Updated November 18, 2019
The Mau Mau Rebellion was a militant African nationalist movement active in Kenya during the 1950s. Its primary goal was the overthrowing British rule and removing European settlers from the country. The uprising grew out of anger over British colonial policies, but much of the fighting was between the Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, making up about 20% of the population.
The four main causes of the revolt were:
- Low wages
- Access to land
- Female genital mutilation (FGM)
- Kipande: identity cards that Black workers had to submit to their White employers, who sometimes refused to return them or even destroyed the cards, making it incredibly difficult for workers to apply for other employment
Kikuyu were pressured to take the Mau Mau oath by militant nationalists who were opposed by the conservative elements of their society. While the British believed Jomo Kenyatta to be the overall leader, he was a moderate nationalist threatened by more militant nationalists, who continued the rebellion after his arrest.
August: Mau Mau Secret Society Rumored
Information was filtering in about secret meetings held in the forests outside Nairobi. A secret society called the Mau Mau was believed to have started in the previous year which required its members to take an oath to drive the White man from Kenya. Intelligence suggested that members of the Mau Mau were restricted at the time to the Kikuyu tribe, many of whom were arrested during burglaries in Nairobi’s White suburbs.
August 24: Curfew Imposed
The Kenyan government imposed a curfew in three districts on the outskirts of Nairobi where gangs of arsonists, believed to be members of the Mau Mau, were setting fire to the homes of Africans who refused to take the oath.
October 7: Assassination
Senior Chief Waruhiu was assassinated, stabbed to death by a spear in broad daylight on a main road on the outskirts of Nairobi. He had recently spoken out against increasing Mau Mau aggression against colonial rule.
October 19: The British Send Troops
The British government announced that it would send troops to Kenya to help the fight against the Mau Mau.
October 21: State of Emergency
With the imminent arrival of British troops, the Kenyan government declared a state of emergency following a month of increasing hostility. More than 40 people were murdered in Nairobi during the preceding four weeks and the Mau Mau, officially declared terrorists, acquired firearms to use alongside more traditional pangas. As part of the overall clampdown, Kenyatta, President of the Kenya African Union, was arrested for alleged Mau Mau involvement.
October 30: Arrests of Mau Mau Activists
British troops were involved in the arrest of over 500 suspected Mau Mau activists.
November 14: Schools Closed
Thirtyfour schools in Kikuyu tribal areas are closed as a measure to restrict the actions of Mau Mau activists.
November 18: Kenyatta Arrested
Kenyatta, the country’s leading nationalist leader, was charged with managing the Mau Mau terrorist society in Kenya. He was flown to a remote district station, Kapenguria, which reportedly had no telephone or rail communications with the rest of Kenya, and was held there incommunicado.
November 25: Open Rebellion
The Mau Mau declared open rebellion against British rule in Kenya. In response, British forces arrested over 2000 Kikuyu who they suspect of being Mau Mau members.
January 18: Death Penalty for Administering Mau Mau Oath
Governor-general Sir Evelyn Baring imposed the death penalty for anyone who administers the Mau Mau oath. The oath would often be forced upon a Kikuyu tribesman at knife point, and his death was called for if he failed to kill a European farmer when ordered.
January 26: White Settlers Panic and Take Action
Panic spread through the Europeans in Kenya after the slaying of a White settler farmer and his family. Settler groups, displeased with the government’s response to the increasing Mau Mau threat, created Commando Units to deal with it. Baring announced a new offensive under the command of Major-General William Hinde. Amongst those speaking out against the Mau Mau threat and the government’s inaction was Elspeth Huxley, who compared Kenyatta to Hitler in a recent newspaper article (and would author “The Flame Trees of Thika” in 1959).
April 1: British Troops Kill Mau Maus in Highlands
British troops kill 24 Mau Mau suspects and capture an additional 36 during deployments in the Kenyan highlands.
April 8: Kenyatta Sentenced
Kenyatta is sentenced to seven years hard labor along with five other Kikuyu detained at Kapenguria.
April 10-17: 1000 Arrested
An additional 1000 Mau Mau suspects were arrested around the capital Nairobi.
May 3: Murders
Nineteen Kikuyu members of the Home Guard were murdered by the Mau Mau.
May 29: Kikuyu Cordoned Off
Kikuyu tribal lands were ordered to be cordoned off from the rest of Kenya to prevent Mau Mau activists from circulating to other areas.
July: Mau Mau Suspects Killed
Another 100 Mau Mau suspects were killed during British patrols in Kikuyu tribal lands.
January 15: Mau Mau Leader Captured
General China, the second in command of the Mau Mau’s military efforts, was wounded and captured by British troops.
March 9: More Mau Mau Leaders Captured
Two more Mau Mau leaders were secured: General Katanga was captured and General Tanganyika surrendered to British authority.
March: British Plan
The great British plan to end the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya was presented to the country’s legislature. General China, captured in January, was to write to the other terrorist leaders and suggest that nothing further could be gained from the conflict and that they should surrender to British troops waiting in the Aberdare foothills.
April 11: Failure of the Plan
British authorities in Kenya admitted that the “General China operation” legislature failed.
April 24: 40,000 Arrested
Over 40,000 Kikuyu tribesmen were arrested by British forces, including 5000 Imperial troops and 1000 Policemen, during widespread, coordinated dawn raids.
May 26: Treetops Hotel Burned
The Treetops Hotel, where Princess Elizabeth and her husband were staying when they heard of King George VI’s death and her succession to the throne of England, was burnt down by Mau Mau activists.
January 18: Amnesty Offered
Baring offered an amnesty to Mau Mau activists if they would surrender. They would still face imprisonment but wouldn’t suffer the death penalty for their crimes. European settlers were up in arms at the leniency of the offer.
April 21: Murders Continue
Unmoved by the Baring’s amnesty offer, the Mau Mau killings continued with two English schoolboys killed.
June 10: Amnesty Withdrawn
Britain withdrew the offer of amnesty to the Mau Mau.
June 24: Death Sentences
With the amnesty withdrawn, British authorities in Kenya proceeded with the death sentence for nine Mau Mau activists implicated in the deaths of the two schoolboys.
October: Death Toll
Official reports said that more than 70,000 Kikuyu tribesmen suspected of Mau Mau membership were imprisoned, while over 13,000 people were killed by British troops and Mau Mau activists over the previous three years.
January 7: Death Toll
The official death toll for Mau Mau activists killed by British forces in Kenya since 1952 was said to be 10,173.
February 5: Activists Escape
Nine Mau Mau activists escaped from Mageta island prison camp in Lake Victoria.
July: British Opposition Attacks
The deaths of 11 Mau Mau activists held at Hola Camp in Kenya were cited as part of opposition attacks on the U.K. government over its role in Africa.
November 10: State of Emergency Ends
The state of emergency ended in Kenya.
January 18: Kenyan Constitutional Conference Boycotted
The Kenyan Constitutional Conference in London was boycotted by African nationalist leaders.
April 18: Kenyatta Released
In return for Kenyatta’s release, African nationalist leaders agreed to take a role in Kenya’s government.
Kenya became independent seven years after the collapse of the uprising.
Legacy and Aftermath
Many argue that the Mau Mau uprising helped catalyze decolonization as it showed that colonial control could only be maintained through the use of extreme force. The moral and financial cost of colonization was a growing issue with British voters, and the Mau Mau revolt brought those issues to a head.
However, the fighting between Kikuyu communities made their legacy contentious within Kenya. The colonial legislation outlawing the Mau Mau defined them as terrorists, a designation that remained in place until 2003, when the Kenyan government revoked the law. The government has since established monuments celebrating Mau Mau rebels as national heroes.
In 2013, the British government formally apologized for the brutal tactics it used to suppress the uprising and agreed to pay approximately £20 million in compensation to surviving victims of abuse.