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3 February 2021

From the NS archive: Report on Mau Mau

23 January 1954: A brutal uprising in Kenya.

By RHS Crossman

The Labour politician Dick Crossman was in Kenya to gather information about the Mau Mau rebellion. The uprising was an attempt by a loose coalition of indigenous tribes to overthrow British rule and was marked by vicious atrocities and reprisals. Crossman found a fractured response by the British authorities and local defence forces under their control. Too many Home Guard troops and reservists were unreliable, too few British commanders understood the Kikuyu people or spoke the local languages. Repression seemed a blunt and counterproductive influence. White Kenya “can only save itself from destruction”, thought Crossman, “by abdicating its privileges while there is still time.”


After more than a year of repression, mass arrests and detentions and large-scale military operations, the mysterious grip of Mau Mau over a million Kikuyu has been somewhat strengthened and may, indeed, be spreading to other tribes. Armed gangs are still at large in the Kikuyu Reserve, which stretches over 120 miles of lovely foothills and ravines from snow-capped Mt Kenya to Nairobi itself. Oathing is still taking place: one ceremony was staged while I was there, just behind the municipal buildings in Nairobi, and another in the housing estate reserved exclusively for government officials. Despite every effort to form the loyalists into a Kikuyu Home Guard, only a minority of the tribe are willing to collaborate with the security forces. Yet, as everyone in authority, from General Erskine to Michael Blundell, eagerly pointed out to me, the emergency has developed into a civil war, which can only be ended when the Kikuyu themselves decide to stamp out Mau Mau: the white man cannot do the job by himself. Gone are the times when it was fashionable to say that all talk of reform must be postponed until after the emergency has been ended. Whatever else it has done, Mau Mau has shaken the settlers out of their escapism into a bewildered realisation that they have chosen to make their lives among millions of Africans, who possess the power to destroy them, and whose minds they have never bothered to begin to understand.

Mr Michael Blundell’s liberalism may still be largely a matter of good intentions. But when he talks about Kenya as a nation composed of three races, which must learn to work together, he is expressing a tardy mental revolution, which is stirring most of his electors. In successive waves since Lloyd George’s 1910 Budget they came to Kenya in protest against the decadence of the Old Country, which was mollycoddling its workers. Here they hoped to lead a free, pioneering life, untrammelled by socialist taxation, labour restrictions and high wages. Now, with urgently needed new capital scared away by the emergency, and obscene murder lurking in the byre or in the kitchen, they suddenly realise that this dream has been shattered. As Mr Vasey, shrewdest of all the settler politicians, put it to me, “We should really think ourselves lucky that this trouble started among the Kikuyu, the most domesticated and unwarlike of all the Africans. Imagine what would have happened if it had been one of the martial tribes, from which the police and the army are recruited! Unless we can end it quickly, it is bound to spread to them.”

But how is it to be ended? So far repression, though it may possibly have prevented terrorism from spreading, has aggravated the disease. Almost every Kikuyu leader who could possibly have influenced the tribesmen towards moderation has been gaoled or detained without charge. Into the Reserve, which was already desperately over-populated before the emergency, have been flung 120,000 destitute Kikuyu, many of them bonded farm labour from the White Highlands. British troops, after months of monotonous patrolling, have cleaned up the hide-outs in the dense forests of the Aberdares and Mt Kenya, but, by doing this, they have driven the gangs back into the Reserve itself and, if things get rough there, as General Erskine remarked to me, they have only to take a bus and disappear into Nairobi, whose Kikuyu population has swollen from 30,000 to 85,000.

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I caught a glimpse of the ghastly problem of the Reserve when I asked to spend a day in a really tough spot and was taken to Kangema. The country here is deliciously pretty, with its trout streams and hillsides so steep that the Kikuyu word for a village is a “ridge”. I first visited a Home Guard fortress, constructed of mud and wattle, with a deep moat and bamboo palisade. Inside were living a few destitute loyalists, unable to sally out and cultivate their plots a few hundred yards away. As we approached Kangema, the Home Guard turned out in our honour, some 70 tribesmen in old greatcoats and armed with spears and a few ancient rifles. Here, inside barbed wire, were huddled the command post of the Black Watch, the police and two Home Guard units composed of Kikuyu who had refused to sign the oath and the other of ex-Mau Mau. They refuse to speak to each other, the young District Officer (DO) told me.

Here too a couple of missions had taken refuge and there was a stockade into which all the cattle of the district for five miles round are driven each night. “The Home Guard are feeling pretty hot today,” remarked the DO. “The Chief’s brother was disembowelled last week, and the body was discovered by the roadside yesterday.” “How can you trust the Home Guard?” I asked him. “I have to know each man personally,” he said, “and that means knowing Kikuyu, not merely Swahili. One has to live here with them and fight their battles to have any chance against the three local gangs.”

“Villagisation” is the new method that is now being cautiously applied. Normally the Kikuyu do not live in villages, but are scattered over the countryside on their plots. At the cost of disrupting their whole life, they are now being ordered to concentrate into villages for more adequate control. It takes only one day to build a village, and I watched the women cutting the wattle and dragging it up the ridge, while their men, who do not believe in menial work, looked on. “One good sign is that I have had one or two requests for villagisation,” said the DO.This may mean that they want some protection from the gangs. But we shan’t achieve much until we can make sure that the Home Guard is a real Home Guard and not merely a counter-gang, carrying out its vendettas, and until we can offer it something to fight for. Remember, they are destitute when they come in. It’s taken me four months to get them a blanket each and remission of taxation.”

All that afternoon we took part in a hopelessly confused operation against a gang, 200 strong, which had been found in a wood. By lunch time the wood was surrounded by the cooks and pipe band of the Black Watch, by a unit of the special striking force and of the Kenya Police, and by two of the Home Guard units. All except one man escaped by crawling through the cordon into a marsh. I overheard a furious altercation between a Black Watch officer and the DO. “What the hell were your Home Guard units doing?” “They packed in after lunch and went off with my wireless set,” said the officer, while the young Englishman commanding the police special unit stood silent. “And what were they doing with your wireless set?” replied the DO. “Oh, I gave it them to carry.” “When will you realise that the Home Guard are fighting troops and not carriers for white men?” said the DO. As we motored away, he remarked to me: “How can one run this show? Did you notice that neither of those officers spoke a word of Kikuyu or more than a sentence of Swahili?”

All the same, my impression, after a morning conference with District Officers from the whole Fort Hall area, is that the position in the Reserve is improving. Provided they get effective backing from Nairobi, this tiny band of Kikuyu-speaking Englishmen should be able to get the police firmly under control, to clean up the Home Guard, which is still inclined to act as a counter gang, and so to win the confidence of the tribe. In doing this, they have the great advantage of relying mainly on British troops. In Nairobi, several settler politicians complained to me that our soldiers did not have their heart in the job and that Gurkhas would get it done more quickly. If they meant that, unlike the Kenya Police, our men had no old scores to pay off, I hope they were right. Indeed, I was deeply touched by something which was said to me on the only occasion when I managed to have a free and informal talk with a small number of prominent Africans. For five hours I listened to horrifying stories of atrocities by the police and the Home Guard, and from the African point of view, there seemed to be so little difference between the Mau Mau terror and the police counter-action. At the end I said: “But you haven’t mentioned the British troops.” “Oh, but we regard them as protectors,” I was told; and someone added: “We like them in the Reserve, because they are the first white men we have ever seen work with their hands.”

Everything I learned convinced me that in the short run (that is, in order to round up the terrorist gangs), the most urgent requirement is to give General Erskine authority to clean up the police and the Home Guard. I discussed this at length with Colonel O’Rourke, the benign and extremely likeable Commissioner of Police. He made no attempt to pretend that all was well. Since the emergency began, the police force had been hastily enlarged, until it now includes 10,000 whole-time policemen and 11,000 armed reservists. No one denies that, before the British troops arrived, lynch law was widely prevalent, and many policemen are now in prison for excesses committed last spring. Neither the new white officers nor the new African “other ranks” have been adequately trained. Far too often they still take justice into their own hands, torturing or killing prisoners while trying to escape. And when an African does pluck up the courage to take court action against the police, the witnesses usually refuse to testify for fear of disappearing into detention camps.

In the Reserve, where the police take their lead from the DOs, the position is improving. It is in Nairobi that the real trouble is to be found. Here the cost of living is high, and the living allowances for the police, which were asked for months ago have not yet been approved. Moreover, Mau Mau is in almost complete control of the African population. Months ago Africans were told that it was their patriotic public duty to refuse to travel by bus. Since then none of them have done so, and the Kenya bus company has laid off the eighty conductors and drivers of all bus lines running to the African location. Mau Mau also controls most of the African economic life. O’Rourke told me that a few days ago he discovered that the old Kikuyu who sat outside police headquarters selling sweets and cigarettes from a basket was paying Mau Mau 2s a week; and similar levies arc made on most Indian and African shopkeepers and on all African casual labourers in search of a job. These levies are then used to corrupt the police, and even to buy arms from them. Nairobi, in fact, is a black Chicago, with Mau Mau leaders playing the role of Al Capone, and the police regarded by the African as his traditional enemy.

Yet, even if fear of police terror can be removed from the mind of the African, and he can be persuaded to co-operate against Mau Mau, the long-term problem remains unsolved. Progressive British officials, of whom there are quite a number in Nairobi, assured me that, though most Kikuyu disapprove of Mau Mau methods, they share its objective of getting rid of the white man from their country. And no wonder. After all, British rule has meant for them the imposition of a three-tier racial state, with the white Herrenvolk at the top, owning the White Highlands and running everything; with the Indians in the middle, monopolising commerce and skilled craftsmanship; and the African right at the bottom, a squatter in his own country. Land hunger, which the Royal Commission is now examining, is, of course, the basic problem; and unless the large uncultivated areas of the White Highlands are opened up for African settlement, Mau Mau, even if it is successfully suppressed, will be followed by other resistance movements.

But, in addition to land hunger, there is another equally important motive, the African’s longing for the status of a free man and his rejection of a Christian civilisation which, at every point in social, political and economic life, treats him as an Untermensch. As a wise leader of the Indian community put it to me, “In India when we were struggling to be free, we could derive strength from our ancient art and culture. The African has no civilisation to fall back on. His tribal society destroyed by your officials, his rituals and dances forbidden by your missionaries, the only protest he can make is to revert to barbarism.”

If my Indian friend is right, Mau Mau is only the first of these compulsive African protests. The fact that its obscenities have so far been met only by brutal and completely uncomprehending repression has intensified the racial hatred which is tearing Kenya apart. In South Africa the white Herrenvolk is big enough to hold its own in a race war for many years. In Kenya, and indeed all East Africa, it can only save itself from destruction by abdicating its privileges while there is still time. But that means giving up the dream of white ascendency; and, though there are stirrings of conscience in Nairobi, I met no one who seriously contemplated doing that.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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