Mau Mau Uprising: Bloodshed for Kenyan Freedom

Updated: Oct 15

Is there an African nation without bloodshed for freedom? The Mau Mau Uprising is another African history relating to the national activist movement for freedom in Kenya. It was a bloody war of liberation that lasted from 1952 to 1963 and is said to be the foundation of Kenyan independence.


Mau Mau Uprising
British Soldiers Hold Villagers at Gunpoint (Source: Independent)

The British saw Kenya as a vital resource due to its abundant natural resource, fertile farmlands and some credulous locals. These credulous locals served as puppets and facilitated British access to every area of Kenya. They were able to settle down and rule as a result. They denied citizens the right to cultivate lucrative farmlands, access to justice, and subjected them to abhorrent labour conditions and brutal punishments. There were also impartial decisions that resulted in sexual assaults, slavery, or death by hanging or sword.


Of course, no one with ‘conscience’ would bear the sight of the gruesome murder, displacement and torture of their people. These Kenyans saw that their only path to freedom could not be achieved through peaceful means but through violence and this laid the foundation of the bloody war of liberation.


The Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) was then formed by some insurgents, led by Dedan Kimathi, a hero in the pages of African history. It is important to note that the Mau Mau Uprising was initially a student movement before it became a national movement. Kimathi inspired his people that rather than live on their knees with fear of colonial rule, they should die fighting for freedom.


They started first by killing about 2000 Kenyans whose allegiance was to the colonial masters and poisoned cattle owned by anyone deemed their opposition. Gradually, they began to attack small British territories to sound notes of warnings.


The British Governor, Evelyn Baring, then declared a state of emergency and the arrest of any inhabitant causing problems. This was to suppress the rebellions of the KLFA. The declaration was launched by Operation Jock Scott where Jomo Kenyatta (who later became Kenya's first president) and over 137 people were captured. Some African political leaders were also arrested as they were perceived as suspects while some members fled for their lives. About 1000 death sentences and 7500 arrests were recorded during this state of emergency.


On seeing the perseverance of the KLFA, the British implored measures to suppress the movement. They stormed the city of Nairobi, as it was the base of the majority of the Mau Mau, particularly the Kikuyu tribe, and dropped over 6 million bombs. This act displaced up to 50,000 inhabitants.


Another army of about 3,000 troops was released to distant villages and forests to wipe out hesitant Kenyans. This was because the British perceived these places would be hideouts to their opposition. However, they were still not satisfied with these measures.


They created detention camps to separate the rebels and carried out inhumane actions such as forbidding talking publicly, separating family members, and shuffling prisoners among cells. The detainees were used as forced labour and were left with little food and water, leading to the disease outbreak. Consequently, this caused the death of about 50,000 children and many adults.


Those whom the British saw to be stronger were made to live in places enclosed with barbed wires with very tight security. All these were done out of fear of rebellion and violence.


We would say that the British were a tad successful in their attempts as it led to the division between the Kenyans: the Loyalists and the Punitive (as described by the British). The Loyalists were those who pledged allegiance to the Whites so that they could eat well and enjoy the right to live while the Punitives were the hesitant citizens.


Dedan Kimathi and some of his supporters were caught on October 21,1956 and subjected to four trials. They were executed by hanging on February 18,1957.


Kimathi's last words to his wife were, “I have no doubt in my mind that the British are determined to execute me. I have committed no crime. My only crime is that I am a Kenyan revolutionary who led a liberation army. Now, if I must leave you and my family, I have nothing to regret about. My blood will water the tree of Independence.”


Indeed, Kimathi was right. The uprising was a major fundamental cause of the Independence of Kenya. It is recorded that about 11,503 KLFA members were killed.


The capture of major leaders decapitated the remaining members of the KLFA. This marked the defeat of the Mau Mau Rebellion. Slowly, the British overcame the fear of being overthrown but they put in some reforms to maintain authority. Agrarian sectors were made open to the inhabitants, wages were increased, seized lands were restored and political freedom was granted to a few. In the end, the uprising was not in vain.


Thus, October 20 was declared Heroes' Day in Kenya to honour the people that laid the foundation for their freedom.

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