New Books | Insurgent Empire

The barbarism of Britain’s war in Kenya against the freedom fighters they called ‘Mau Mau’ was built on a fantasy that presented anti-colonial rebellion as demonic in order to justify subjugation.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Priyamvada Gopal’s new book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019). 

In 1953, George Padmore wrote of an impending revolution in Africa. The headache it posed for ruling British politicians was, he averred, a familiar one: “The distinguished Victorian Prime Minister, the Marquis of Salisbury, once asserted that ‘Africa has been created to plague Ministers of Foreign Affairs’. This was never more true than today. For throughout the length and breadth of the once Dark Continent – from Egypt to South Africa, from Kenya to the Gold Coast, not to mention the vast Central African territories of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland – the indigenous races are struggling to throw off the yoke of colonialism and achieve their rightful place as free nations in a free world.”

Padmore was referring to increasingly fractious resistance across Africa, but his specific focus was on what became the most high-profile uprising of the post-war period: “The agitation for self-government is nowhere more dramatically manifested than in Kenya, where the violence of the struggle of the African people against alien domination has captured the attention of the entire world.” For Padmore, Kenya, more than anywhere else other than perhaps South Africa, exemplified the workings of colonialism as a species of fascism. As we have seen, Kenyatta too had made that case in the pages of the New Leader. 

Detailing the expropriation of hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile Kikuyu land in that country, Padmore emphasised the ways in which punitive taxation, forced labour and widespread impoverishment were constitutive features of colonial rule in Kenya. Here “democracy is interpreted as the right of a small white minority to rule an overwhelming black majority who have been denied all right of free political expression”. Governance was based “upon the Herrenvolk philosophy of ‘white supremacy’”, such that the colour bar and discrimination operated in every aspect of public and social life.

Related article:

Direct responsibility for the state of unrest in Kenya lay with the European settlers, “aided and abetted” by the colonial administration. What the world was witnessing in Kenya was “a spontaneous revolt of a déclassed section of the African rural population”, which had been given the mysterious name of “Mau Mau” by white settlers. The name itself had been invented “to discredit the Africans and justify the white man’s legalised terror against a once peaceful and long suffering people”. 

The uprising which unfolded in Kenya in the early 1950s had indeed begotten a mythology all its own. In the British cultural and political imagination, “Mau Mau” had become a code word for demonic violence in excess of all justification. Novelists Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley, for instance, both wrote lurid popular fiction evoking what the latter famously called “the yell from the swamp”. Ruark’s evocation of “a symptomatic ulcer of the evil and unrest which currently afflicts the world”, meaning anticolonial unrest, is not untypical of either colonial fiction or media representations of Mau Mau.

As Frederick Cooper observes, “Confronted with an opposition that was fundamental and violent, the dualism of British thinking about African society – imagining the modern while fearing the primitive – virtually became a schizophrenia, and like true madness, it had its own meticulous logic and its insistence that it was the Other who was mad. The savagery of British counterterrorism in Kenya was built against a belief that the terrorist was a savage.”

The representation of Mau Mau as a phenomenon that evaded all understanding and explanation, David Maughan-Brown suggests, had an expedient material basis to it: “the settlers” justificatory ideology could not allow any admission of legitimate social and economic grievances, so a set of myths had to be elaborated to account for the revolt. If the causes of the revolt could not be social or economic they must be psychological – a belief that resulted in the officially commissioned government report by JC Carothers, The Psychology of Mau Mau. In another work, Maughan-Brown argues that even liberal discourse in Britain was fully in thrall to the language of poison, insanity and disease that prevailed in relation to Mau Mau.

Related article:

He is not wrong, and his examples are persuasive: The Manchester Guardian referred to “the liberation of the Kikuyu people … from the virus of Mau Mau”, while Kingsley Martin, often thought of as an imperial dissident, wrote of the oath of unity as “nasty mumbo jumbo”. With the exception of writings in the Daily Worker, the only consistently critical engagement with white settler discourse, many on the left “also showed themselves convinced of the accuracy of the settlers’ views of the movement, even while repudiating the justice of the settlers’ cause”.

And yet there was more to it. Despite the seeming hegemony of anti-insurgent discourse, Mau Mau and its attendant crises paradoxically also served to highlight wider resistance to colonial injustices in Kenya, and therefore the fragility of the paternalism that underlay increasingly desperate-sounding discourses of trusteeship. In a curious way, the violence and undoubted brutality of much Mau Mau activity, even if often exaggerated, enabled the emergence of an understanding that there was also wider resistance to settler colonialism in Kenya. 

The Mau Mau insurgency and concomitant metropolitan crisis of conscience helped British dissenters to make the case for Kenyan self-government and eventual independence – one that could not be delayed for much longer.

The historical background

Prior to the uprising, undoubtedly the most notorious anticolonial crisis of the post-war era, when there were many, Kenya had indeed largely been figured as “the land of sunshine, gin slings and smiling, obedient servants” and “of benign white paternalism and accepting black subservience”. For the bulk of Kenya’s white settlers, apartheid South Africa was the model polity; as they set about demanding more self-governance in the immediate post-war years, they “campaigned against enhanced political representation for Africans, pushed themselves into key roles in the management of the colonial economy, and tightened their grip over local and municipal governments”. 

The movement that came to be known as “Mau Mau” was the culmination of many years of resistance by those dispossessed of their lands and put to work on European farms. At the heart of the grievances – which also included low wages, racist passbooks known as kipande and lack of electoral representation – was “land hunger”, large swathes of arable land coming under settler occupation while poor Kenyans, mainly Kikuyu, lived economically deprived lives in “reserves”, or tiny plots on settler land which they worked. The complex causes and layered constitution of the network of insurgency that underlay the uprising have been the subject of a substantial body of scholarship. 

The roots of the uprising lay in the post-war intensification of fear and anxiety among “squatters” – the misleadingly named communities of farm labour who worked settler plantations and faced intensification of repressive measures to contain them – and the resistance they frequently put up to exploitative regimes of labour extraction. As “vast estates were expropriated and then largely underutilised”, squatters became increasingly aware of the injustices they faced, “especially since open intimidation, physical floggings and general ill-treatment were part and parcel of their day-to-day lives”. Particular resentment was caused by increasingly aggressive kifagio, or settler attempts to dispossess squatters and severely limit how much stock they could keep and how much personal cultivation they could do. 

Related article:

Much as had happened in the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica less than a hundred years before, squatter resistance, including strikes and refusals to sign contracts, was often shaped by rumours of working conditions, which could be equated to enslavement or near-enslavement. Low-waged labourers’ refusal to be acquiescent was met with forced removals from the land into already overcrowded reserves; petitioning the government and the Colonial Office proved to be of little use. Much of this resistance was channelled through an organisation known as the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), which began as an informal network of contacts and “acquired a relative degree of coherence in the 1940s” after it was declared illegal by the colonial government.

In the late 1940s, to cement loyalty to the KCA and step up the drive to obtain land rights, a campaign of “oathing” – a practice drawing on existing secret societies and their rituals in rural communities – was intensified; this is what became most famously associated with Mau Mau, the subject of much lurid speculation and demonic mythology in Britain. A younger, more militant wing of the banned KCA – now merged with the Kenya African Union (KAU), led by Jomo Kenyatta – sought to “extend oathing on a mass scale to escalate resistance” and emphasise unity. As a split between moderates and the more militant hardened, by late 1947, and repression intensified – culminating in the arrest of evicted Kikuyu squatters from the Olenguruone area – the oathing campaign sought to bind Kikuyu people “behind an as yet undefined radical action”. Kenyatta and others would caution against drastic measures such as burning the kipande, which several did at public meetings, but the idea of militant underground protest was steadily gaining traction. It was at Olenguruone that “rural resistance – disobedience of orders, refusal to make agreements – reached a new level and where a new idiom was found”. Here emerged a new oath to fight enemies, “based on older Kikuyu traditions but modified in its contents and in its social significance”, administered across ages and genders. 

In the spring of 1952, in the face of increased state and settler repression – which included severely limiting the amount of land and stock squatters could own, as well as evictions of troublemakers – armed resistance emerged. Attacks and sabotage began on settler properties and cattle even as Kenyatta toured the Highlands speaking of political change. Assassinations and disappearances of police witnesses and headmen perceived to be collaborating with the government began to take place. While a small number of white settlers and colonial officials perished in the violence, by far the largest number of deaths was those of Africans deemed to be British “loyalists”. Treating the resistance initially as just labour unrest with traditional practices attached to it, the colonial government worsened the situation by increased repression and indiscriminate preventive detentions. On 20 October 1952, the notorious State of Emergency was declared: if the possibility for legal and “peaceful” protests had always been severely limited, now the turn to guerrilla warfare became inevitable.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.