving in the British Colonial Army and as reservation ‘chiefs’ and administrators appointed to enforce British rule, the natives were completely exempt from all colonial practices. In this context, the colonial administration justified the expulsion of close to one hundred thousand local Kikuyu from the “white areas”.
With nearly every acre of fertile land expropriated for whites-only usage, the Kikuyu had only the overcrowded reservations, or equally destitute urban center ‘shantytowns’. Increasingly, the Kikuyu suffered economic and social deprivation, creating a politically explosive situation. The ensuing, increasing dissidence amongst the Kikuyu prompted the British authorities to criminalize the Kikuyu Central Association in 1940. Under the ruse of “a wartime security measure”, British colonialism destroyed the Kikuyu’s only peaceful means of expressing grievances, further exacerbating racial tensions within the colony.
The collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich brought to light the ultimate horrors of ethnic supremacy. International revulsion at Nazi Germany’s actions subsequently evoked condemnation for the colonial repression of blacks. Consequently, colonial authorities decriminalized Kikuyu representation, allowing for the creation of the Kenyan African Union. This new organization sought recognition as a real political party, advocating the removal of discriminatory state practices. With only a handful of committed men as its primary leadership, it’s beginning was unpromising.
Changing the names, locations, and dates in this sequence would probably read as any other generic history of African colonial resistance. Similar to other African insurgencies, the violence was scattered and sporadic, with a notable vendetta against the white-foreign oppression. What happened in Kenya, however, was distinctively a Kikuyu issue. Increasingly, large numbers of Kikuyu sought methods to organize themselves for strong political advocacy. ( The Kikuyu found neither justice nor substance in nationalism, religion, or Communism.
Instead, the Kikuyu linked cultural traditions with the symbolism of ceremonial oath-taking, to encourage social and political unity. Unbeknownst to its membership, this practice effectively gave rise to an informal sense of nationhood within the Kikuyu people. Like all insurgencies The Emergency began modestly, starting in 1950 with only a group of a dozen young activists from the Kenyan African Union. Increasingly frustrated with ineffective bargaining with the whites, this group, the self-proclaimed Kiambaa Parliament, took the baby steps of resistance organization.
The ensuing war between the natives, settlers and colonial authorities, which engulfed Kenyan society from 1952-1960, was indisputably brutal, archaic, and oppressive, during which only thirty-two European settlers and less than two hundred police and militia were killed. Why, then, did such a relatively small number of colonial deaths prompt such a blood-chilling rhetoric? Firstly, many of the insurgents were former ‘employees’ of the white-settlers who, while considering the majority of colonial settlers to be severe and even cruel, also considered many as kindly and caring, and were therefore loyal to their previous employers.
In the eyes of the whites, “Jeeves had taken to the Jungle”. That these apparently loyal employees should revolt against their employers represented “the ultimate treachery; biting the hand that fed you”. To settlers, this act was all the evidence they needed to vilify the natives, cementing the racial stereotypes in mind. Secondly, the white settlers lacked a thorough understanding of the Kikuyu insurgent’s cohesion. The movement’s lack of nationalism or commitment to a religion or ideology, which gave other insurgencies a unity, evoked fury from the settlers.
The Kikuyu’s leaders created unity through cultural traditions (i. e. ceremonial oath-taking), which was perceived by the settlers as ‘black magic’ or ‘witchcraft’. While the terms used would have been very different to the locals, the natives agreed with the resulting terror. The aforementioned ceremonial ‘oathing’ was designed to vilify normal behavioural codes, and psychologically ‘mark’ its taker. Participants transcended normative mental barriers that had constricted their actions, presumably making the participant emerge as a new person, a revolutionary; an itungati.
New members were forced to commit acts, sometimes brutal and disturbing acts, to solidify commitment to the cause and the rebel brotherhood. Militants were thus altered into a different person, associated with other, similarly-changed members, within an organization from which it was extremely difficult, if not suicidal, to withdraw membership. The Mau Mau revolt certainly had grounds to take root. The South African and European settlers had appropriated all the land, land that the 1. 5 million Kikuyu perceived as their national patrimony.
Converted into cheap market labour to work the lands, the Kikuyu were no more valuable to settlers than serfs to a lord. They had no civil rights to speak of, and were subjected to arbitrary state violence at the hands of militia and police. No effective say was allocated to Kikuyu in their own tribal affairs, let alone Kenyan affairs. Furthermore, while other African countries were moving closer towards freedom, Kenya was seemingly slipping further into white-minority control, as was happening in South African and Southern Rhodesia.
Even when British authorities loosened the reigns on their colonies, it was only the white settlers who benefitted, not the natives. Therefore, the Kikuyu felt alienated in their cause and had no hope for improvement; instead, they feared the some twenty-five thousand whites who dominated them. Settlers were horrified to see their standard of living challenged, and demanded massive and indiscriminate suppression of “the savages”. The response was certainly to their liking. Sir Evelyn Baring, the newly-appointed colonial governor, found that his staff knew little to nothing about what had disaffected those Kikuyu who joined the Mau Mau revolt.
Consultation with the British appointed Kikuyu chiefs served little purpose and, in a sense, exacerbated the situation. The chiefs simply vocalized what they felt that the British authorities wanted to hear, maintaining and protecting their own positions. However, Baring accepted uncritically the notion of illegitimacy behind the Kikuyu movement, concluding that “if you don’t get Kenyatta and those around him and shut them up somehow or other we are in a terrible, hopeless position”* Initially, it seemed as though the British government had fallen into the ‘counterinsurgency trap’, meeting increasing danger with increasing force.
However, it was soon realized that force alone would ultimately fail, co-incidentally around the same time London parliament found the conflict “prohibitively expensive”. A new strategy focused on ‘rehabilitation’ that would not rely entirely on violence and oppression, but which nevertheless failed to recognize the key issue, the rule of Kenya by foreigners. British authorities looked over at Malaya for a ready “school” of “proper counterinsurgency”. Its colony had been combatting against a mainly ethnic Chinese rebellion since 1948*.
However much other colonial models of counterinsurgency taught lessons, the Malaysian principle would fail in Kenya. Regarded as “irredeemable Communists”, British Malaysian authorities deported thousands of ethnic Chinese detainees as “foreigners”. It was impossible, however, to exile even the most committed Mau Mau Kikuyu as a “non-Kenyan foreigner”. Furthermore, the fervent hate of the Malays for the Chinese, who were far more intrusive and oppressive than the British, could not be replicated in Kenya since everyone was Kikuyu.
Instead, Kenyan colonial policy reflected tactics deemed suitable to the local issues, internment camps coupled with robust grilling. British authorities decided that, above all else, information was needed on the Kikuyu resistance. Strategically, authorities sought an understanding as to why the Kikuyu supported the Mau Mau resistance; tactically, they sought who supported and supplied them. The process of grilling (i. e. interrogation under torture) provided authorities with information that was extorted through force.
Once all they could glean was gathered from them, the remaining guerrillas (many died under examination) were placed within the internment camps, out of touch with the active resistance movement. Purely out of luck rather than strategy, did colonial authorities managed to apprehend the charismatic figurehead of the guerrilla movement, in January 1945: Waruhiu Itote. Intensive interrogation revealed all that the authorities wanted to know. Itote revealed everything from his headquarters location, to the support organization, to the size and structure of his guerrilla army.
They were revealed to have less than half the fighting capability that the British had thought (i. e. around several thousand fighters, only), and seriously underequipped with a pitiful arsenal of weapons (e. g. 361 bolt action rifles/shotguns, 1 hand grenade, & 1,230 ‘homemade weapons’). Surprisingly, much like Tito’s partisans, the Mau Mau had constructed a factory to manufacture and repair the rudimentary weapons they had stolen or created, all while receiving absolutely no external support. Despite the new-found intelligence, the British authorities were at a loss.
Like all sensible guerrillas, Mau Maus fighters fled when at a disadvantage. The advantages of advanced aircraft and highly mobilized ground forces were negated by the Mau Mau ability to hide in the forests around Mount Kenya. Lacking progress, authorities pushed Itote to pursue peace negotiations, but gained no ground as neither party trusted the other. Instead colonial authorities utilized the hiatus to identify supporters, arresting over a thousand Kikuyu and beginning a massive detention campaign immediately after talks broke down. Effectively, British authorities imprisoned the entire Kikuyu urban population.
Entire villages were de-populated; virtually every Kikuyu male was separated from his wife and children. Over thirty thousand people were plucked from their homes. Ultimately, the British authorities “packed up” close to 150,000 Kikuyu into interment camps. On a more ‘practical’ level colonial authority sought to encourage loyalty to the state by promising land to those who fought against the Mau Mau. Yet the insurgency did not cease. It became clear to the British authorities that two main problems had been greatly overlooked: the issue of land, and the ceremonial oath.
In response, authorities created three separate answers for, what they perceived, as three separate problems. Firstly, to find a way to release the Kikuyu from their oaths of resistance, secondly, to meet the desperate hunger for land amongst the Kikuyu, and finally, to bring forward an acceptable leader to replace the militant Itote. The bitterest issue amongst the Kikuyu was the appropriation of tribal land. Coupled with the post-First World War population explosion, it turned large numbers of Kikuyu into landless labourers.
Furthermore, the social policy implemented during the 1930s swelled the population. Those unlucky “white highlanders” would have no hope of finding land anywhere in the already overcrowded “cultivable leftovers”. Indeed with such bleak options available, large numbers flocked into urban centers. The surge of slums, particularly in Nairobi, housed the idle landless farmers who had no skill or trade to sustain their living. If Kenya wanted to achieve a lasting peace, this problem had to be addressed promptly.
However, ruling authorities (under settler pressure) adamantly refused to “reward” Kikuyu rebels by the appropriation of land for them from the colonists, and instead proposed increasing current land productivity. Given contemporary fiscal, technological, and social restraints, the proposed policy had the effect of furthering the wealth of the white landowners without addressing the problem of the landless poor. As a result of colonial resistance to large-scale land distribution, over one million Kikuyu were packed into, Kenya’s version of, government-run villages. An improvisation on the ontemporary fortified village program run by the British in Malaya, the inhabitants regarded them as vile prison camps, almost a step down from the internment camps. Even assuming that these villages were acceptable, the land assigned to them was of poor quality, leaving the only source of fertile farming land within the white community. Ultimately, however, reluctant colonial authorities agreed on the repurchase of settler land for native use. From a more military perspective, colonial authorities agreed the second step would be to stop, or at the very least diminish, the impact of the ceremonial-oaths being taken.
Seeking to remedy the issue of zealous commitment, the colonial government commissioned Louis Leakey to create “un-oathing ceremony”. Renowned for his anthropological work, Leakey’s perception was that Christianity was the greatest counterinsurgency tactic available. He promptly created a program for rehabilitation. With a strong understanding of the Kikuyu’s culture, Leakey knew full well that such a ceremony could remove the moral commitment of many Mau Mau rank –and-file. For the time it was certainly a radical approach to counterinsurgency strategy, and was the most effective application devised.
Under this program of rehabilitation over repression, colonial authorities encouraged defection. However this program was far from infallible. Those who opted out were left with long-term imprisonment, or hanging. Ultimately, after a token trial for the suspected Mau Mau sympathizers, colonial authorities hanged a gruesome tally of 1,090 Kikuyu. Such a number reflects upon its oppressive implementers, that justice under British colonial rule in Kenya “was a blunt, brutal and unsophisticated instrument of oppression”. (p. 122) Conclusively, the white settlers lost their ‘dirty war’.
Ultimately, no military or security forces can recreate the pre-insurgency situation. Killing sympathizers and soldiers, hanging the leadership, and interning masses of innocent people creates an uncontrollable socio-political situation. London would no longer condone the actions of the Kenyan white minority. Parliament only saw a dwindling treasury, diminishing international prestige, and no substantial progress towards a solution. So, in 1959, the conservative government sought a tabla-rasa and began dismantling the legal framework of the Kenyan police-state.
Finally, the tables had turned, and the white supremacists’ world shattered. The white settlers would be forced to sell their lands now that Kenyans had been given majority rule and open land franchise. The 1961 national reconciliation begun by Jomo Kenyatta, paved the way for independence in 1963. It was the actions of Kenyatta which subdued the Mau Mau rebels. With strong support from London, Kenyatta was able to give the people what they cried for, what the Mau Mau fought for, and what all nations ultimately desire: independence.

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