The Mau Mau Uprising, also known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, the Kenya Emergency, and the Mau Mau Revolt, was a war in the British Kenya Colony between the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, also known as Mau Mau, and the British colonists.
Weeks after the declaration of emergency in October of 1952, the colonial government faced widespread condemnation from British settlers in Kenya. The settlers railed at the government for what they termed its “weak” approach in tackling the Mau Mau menace.
Keen to appease the settler community, authorities in Nairobi reached out to London and asked for support from the Royal Air Force. From the Middle East, four-engine Lincoln bombers, which had seen action during World War II, were flown in. The bombers plopped 500-pound bombs in the Aberdares and Mount Kenya forests. Fighter planes were used to strafe suspected hideouts and bomb smaller targets.
Questioning the wisdom of deploying Lincoln bombers in particular, settlers again lashed out at authorities, saying that the bombers were doing nothing more than blowing up trees and herds of elephants. In spite of these criticisms, the bombings persisted. In early 1954, strategists in government hatched some ideas in the hope that they would lead to an end in the fighting. Officials, for example, began toying with the idea of extending terms of surrender – “green branch”, they called it – to Mau Mau “terrorists”. The Air Force was once again called upon to airdrop something else this time: pamphlets containing surrender terms.
These were dropped onto villages across central Kenya. However, through messages relayed to loyalists such as the Kikuyu Home Guard, Mau Mau fighters spurned the amnesty overtures and vowed to fight on. Then a significant event took place in January of 1954. On 15th January 1954, General China aka Warûhiû Itote, leader of 4,000 Mau Mau fighters in Mount Kenya, surrendered to authorities after getting wounded in a gunfight with government troops.
Authorities believed that the capture of Gen. China, a Kings African Rifles (KAR) veteran who saw action during WW2 in Ceylon and Burma, would deal a blow on morale in the Mau Mau ranks. Even lead to mass surrender, they hoped.
Weeks passed. There were no signs fighters were leaving the forest. Meanwhile, the trial of Gen. China, 32, begun.
It was short lived.
He was, within a month of his surrender, found guilty and sentenced to death for “consorting with terrorists”, and for being in possession of two rounds of ammunition. Lawyer A.R. Kapila (pictured with Gen. China) pleaded with the court to have his client granted amnesty under the “green branch” surrender terms.
Terms of this policy were that Mau Mau members surrendering to authorities would not be prosecuted for capital offenses. The judge, citing entries in a diary that was among personal effects Gen. China had with him during surrender, dismissed the pleas, ruling that the Mau Mau leader never had, in the court’s opinion, any intention to surrender. In any case, the Judge further observed, the courts did not recognize police surrender terms. A few days later, however, Gen. China’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. How did this happen? See, there was a government amnesty in place. Somehow, Gen. China convinced police authorities that he could help broker a mass surrender of #MauMau fighters, particularly those on Mount Kenya. Believing it was worth a try, police then rushed to Court to appeal Gen. China’s death penalty. The court subsequently agreed to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. Gen. China was immediately driven away under heavy escort to Nyeri. From here, he sent out a number of letters to Mau Mau leaders, asking them to consider the surrender terms. He was also driven in an armored car to various villages on the edge of the forest where he had personal contacts. Through these contacts, he sent the same message of amnesty to fighters deeper in the forest. The colonial authorities felt encouraged when a few Mau Mau leaders responded favorably to Gen. China’s messages. Some secret meetings between gang leaders and government and military officials took place at some secret rendezvous. From government reports, some of the forest fighters made certain demands as conditions for surrender. Among the demands was for the colonial government to disband the Kikuyu Home Guard. It was not known what other demands were. Nevertheless, the government declined to grant the demands. Those Mau Mau who surrendered, officials said, would not be executed for crimes committed. Instead, they would be imprisoned for an indefinite period. The officials further assured that surrendering fighters would not be mistreated. In response to Mau Mau leaders’ requests, the government called off military patrols in both the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. This was to give time to Mau Mau leaders to consult with their troops. However, if any Mau Mau fighters were spotted in the reserves, the government warned, they would be shot on sight. To this the Mau Mau leaders agreed. Then they went back into the forests. When settlers got wind of the “secret talks”, they were livid. Many stormed administrative stations around central Kenya and Nairobi demanding to know why the colonial government was “bargaining with terrorists”. The Letters To The Editor section of The East Africa Standard was inundated with letters of protest from infuriated settlers. Some settlers, citing the government’s “weakness”, warned that the “terrorists” might even be allowed to take part in national politics. Meanwhile, Gen. China continued to send messages to fighters asking them to surrender. On 7th April 1954, no fewer than a thousand fighters gathered at an edge of Mt. Kenya forest. It was believed that many of them intended to surrender. Just about then, a separate Mau Mau force staged an attack at a nearby village. An army unit, after consulting with the local administration, was sent to respond to the attacks (see pic of KAR soldier armed with a Sten gun patrolling the forest).
Sensing a trap, Mau Mau fighters who intended to surrender melted back into the forests. The government defended itself, claiming that as patrols had been called off, it was not aware of the gathering. Officials blamed the settlers’ reactions for the botched surrender. These reactions, they said, caused Mau Mau fighters to be wary of a trap. There were claims that some sections of the army, wanting to sabotage the mass surrender, deliberately attacked the Mau Mau. Some analysts doubted this assertion, saying that Mau Mau patrols were largely unpopular among army personnel, who couldn’t wait for the fighting to end. The government was also keen to end the fighting.
Meanwhile, all other government initiatives to revive surrender negotiations came a cropper. With the collapse of the mass surrender, the government put hundreds of negotiation intermediaries from the Gîkûyû, Embu and Meru communities under arrest.
Gen. China was put under detention in Lokitaung, where he would later meet with another detainee, Jomo Kenyatta.