The Mau Mau Uprising, also known as the Kenyan Emergency, was a large revolt that took place between 1952 and 1960 in the British colony of Kenya. The uprising grew out of anger over British colonial policies, but much of the fighting was between Kikuyu people, an ethnic group that makes up about 20% of Kenya’s population. The nature of the revolt, its casualties, and its impact are hotly contested to this day, but in 2013 the British government formally apologized for the brutal tactics it used to suppress the uprising and agreed to pay approximately £20 million pounds in compensation to surviving victims of abuse.
Causes of the Revolt
The four main causes of the revolt were low wages, access to land, female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation, FGM), and kipande - identity cards African workers were required to submit to their white employers, who sometimes refused to return them or even destroyed the cards making it incredibly difficult for workers to apply for other employment.
Female genital mutilation/circumcision is a rite of passage in many African cultures that horrified European missionaries. Many missions banned it amongst their converts, and the British government strongly discouraged the practice - most of the time. Initially, they had actually encouraged it in some areas as a way to prevent abortions. As people took sides, inter-community conflicts arose, and the rite quickly became tangled up in anti-colonial politics and resistance.
The land issues began when white settlers encouraged Kikuyu people to settle on their property in the early 1900s in exchange for their labor. Under Kikuyu law, these squatters had rights to the land, but the government declared them tenants, who could be evicted at any time. Between 1946 and 1952, an estimated 100,000 squatters were evicted without their livestock. Those evicted and left largely landless began taking oaths of unity, as did some of the unemployed workers in cities.
The Revolt and Its Suppression
As early as 1948, farm workers were attacked for refusing to take the oaths of unity, and by 1951, Conservative elements of Kikuyu society, including chiefs and Christian converts, were urging resistance to Mau Mau oath taking and activities. The first killings occurred in May 1952, when two men accused of cooperating with the government were assassinated. The violence increased rapidly after that point, but the colonial government only fueled the movement when it declared a state of emergency in October 1952 and cracked down heavily on whole communities if anyone among them was suspected of aiding Mau Mau fighters.
In 1952, the more militant nationalists threatened to assassinate the leader of the moderate nationalists, Jomo Kenyatta. The British government, however, believed Kenyatta had control over the movement and blamed him for the assassination of a Conservative chief. He was tried and sentenced to prison until 1961. As he was not actually leading the revolt, this did little to the revolt itself, which continued until 1956.
Kenya became independent on December 12, 1963, seven years after the collapse of the uprising. Many argue that the Mau Mau uprising helped catalyze decolonization as it showed that colonial control could only be maintained through the use of extreme force. The moral and financial cost of colonization was a growing issue with British voters, and the Mau Mau revolt brought those issues to a head.
The fighting between Kikuyu communities, however, made their legacy contentious within Kenya. The colonial legislation outlawing the Mau Mau defined them as terrorists, a designation that remained in place until 2003 when the Kenyan government revoked the law. The government has since established monuments celebrating Mau Mau rebels as national heroes.