The Breaking of the Mau Mau


I met Pordy Laneford in Cyprus. We had arrived on the same flight from Africa, and were assigned a room to share in the Astoria in Nicosia. It was in the late 1950s, that decade of colonial wars. In Cyprus, the British were struggling to crush the EOKA nationalist movement; the Astoria had grenade screens over the windows and a bomb hole in the garden. The French were fighting in Algeria, the British colonial “emergencies” in Malaya and Kenya were winding down but still shedding blood, and President Nasser had just nationalized the Suez Canal. The Suez War, the ultimate fiasco of Franco-British imperialism, lay a few months in the future.

Pordy Laneford had come from Kenya. He sat on his hotel bed, a chinless wonder with watery blue eyes and a small moustache, and chatted about himself. He was even younger than I was. Pordy had been named after a Devonshire trout stream which ran past his family home, a bankrupt farm (as he described it) run by a military father who collected medals and taught his children about the Empire. Pordy also took up medal-collecting and Empire. He signed up with the Rhodesian police. But soon, to his surprise, he was discharged ignominiously for torturing an African suspect. He looked around for “something which was good fun and sort of helped to hold the Empire up.” In Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion had begun, so Pordy joined the infamous Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the “red tape” of trials and witness statements. “Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.”

It had been fun, he said. He went on to describe the mauve bubbles brought up by a Mau Mau suspect speared in the throat, and gave a rendering of the accompanying noises. But Mau Mau was winding down now, and Kenya was duller. What did I think of his chances of getting antiterrorist work in Cyprus? What sort of gun would they issue him? “It does feel so absolutely marvelous to have a gun, I mean you really feel you’re somebody, sort of thing.”

I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season. Addicts are treatable. Fun-lovers will always hanker for more fun.

My advice to Pordy was to try Algeria, where French settlers were advertising for private gunmen. I thought he might not survive long there. But years later, I read in The Times that one Pordy Laneford had been charged in Nairobi with murder, having allegedly tied up a Kikuyu, placed him in a wooden chest, and left him to suffocate.

The two books under review are about what Pordy did. It must be said that they are about much more as well. They tell the history of a remarkable African people, the Kikuyu, and how an anticolonial movement fragmented into a civil war which nearly destroyed them. Both authors recount the antecedents and nature of Mau Mau, and reintegrate it into the mainstream of Kikuyu and Kenyan history. (This is a decisive movement away from the old interpretation, adopted by colonial and postcolonial Kenyan governments alike, that Mau Mau was a fearful collective disease, an invasive infection, which had no authentic political roots in the Kikuyus’ grievances about land and authority.) Caroline Elkins and David Anderson both study the development of colonial policy as the rebellion spread: the complex tensions between the Colonial Office in London, the Kenyan administration in Nairobi led for almost all the period by the elegant Sir Evelyn Baring as governor, the rabid white settler lobby headed by Michael Blundell, the Christian missionaries, and the gathering British opposition to Kenya policy, which emerged principally from the left wing of the Labour movement and the Quakers. But at the core of the two books is an intention to expose the nature and extent of British repression during the Mau Mau rebellion, between about 1952 and 1959.

It is a story of shameful and widespread atrocities, of mistaken policies that led to massive brutality and suffering. Some of those who devised and enforced these policies were well-meaning. Some, like the British-raised Kikuyu Home Guard, obeyed orders because they had come to see the conflict not as a “national liberation struggle” but as an African civil war in which a Mau Mau victory meant the extermination of themselves and their families. But there were also the Pordys, having fun. Increasingly, as the Mau Mau conflict went on, the colonial administration resorted to policies that could only be carried out—especially in the prison camps—by men who felt it safe to use lawless, systematic violence on Africans in their power.

It is fair to say that even now, fifty years later, the British public is not really aware of what went on. Elkins and Anderson, published at almost the same time, should make some dents in this ignorance. They are not, in fact, anything like the first academics or journalists to publish the “hidden history” of Mau Mau and the Emergency; there have been many studies in the last twenty years or so, and Caroline Elkins let her research be used for a television documentary shown in Britain a couple of years ago. But British ignorance about Mau Mau is of a peculiar, resilient kind. It is breached every so often, but then heals over again. As David Anderson writes, there was a period in the later 1950s when everyone knew, or could know, what was going on: “What is astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented.” All that seems to have been forgotten. The British need to believe that their Empire was run and eventually dismantled with restraint and humanity—as opposed to the disgusting brutality of the French, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, and German colonial empires. Punctures in that belief have to be mended.

Caroline Elkins is wrong to assume that British opinion, even in the 1950s, identified with the white settlers in Kenya or Rhodesia. Ordinary people, as I well remember, regarded them as pampered parasites who had run away to escape the rigors of their own country and who, up to a point, deserved what they got. But they also assumed, and still do, that British colonial administration was civilizing, honest, and—after the excesses of Victorian conquest by the Maxim gun—generally decent to “the natives.” With this assumption have come, in recent decades, books and journalism marketing nostalgia for the supposed achievements and probity of imperial civil servants and soldiers. There did exist some noble colonial visionaries, and some colonies or protectorates which were happy places for all their inhabitants. I have met several of them, and lived in several of them. But the myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward “natives” cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.

These two books, by a British and an American scholar, tell the same story from different sources. David Anderson went into the surviving trial archives of Emergency Kenya. In recounting the most sensational or disgraceful of these trials, he examines the grounds on which at least 1,090 Africans were sent to the gallows within a few years—a total without parallel in the late British Empire. He then uses the evidence to reconstruct in detail the story of the Mau Mau rebellion, with its intricate background and its terrible consequences. Caroline Elkins bases her book on very different material. After long research in archives in Kenya and London, she decided to go after the oral testimony of survivors (Mau Mau veterans, “loyalist” Kikuyu, uncommitted villagers who were sucked into the vortex of the detention camps, white settlers, and retired police or government officers). Oral history is famously unreliable, but the landscape of brutality revealed in her interviews is in all too many cases corroborated by witnesses without mutual contact. And Imperial Reckoning shows how powerfully, at last, the African voice has entered African historiography. Chroniclers of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State,” for example, have always lamented that the firsthand witnesses to its atrocities were all European or American, and that almost no African testimony existed (it did of course exist in the heads of survivors and their descendants, but nobody let the Congolese speak for themselves). Only in the late twentieth century did Africans make sure that oral memories were recorded; the popular experience of the Kenya Emergency, to take only one example, has recently been the subject of histories and fictions written by Kikuyu authors.


The Mau Mau movement did not suddenly explode, but smoldered for years before bursting into flame. Its roots lay in the early years of the century, as European settlers, mostly British, took over large areas of fertile land in the so-called White Highlands. By 1953 there were about 40,000 settlers, and some 2,500 white-owned farms. The inhabitants of this region of Kenya, the Kikuyu, were pushed back into “native reserves,” which rapidly proved inadequate for their expanding population (some 1.4 million by 1948). The pressure was partly relieved by the migration of about 150,000 people (“squatters”) onto white farming land, where they established their own smallholdings and worked as laborers for the settlers. Elkins and Anderson agree that settler farming was uneconomic, supported by government subsidies for most of the colonial period, whereas early Kikuyu cash-crop farming was efficient and undercut settler prices. But Africans were soon banned from growing tea, coffee, and sisal, and a minimum price set for maize removed their advantage.

In 1934, a land commission studied the crisis of overcrowding and made a fatally wrong choice. The brave but obvious course would have been to return at least some “white” areas to the Kikuyu. Instead, the commission decided that expansion of the reserves was politically impossible, and advocated a “husbandry” campaign—including more intensive farming methods in the existing reserves in order to make them more productive. For the next twenty years, the colonial government stuck to this policy, as the population of the reserves was swollen by steep natural increase and by the arrival of huge numbers of evicted and landless squatters from white farming regions. Overstocking, soil erosion, and hunger spread. “Improvements” like the digging of terraces by female forced labor were bitterly resented.

A succession of Kikuyu protest groups and parties in the 1930s made little impact. The young ex-soldiers returning from the Second World War were much more radical. By now, as Anderson points out, Kikuyu society was badly divided. There were the conservative chiefs and their families—their loyalty rewarded with land and wealth by the colonial authorities. There were the moderate nationalists, represented by highly educated leaders like Jomo Kenyatta. But beyond them were the militants, some of them former soldiers, most of them landless men whose families had been evicted from “squatter” homes on white farms. There was also a profound vertical split dating back to the 1930s, when a missionary-led campaign to ban clitoridectomy had run into a wall of Kikuyu resistance—and not only from traditionalists. The African churches were also divided, and the profusion of independent Kikuyu churches which arose became a forum for land agitation and anticolonial discussion.

In 1943, a group of squatters threatened with eviction reinvented the Kikuyu custom of “oathing.” The new oaths, which were also extended to women and children, pledged the initiate to become a “true Kikuyu, free of blemish,” to strive for “land and freedom,” and not to admit to having taken the oath on pain of death. A banana-leaf arch served as a portal for a rebirth ceremony, and the initiates ate the flesh and organs of a slaughtered goat as they repeated each formula. As oathing caught on and spread, it developed ascending degrees of secret ceremony, in which people finally accepted the duty to fight and kill.

Nobody knows where the words “Mau Mau” came from, or why they were attached to the movement. The “Mau Mau Society” was banned by the government in 1950, but by 1952 the Muhimu, a league of militant nationalists who were to provide some of the first cadres for the Mau Mau armies, were oathing Kikuyu all over Kenya. The reserves were seething with resentment, and the settler community loudly demanded government action. Murders and beatings by the Mau Mau of Africans who refused the oath or were suspected as informers became common. European cattle were attacked and farm buildings burned. Then, in October 1952, gunmen killed the mighty Chief Waruhiu, the richest and most prominent of pro-government Kikuyu leaders. Within days, the new governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, proclaimed a state of emergency. British regular troops were flown in. There were mass arrests all over Kikuyuland. Mau Mau leaders, taken by surprise, retreated with weapons and followers to the deep forests of the Aberdare range of Mount Kenya and prepared for war.

It was in the same month, October 1952, that Mau Mau gangs began to attack isolated white settlers. These murders and maimings, which are still the lingering image of Mau Mau in British minds, were horrific in several ways. Men, women, and in a few cases children were slashed to death with heavy pangas (machetes), and their corpses were often further mutilated. And it soon turned out that faithful family servants who for years had worked in the household or looked after the children might be among the killers. Dreadful photographs of the carnage were circulated. Here, settlers said, was the proof that Mau Mau was a relapse into atavistic savagery, into racial madness which could only be countered with violence and, if necessary, extermination.

Neither Anderson nor Elkins excuses the killings, but both try—tactfully—to set them in a context. The total of European settlers killed in the Emergency was thirty-two. But Mau Mau also murdered at least 1,800 Africans, including the victims of the appalling Lari massacre in March 1953, when 120 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a reprisal attack on pro-government chiefs. The army and security forces suffered only about two hundred casualties in action. Mau Mau losses, in contrast, were huge. David Anderson writes:

The official figures set the total number of Mau Mau rebels killed in combat at 12,000, but the real figure is likely to have been more than 20,000.

Beyond these estimates lies the unknown African death toll in the detention camps and resettlement villages, in countless unreported shootings in the countryside, and through disease and exhaustion inflicted by the upheavals of war. As for the brutality of those settler killings, taken by Kenya’s whites as irrefutable proof of African barbarism, the methods of European peasant risings during the preceding one hundred years were no different. Galician serfs hacked their Polish landlords to pieces in 1846; Spanish peasants used the scythe and the ax on latifundista families in the civil war; Ukrainian peasants did the same or worse to their better-off neighbors between 1941 and 1944. In atrocity as in other crimes, Africans were engaging in practices perfected in Europe.

At the outset of the conflict in 1952, the British made two serious mistakes. The first, the result of hopelessly bad intelligence, was to assume that Jomo Kenyatta was the Mau Mau arch-conspirator, the “leader of darkness and death,” as one of Baring’s successors fatuously called him. In reality, Kenyatta was a moderate who wanted political resistance rather than armed conspiracy, and who had been impatiently pushed aside by the Muhimu nationalists because of his loathing for Mau Mau. Nonetheless, Kenyatta was seized, subjected to a ridiculous show trial under a judge secretly bribed by the governor, and condemned to life imprisonment in the northern deserts. The best that can be said about this farce was that it probably saved his life. Had the administration grasped where he stood and used him as a moderate to outflank Mau Mau, he would almost certainly have been assassinated.

The second mistake had more tragic consequences. Every indigenous people has to put up with certain whites who go around announcing that they are “natives” in all but skin color and understand the tribe better than its own elders. For the Kikuyu, this was the archaeologist Louis Leakey. Brought up to speak the language and intimate with Kikuyu tradition, Leakey claimed to know the secret of Mau Mau and how to dissolve it. The oath could be defused by confession, by an admission that the oath had been taken, followed by an invented “cleansing ceremony” or counter-oathing involving a sacred stone. Alongside Leakey stood Dr J.C. Carothers, an “ethno-psychiatrist” (the discipline is now fortunately extinct) and author of The African Mind in Health and Disease. Carothers suggested that Mau Mau was a disease, brought on by the failure of the limited Kikuyu brain to cope with modernization and change.

These ideas were welcomed. The settlers, not usually keen on intellectuals, were delighted that the “psycho docs” had seen the point. Their houseboys who took up the gun and the panga were not bothered about land rights but were simply off their tiny heads, sick primitives under Satanic possession. Oliver Lyttelton, a normally suave Tory grandee who was colonial secretary at the start of Mau Mau, recalled that “as I wrote memoranda or instruction [about Mau Mau] …I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page—the horned shadow of the Devil himself.”

Leakey’s recipe for confession was in the end to dominate the entire course of the Emergency. Caroline Elkins divides up the conflict, and its excesses, into two sectors. The first is the fighting itself, in the white farming areas, in the Kikuyu reserves, and in the forests where legendary figures like General China and Dedan Kimathi led their armies.

China, whose real name was Waruhiu Itote, had fought against the Japanese in Burma and learned his anticolonial nationalism in British India; he proved to be a daring and dangerous Mau Mau commander, leading an army of four thousand men in the Mount Kenya forest until he was wounded and captured in January 1954. Dedan Kimathi, the commander in the Aberdares, tried in vain to unify the armies under his own leadership. At once more brutal and more charismatic than China, Kimathi fought on for almost three more years, until his eventual capture and death on a British gallows ensured that he would be the hero whose deeds have passed into Kikuyu myth and memory.

The second sector is that of the detention camps, the focus of memories for most of Elkins’s witnesses and therefore her central subject. Her calculations suggest that, in all, up to 320,000 Kikuyus—nearly a third of the population—may have passed through the camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children, held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages.

This “Gulag” of more than fifty camps was not static but dynamic, a process based originally on Leakey’s home-brewed anthropology. The core of it was the sequence of camps known as the “Pipeline,” along which detainees were supposed to move as their attitude improved, until they were consigned to “ordinary” forced-labor centers. The criterion for movement down the Pipeline was confession. From the first crude screenings of suspects by Kikuyu Home Guard or local white settlers, prisoners were pressured to admit that they had taken the oath. If they did so, they could begin the journey from hard-core camps toward easier conditions, passing from one stage of confession and purification to another. The whole process was officially named “Rehabilitation.”

Some celestial band of philosopher-jailers might have fulfilled this dream. In practice, and under the control of amateur commandants largely recruited from young settlers, the Pipeline became a system for extracting information by violence and for breaking down human self-respect. Some prisoners did not survive the initial beatings and tortures of their screening. The survivors went into camps, overcrowded and filthy, in which many were battered, tortured, deprived of proper food and clothing, and otherwise terrorized to make them confess their oath.

The women went to Kamiti camp, which was ruled by Mrs. Katharine Warren-Gash—another settler who liked to preen herself as a “white Kikuyu.” There they were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labor, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many gave birth at Kamiti, but the infant death rate was overwhelming. The women buried their babies in bundles of six at a time. Mrs. Warren-Gash brought the archbishop of Mombasa to Kamiti, where he conducted a mass oath-cleansing ceremony in person. Perhaps she thought her charges needed cheering up.

Nothing is more striking than the Kikuyu’s reluctance to admit to taking the oath. Many detainees held out for years, and were shunted backward up the Pipeline into “hard-core” camps of increasing brutality. But in the end, almost everyone was forced to confess. The prison and camp population, which reached a peak of over 70,000 in 1954, was down to about 15,000 by March 1958.

By now the fighting was almost over. From a national uprising, it had been turned into a Kikuyu civil war and then into a contained guerrilla insurgency. Following the example of the Malayan Emergency, the Kikuyu rural population had been herded into fortified villages, cutting off contact with Mau Mau bands. In 1954, “Operation Anvil” detained and screened almost the whole African population of Nairobi, a fatal blow to the Mau Mau armies in the forests who depended on the city for supplies and recruits. The Mau Mau General China turned himself in, and agreed to negotiate for the surrender of his comrades. The most feared Mau Mau commander, Dedan Kimathi, was captured in 1956 and hanged.

With the war more or less won, British opinion was shocked by a series of disclosures about conditions in the detention camps. Anxious to wind up the Emergency, the Kenya authorities decided to dispose of the remaining obdurate prisoners by, in effect, forcing them through the Pipeline. Under this policy, misnamed “dilution,” recalcitrant prisoners were divided into small groups and then hammered with boots and batons until they agreed to obey orders, confess, and cooperate. By now, some hard-core prisoners were joining together to refuse forced labor. They were diagnosed as “incurable” (that disease image again), but it was decided that their refusal must be broken by force. The result of “dilution” was a succession of horrifying pitched battles as detainees, camp guards, and armed riot police fought hand to hand. The struggle culminated on March 3, 1959, when a hundred detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. A force of five hundred riot police had already been assembled. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured.


The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan, history. Governor Baring tried to conceal what had happened, endorsing idiotic stories (the dead men had drunk contaminated water or been drowned by a gushing hosepipe) which he knew to be lies. Some right-wing British journalists, as I remember, reported that the prisoners had committed suicide by deliberately huddling together until they suffocated. But the truth rapidly emerged. Hola was a turning point, not so much in Kenya, where it caused no great surprise, but in Britain, where outrage and disgust over repression in Kenya had already become widespread.

The colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, survived a furious debate in the House of Commons. But in spite of a frantic cover-up campaign (well detailed by Caroline Elkins), the Hola Massacre left Britain’s domination in Kenya fatally damaged. Within a year of Hola, Lennox-Boyd’s successor Iain Macleod was announcing that Kenya would become an independent democracy with universal franchise—black majority rule. The white settler community, in contrast to Europeans in Algeria or Rhodesia, gave in without a fight.

They were wise to do so. Jomo Kenyatta, released from prison and banishment, became president when Kenya achieved independence in December 1963. He turned out to have lost none of his gift for compromise and moderate politics. There was no great land reform, no campaign of vengeance. The white community soon came to adore Kenyatta, who guaranteed for most of them another generation of security. The big losers were Mau Mau. They had fought for “land and freedom,” but won little of either. They came back from the detention Gulag to find themselves landless; there was no question of “white farms for our victorious warriors.” As for freedom, the new African authorities regarded them with suspicion and old Kikuyu loyalists, rather than Mau Mau veterans, got most of the jobs in Kenyatta’s government. Later, Kenyatta wrote that “Mau Mau was a disease which has been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”

Both these books make clear how wrong that verdict is. Of the two authors David Anderson does the most to rescue Mau Mau from pathology and to restore the movement to history. Caroline Elkins defies Kenyatta’s commandment to forget, recording and honoring the voices of those who have been humiliated by the denial of their memory. She also attempts to put a figure to the total loss of Kikuyu lives, the born and the unborn. She projects population growth from the 1948 census total, compares the result with the 1962 census figure, and finds a gap between them of over 136,000—at the very lowest estimate of growth rates. In her introduction, Elkins declares: “I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead.”

There was no such campaign. Here, Elkins seems to have been carried away by the dubious theories of Daniel Goldhagen about “eliminationist anti-Semitism” in Germany. She talks about “eliminationist” racism in Kenya, and argues that the colonialists “dehumanized” Mau Mau as the Jews and the Tutsi had been dehumanized, as a preparation for genocide. This is one of several bizarre declarations which blot an otherwise scholarly and very important book. Genocide was never remotely in prospect in Kenya, apart from “shoot them all” bluster from a few frightened whites, and “dehumanization”—which certainly did happen—can be a prelude to many things short of planned mass murder. Neither is Elkins right to imply that all the settlers were or lived like aristocrats or held extreme racialist opinions; a substantial minority were almost as appalled by government repression as by Mau Mau atrocities, and hoped—rather ineffectually—for some sort of multiracial common future. Elkins remarks that

like all colonial governments, Kenya’s was illegitimate, as it derived its power not from democratic consensus but from a host of repressive laws.

The notions that all unelected regimes are “illegitimate” and that no colonial government has ever held elections with a broad suffrage are simply eccentric.

But these complaints can’t detract much from the central achievement of Elkins’s book. This is her carefully reconstructed history of the Pipeline, her analysis of how that enormous system worked and changed over the years, and her use of testimony from those who survived and those who were responsible for the killing. Experienced as uprooting, fear, and imprisonment by a whole generation and then left without the “closure” of total victory or open reconciliation, it is hard to imagine what the Emergency can have done to the feelings and minds of older Kenyans.

Elkins concludes:

…The world behind the barbed wire rendered utterly transparent, for the first time, the dark side of Britain’s colonial project. The hypocrisies, the exploitations, the violence, and the suffering were all laid bare in the Pipeline. It was there that Britain finally revealed the true nature of its civilizing mission.

I saw plenty of the British Empire in its final years and, as an official in an African nationalist party in Uganda, did my best to hasten its end. Yet those words hurt. When I was twenty-five, I would have agreed with them entirely. Now I also remember not only the Pordys, with their batons and their strut, but also the modest men and women from Britain who drained Indian swamps to resettle the landless, played Bill Haley records to entranced Malay women in veils, or lent subversive novels to Nigerian schoolboys. Was the Empire only hypocrisy, exploitation, violence, and suffering? No, but those things were somehow always implicit even when they were not noticeable. In Kenya in the 1950s, they overflowed. Until they understand why, and digest what these two books are saying, the British will not understand themselves.


The End of the Mau Mau June 23, 2005