Term Paper: Mau Revolt in Kenya

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¶ … Mau Mau - Contrasting Views of an African Rebellion

John Lonsdale writes in the Journal of African History that while the legacy of the Mau Mau has lived in British memory "...as a symbol of African savagery," modern Kenyans are divided over whether the Mau Mau represented a "militant nationalism" against England, or just a kind of "tribalist thuggery." Which one was it - thuggery or militant nationalism? This paper will look at several views that Europeans held regarding Mau Mau activities before, during, and following the bloody "Emergency" conditions in Kenya in the 1950s. The view of the Mau Mau during the colonial crisis from 1952 through the decade, and the view of scholars vis-a-vis Mau Mau in hindsight, are two dramatically different perspectives, and they will be reviewed here.

BRIEF HISTORY: Meanwhile, Colonial British authorities first became aware of the Mau Mau movement in 1948, Lonsdale explains (394), and the colonial government "banned" the Mau Mau in 1950. But in the succeeding years a war between England and the Mau Mau exploded; the British sent a full infantry division against the Mau Mau, with six "King's African Rifles (KAR) battalions," five British battalions plus Royal Air Force bombers. The British army pulled back in late 1956 after a war that lasted four years, and the question still looms as to whether or not the Mau Mau rebellion in fact forced the British to grant Kenyans their majority rule.

Lonsdale's essay attempts to explain the Mau Mau movement, and not whether or not the British were driven out of Kenya by the Mau May (also known as the Kikuyu movement). The ruling principle of the Kikuyu, Lonsdale writes (395), was "local government run mad," and as a group they were not united. They were a "mutually hostile" people and some members demanded "hidden, factional loyalty to persons often unknown, outside the immediate locality, on pain of death." Imagine a movement where militancy prevailed, and "authority and energy were ill matched" (Lonsdale 395), and you are coming close to understanding Mau Mau motives and style of leadership. And moreover, "mutually apprehensive ignorance ruled" while competition was "secret, not public, since the main issue was not social honour but effective action," Lonsdale explains.

Lies and intrigue flourished" in the Mau Mau culture, while in the white culture there was a "united front of counter-insurgency" against the Mau Mau; and that front damned all of the Mau Mau "savagery which, all agreed, had to be destroyed."

What exactly was this form of Mau Mau savagery? In Lonsdale's article he quotes American journalist John Gunther's description of the Mau Mau killings as "...peculiarly atrocious" (Lonsdale 398). Gunther went on to explain that victims might be "chopped to bits" for "security's sake," since all "gang members" (e.g., Mau Mau members) had to join in "and share the guilt" of the slaughter. In some cases the Mau Mau gouged out the "accusing eyes" of their victims, due to the Mau Mau's superstitious nature.

But the Mau Mau were not alone in savagery during the period 1948-1956; first of all, Lonsdale suggests that the Kikuyu "were forced into" unity by the "first fury of repression" by the British. And as to the evil and bloody Mau Mau deeds regarding their brand of slaughter, the British don't get off scot-free either. The British army had a habit of "severing the hands of insurgents killed in action, to save the labour of carrying their bodies away to be identified by finger print." In other words, so-called civilized soldiers saved time and trouble by just hacking off the hands of those enemy killed.

How many were killed? The Mau Mau reportedly lost 12,590 "dead in action or by hanging" of the four busiest years of the war, Lonsdale writes on page 398. Some 164 British troops and police were killed in that same time frame, "most of them Africans." The article by Lonsdale reports that 1,880 civilians were killed. And what is also interesting in this article is the various "oaths" that the Kikuyu had to take to become bonded - unified - against the repressive British colonial power. On page 399, Lonsdale writes that "...it was reliably reported" that recruits joining the Mau Mau in their war against the British were obliged to swallow a stew of mutton or goat, containing vegetables and cereals, "sprinkled with soil, marinated in goat's blood, watched by uprooted sheep's eyes transfixed on thorns." And as the war dragged on, other oaths were required, including "masturbation in public, the drinking of menstrual blood, unnatural acts with animals," and even cutting off "...the penis of dead men" (Lonsdale 399).

MAU MAU MYTH vs. REALITY: How much of what has been written is myth, and how much is truth, regarding the Mau Mau? Dane Kennedy writes in the International Journal of African Historical Studies (Kennedy 1992) that the Mau Mau movement became "encrusted by layers of political myth." Kennedy asserts that authors Carl G. Rosberg and John Nottingham (the Myth of "Mau Mau") "smashed the hitherto reigning myth" of the Mau Mau movement. Kennedy believes that the "earliest and most potent political myth" about the Mau Mau resulted from "the highly influential colonialist view of the Kikuyu revolt as a pathological reaction to the pressures of modernization" (243). Kennedy points out that the Kikuyu (he spells it "Gikuyu") culture had many elements, including Christians, traditionalists, landowners and tenants, squatters in the white highlands and taxi drivers in Nairobi.

And so to stereotype that group (only a small portion of whom were loyal Mau Mau members) was grossly unfair, Kennedy warns. Also, as to what the Mau Mau meant to various white sectors of the Kenyan population, Kennedy said that to the white farmers in the Rift Valley, the businessmen in Nairobi and agricultural development officers, the Mau Mau meant "...such things as gangster assaults on persons and property, trade unionism in disguise, peasants' retrogressive resistance to progress, and a communist conspiracy."

The Mau Mau was a different breed of cat to the settler politicians who had demanded that the British colonial government to "declare a state of emergency" in 1952, in response to "growing evidence" of unrest and violence within the Kikuyu community, Kennedy writes (244). That group saw Mau Mau as "...the dreaded rise of West African-styled nationalism"; or as he quotes from a European Elected Members Association memo, the Mau Mau represented "The deterioration in co-operation between the people and the Administration."

On October 20, 1952, the British colonial government issued an "Emergency" in response to growing incidents of violence from the Mau Mau and Kikuyu communities. This launched "the full-scale politicization of the crisis," Kennedy writes, and also at that time the meaning of Mau Mau was "pulled" into several "pools of consensus."

CONTRASTING VIEWS of MAU MAU in FIRST YEARS of the EMERGENCY:

VIEW #1: EXTREMISTS: One view of the Mau Mau came from an "extremist" group; this group regarded the issue as a "racial struggle for paramountcy, pure and simple" (Kennedy 245). For this group, the Mau Mau represented the efforts of a "small group of politically ambitious and morally debase Gikuyu agitators" who were supported and "abetted" by communists from India or the Soviet Union. That small group was playing a power game and planned to "tap into the latent savage core of the African character..." Kennedy explained on 245 of his essay. And if it weren't for the "stern discipline of European authority," this small band of misfits would orchestrate and unleash the "brutal anarchic instincts" of the African nation.

This particular "extremist" European group would not listen to arguments that the Mau Mau and Gikuyu people in any way are justified in their resentment to domination by a foreign colonial power, Kennedy continued. The "economic resentment," "social dislocation or psychological anxiety" that these Africans may well have been justified in experiencing (European master vs. African servant), resulting from their oppression at the hands of the British, was not an acceptable explanation from the point-of-view of this particular group in Europe. The Mau Mau and agitators among the Gikuyu have passions of "hate and inferiority" and they plan to radicalize all the Gikuyu, "smash the whites" and dominate Africa, according to this point-of-view. Indeed, the European extremists in Kenya (along with like-minded whites back in Europe) wanted to go to war during the Emergency condition by capturing the "forest fighters" (Mau Mau) and decapitating their leaders in public killings. Any suggesting that the Gikuyu should be allowed more political representation, should be given more agricultural opportunities or that the ban on black people going to bars should be lifted, was, to the extremist group, "a great racial betrayal, a subversive subvention of Mau Mau," Kennedy writes (245).

VIEW #2: LIBERAL PATERNALISTS: This group, while just as adamant that Europeans were racially superior to Africans, took a less radical position, and believed that the West could "transmit" its values to Africans in good time. This post-WWII group… [END OF PREVIEW]

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