MASSACRE BY MACHETE; Scores Were Hacked to Death and Burned Alive during the Horrific Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya 50 Years Ago This Month. but Was It a Noble Battle for Independence, or a Pointless Slaughter of Both Africans and Whites?

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CREEPING silently into the sleeping village under the darkness of an African night, the armed men from the forests first wrapped electrical cable around the circular thatched huts to secure the doors.

Drenching the thatch with petrol, they set it alight and waited for the screams. As those inside, mostly women and children, frantically tried to escape through the windows, they were set upon with pangas, razor-sharp machetes. The lucky ones died quickly. Others, though mortally wounded, lingered in agony all night long.

This was Kenya at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion which resulted in a State of Emergency being declared 50 years ago this month, and was to become the bloodiest episode in Britain's post-war colonial history. The massacre in the village of Lari, where 97 people died in 1953, was the worst single atrocity of the crisis.

'Mutilated and burned bodies lay around. And, here and there were lopped off limbs,' reported a witness. 'There were children sliced to pieces, and pregnant women with their bellies ripped open, lying among the smouldering ashes.' In all, during the four-year long emergency, more than 12,000 people were killed, the vast majority (around 10,000) were Mau Mau rebels, shot by the forces of the Crown. But there were also 2,000 African victims of the Mau Mau and about 90 white police and soldiers.

Despite a widespread belief in this country that the Mau Mau massacred hundreds of white settlers, in fact only 32 were killed - a lower death toll than that claimed by Nairobi traffic accidents during the same period.

In the years since it has become fashionable in many liberal circles to lionise the Mau Mau as a glorious independence movement which deserves a place alongside guerillas and freedom fighters in other colonies which fought to shake off the yoke of an imperialist oppressor.

The truth was rather different, even if criticisms of the brutal manner in which the rebellion was crushed leave Britain and the white settlers little to celebrate from this terrible, bloody campaign.

The popular image of colonial white settlers in Kenya was immortalised in the film White Mischief, depicting the hedonistic excesses of the Happy Valley set in the so-called White Highlands in the Forties, while Europe was engulfed in war.

While the film exaggerated somewhat, Kenya was certainly an attractive prospect for the Britons who arrived in those years; land was cheap, labour even cheaper and the landscape was stunning.

People who felt they had limited prospects at home - some of them the younger, disinherited sons of wealthy British families - could enjoy an aristocratic lifestyle in Kenya, building ornate mansions, staffed by small armies of servants, playing polo, enjoying hunts for lions and hyenas, rather than foxes.

Those farmers prepared to work enjoyed a good living, but that fact was not lost on black Kenyans who had little or no land, some of whom had fought for Britain in the war.

AMONG the Kikuyu tribe (Kenya's largest ethnic group) particularly, demands for land reform were becoming louder in the late Forties and, going unheeded, they eventually spilled over into the terrible violence of the Mau Mau uprising.

As a campaign of sheer terror, Mau Mau can have had few equals in modern times.

The Mau Mau leaders, in despair over the land question, formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Party, and went about recruitment by preying on the Kikuyu people's religious superstitions and instilling dread into their minds.

They would force villagers to take a blood oath to follow orders on pain of death. Often goats were sacrificed and disembowelled as part of the 'signing up' ceremony, and those taking the oath were left in little doubt as to the unthinkable punishments they would receive for disobedience. …