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This Web resource is all about the ‘Mau Mau Rebellions’, the Kenyan Emergency and the conflict between the British and the Mau Mau in the build up to Kenyan independence. The page is a resource for people to understand more about the history of the conflict, as well as its legacy and relevance today.

What were the Mau Mau Rebellions?

In 1952, when the Mau Mau ‘emergency’ was declared, decolonisation was in full swing. Britain had not only left India and Pakistan, but Palestine had been sacrificed, and Malaysia’s independence was assured. Harold Macmillans ‘Wind of Change’ speech was not until 1960, yet British Libyan independence in 1951, followed by a raft of French colonies showed there was a growth of national consciousness not limited to any corner of Africa. Bloody reactions to French decolonisation throughout the late 1940′s and early 1950′s in Algeria particularly concerned the British who, writes R.F Holland, responded with ‘unseemly panic’ to the increased signs of nationalism with native populations.

It is clear that up until the early 1950’s, Kenya (as well as many British Eastern African territories) were viewed by Britons as places of racial harmony, a place where British imperialism and control was accepted by willingly subservient natives. Anderson, in ‘Histories of the Hanged’, shows how East Africa was seen as an ‘easy colonial life’ for the expatriates who lived there.

However a disregard for the desires of native populations meant that there was growing resentment of hte Colonial authorities. It was in this climate that the Mau Mau rebellions in Kenya ran from 1951 right up until the early 1960’s. This essentially involved a militant force of anti-colonialists seeking repatriation of land seized by the British Government and ultimately, independence from British rule. The rebellions were suppressed by 1958 after a violent campaign in which led to the deaths of over 20,000 Kenyans, 200 members of the British policing and military forces and around 32 white settlers, yet they were an important impact on the eventual independence of Kenya in 1963.

Who Were the Mau Mau?

Trying to define just who the ‘Mau Mau’ were proves as difficult now as it was half a century ago for the British Government. Anderson writes how they largely, but not exclusively belonged to the Kikuyu tribe, with people often forced to join under duress. Oaths were taken to protect the anonymity of the Mau Mau and also ensure a commitment to the cause, with vicious reprisals were taken against those who informed the British in an effort to keep the identity of the group secret.  The Mau Mau believed in Kenyan independence, but it is now clear there were differing ideas of how achieve decolonisation even within the group; at the same time, different leaders promoted a return back to traditional life before colonialism while others aspired to a new, African led Kenya.  The leaders of the group often belonged to several political entities such as the Kenyan African National Union and the Kenyan Land a Freedom Army, which can account for the differing aspirations for Kenya that the Mau Mau had.

The ‘forty group’ a militant wing of the Kenyan African Union, had existed since at least 1948, and was known to be behind several Anti- Colonial attacks before the state of emergency was declared in 1952.  Increasing frustrations with Colonial Government, often with its roots in a lack of land, led to the perfect conditions for the Mau Mau to mushroom from a small militant wing into a violent movement which had a much larger base of support.

The Mau Mau as a political group were outlawed until 2003, which goes some way to showing the polarization of opinion that the group caused. The British labelled them terrorists, while for some Kenyans they were heroes of independence. Even within Kenya, while few Africans disagreed with their end goal of repatriation of land and independence, their bloody methods of achieving it were controversial.