20 October in History

This day in 1952 marked the start of the Mau Mau rebellions against the oppressive British rule in Kenya. Mau Mau rebellions are regarded as one of the significant steps taken to gain a free Kenya. The revolts are regarded as one of the bloodiest conflicts in Kenya’s history. The conflict lasted for eight years (1952-1960).

Mau Mau fighters were largely drawn from Kenya’s largest, but economically marginalized, Kikuyu ethnic group. They usually operated from mountains and bushes; however it is also important to note that there were also urban Mau fighters.

Though the exact genesis of the conflict are still contentious, it is believed that the conflict formally began on 20 October when a state of emergency was declared in the colony and reinforcement British troops were deployed from Egypt.   Matters like loss of land to white colonisers, poverty, expulsion of Kikuyu tenants from white farms, and lack of a vicious political representation acted as a catalyst for the revolt.

During the eight year revolt, lots of blood was shed on both sides. It is believed that the conflict resulted in the death of, 32 white settlers, about 200 British police and army soldiers and over 1,800 African civilians and nearly 20,000 Mau Mau fighters were killed. Though these figures are still debatable, it is believed that the uprising had an appearance of a civil war, a view that is unpopular in Kenya today, since most of the violence took part between dissident and stalwart Africans.

Mau Mau fighters recorded one of their best triumphs was during the assault on the families of loyalists Home Guard on 26 March 1953. The assault is commonly referred to as the Lari Massacre. Nearly 74 people were killed, mostly women and children.

Retaliatory measures included, rounding up of Mau Mau fighters and supporters into detention camps, were they could stay for periods between three and seven years without trial. It is believed that large numbers of people were hanged. It is believed that after the Lari Massacre, many locals (Kikuyu) were forced to choose sides in this resistance struggle.

By 1957, Mau Mau resistance was slowly dying and in 1960 the state of emergency was declared as over. Following the rebellion, the British settle government did implement reforms and three years later, Kenya gained its independence from Great Britain.  Jomo Kenyatta, a purported Mau supporter and leader, became the first president of Kenya.

In 2006, former Mau Mau fighters launched legal action against the British government under claims of maltreatment in incarceration camps. It is believed that the first claim for compensation was lodged in 2009 by three elderly Kenyans, with the aid of a London law firm Leigh Day & Co. Prominent people like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu added their voices to the case.

 According to the BBC (2011), The UK government says the claim are not valid because of the amount of time since the abuses were alleged to have happened, and that any liability rested with the Kenyan authorities after independence in 1963.

However, according to a story by Tim Stanley of The Telegraph, ‘the UK government later announced that Kenyans abused by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s will receive compensation totaling £20 million’. This was seen as a major conquest for the Mau Mau fighters.


Sources: BBC News 7 April 2011, UK; Wunyabari O. Maloba, “Kenya: Mau Mau Revolt”; David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire; The Daily Mail, 4 April 2017; The Telegraph, 06 Jun 2013.

Image: Getty Images

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