Mau Mau - 30 Years Later

By Newsinger, John | Monthly Review, May 1985 | Go to article overview
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Mau Mau - 30 Years Later

Newsinger, John, Monthly Review


The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya that lasted from 1952 until 1960 is virtually unknown in Britain today. This is not an accident. The rebellion was a serious challenge to the position of British imperialism, not only in Kenya but throughout Africa, and it was accordingly crushed with massive repression and bloodshed.

The scale and ferocity of this repression exceed that of any other British post-1945 colonial war, and the whole episode is obviously something best forgotten, best hidden away out of sight. For British and other socialists, however, the heroism and self-sacrifice of the rebels and the methods used to defeat them are things to be remembered and learned from.

It is not only in Britain, though, that the memory of Mau Mau has been excised. The same situation obtains in Kenya itself. Here the defeat of the rebellion enabled the British to hand over power to a coalition of moderate nationalists and outright collaborators. It served the interests of these people to forget the fact that British rule had first been shaken by a great revolutionary mass movement and that without Mau Mau the hold of the white settlers on Kenya would never have ended.

Today, many opponents of the Moi regime look to the Mau Mau experience for inspiration and example. The government has cracked down accordingly, and in the aftermath of the abortive Air Force coup of August 1982 rounded up much of the left.

Among those thrown into prison was the historian Maina wa Kinyatti, whose research has done much to restore popular memory of the Mau Mau rebellion. This was his crime.1

What then was this movement that can still, 30 years later, continue to inspire resistance and alarm and terrify governments?

The Mau Mau rebellion had its origins in the chronic land hunger of the Kikuyu peasantry.

While some one-and-a-quarter million Kikuyu were allowed to hold land only in their 2,000 square miles of Native Reserves, the 30,000 European settlers occupied some 12,000 square miles that included most of the best land. The gross injustice of this state of affairs was borne for a long time, but by the late 1940s there was a growing landless population in the Reserves. Indeed, by 1953 almost half the Kikuyu living in the Reserves were without land.

This situation not only caused hatred of the whites. There was in the Reserves a small but growing "Kulak' class of wealthy peasants, employing the landless as farmhands. This class provided the British with a stratum of loyalist collaborators. Much of the wrath of the Mau Mau was to descend on them.

Many Kikuyu had abandoned the Reserves altogether and in the search for land had gone to live and work on settler farms in the white districts. Such was the shortage of labor that in the 1920s and 1930s they were able to establish themselves as squatters, receiving a patch of land in return for a labor rent. In effect, they were tenant farmers and had a fierce commitment to their own five- or six-acre farms.

Increasingly, however, the settlers tried to transform them into wage laborers, squeezing them off the land. The labor rent for five or six acres was nearly trebled during the 1940s from 90 days work to over 240 days. This met with considerable resentment, and the squatters nursed a ferocious hatred of the whites.2

By the early 1950s all the material necessary for a peasant uprising had accumulated among the rural Kikuyu, and an outbreak of some kind was really only a matter of time.

The banned Kikuyu Central Association launched an oathing campaign to enroll the peasantry in a secret conspiracy against the whites. Secret underground committees were established throughout the Reserves and among Kikuyu squatters in the white districts. It was this movement that the authorities were to christen the "Mau Mau.'

What turned Mau Mau from being merely a peasant jacquerie into a full-scale rebellion against colonial rule was the involvement of the black working class of Nairobi.

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