To what extent was Mau Mau resistance against colonial
To what extent was Mau Mau resistance against colonial
For many people, the name Mau Mau still conjures up images of brutality and primitivism, even today nearly half a century after the Mau Mau uprising took place. Furthermore, the Mau Mau are still probably amongst the best known African group in the United Kingdom, although nowadays few people actually understand the events which lead to the Mau Mau resistance. Indeed, even at the time of the uprising (1950s), most British people had no first-hand knowledge of events, and were therefore prevented from making objective judgements about the causes of the resistance movement. It was therefore easy for the colonial government to sway public opinion about the Mau Mau, giving them a mythical reputation amongst Westerners.
It could be claimed however that public feeling was justifiably strong, as expatriate British citizens were killed, stock was maimed and settler farms attacked, leaving many colonial farmers living in fear. However, this must be seen in relation to the overall State of Emergency (1952-1956), in which 13,000 Africans were killed, compared with only 90 British, of whom just 30 were civilians (Cowen, 1989). The reasons behind the resistance movement were greatly distorted by colonial reports however. The colonial government, in order to justify their imperialist motives, had to depict the Mau Mau in a negative light. The Movement was most often portrayed as being a reaction to Britain's attempts to modernise the country (which were, of course, admirable according to government propaganda) and a reflection of the native peoples' inability to cope with a modern lifestyle. According to a parliamentary delegation to Kenya, during the Emergency:
"Mau Mau intentionally and deliberately seeks to lead the Africans of Kenya back to bush and savagery, not forward into progress."
It was said to be a movement based on primitive emotions, rather than intellect, and would require the "rehabilitation" of Africans (Rosberg and Nottingham, 1966). All in all:
"It was seen primarily as a barbarous, atavistic and anti-European tribal cult whose leaders planned to turn Kenya into a land of "darkness and death"."
(Rosberg and Nottingham, 1966)
From the time of the Emergency (1952) until Independence in the 1960s, the colonial administration enjoyed an almost complete monopoly over means of communication and publicity from Kenya, and so this viewpoint became firmly entrenched in the British (and world) opinion of the Mau Mau. More recently however, ex-members of the Mau Mau have been able to give their view of the Movement, and the events leading up to it. They, not surprisingly, represent the Mau Mau movement in a completely different light - as a freedom fight, struggling against political oppression, and as:
".... a modern and rational political movement."
In recent years, several historical studies have also been undertaken to try to explain the background to the events which occurred in the mid-1950s. It is vital to understand this background to the uprising before an objective and unemotional conclusion about the true motives of the Mau Mau can be reached. I will therefore begin by giving a brief history of colonial Kenya, before embarking on an argument about the true motives of the Mau Mau.
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The History of Colonial Kenya
The colonial period in Kenya really began in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century, as the British began to move into the area in large numbers. The greatest concentration of British colonists settled in the south-west of Kenya (an area since labelled the "White Highlands") as they saw a sparsely-populated area with a temperate climate and therefore considerable agricultural potential. The construction of the Ugandan Railway in 1902 opened up the area to large-scale settlement and so huge tracts of land were converted into settler farms. Although much of this land was uninhabited and cleared by the settlers themselves, a considerable amount was also expropriated from Africans, who were then confined within Reserves. The Kikuyu tribe were those most often alienated from their land, as Kikuyuland directly bordered the White Highlands, and the story of the Mau Mau is largely their story.
Initially however, the British and Africans lived alongside one another relatively peacefully. Most of the White farmers had more land than they could efficiently utilise and so they allowed Africans to farm on their land in a form of sharecropping, known as Kaffir Farming. Although this was by no means just compensation for having confiscated land in the first place; according to Cowen (1989) many Africans were willing to co-operate as it meant that they did not have to clear their own plot - a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Furthermore, as Kikuyuland became more and more densely populated this system of squatting, provided an easy opportunity for people to leave the overcrowded heartlands and start a new life.
For the first few years of the system therefore, families could continue to make a good living and so the coming of the British was initially not associated with a drop in living standards. Indeed, during the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s the British actively encouraged African agricultural production for the export market, as a way of preserving Kenya's fiscal base. The expertise of colonial Agricultural and Veterinary Departments therefore became available to Africans and Europeans alike (Throup, 1985) and giving a major boost to local agriculture.
It was during the Second World War however that discontentment began to brew. With the outbreak of war, agriculture finally became prosperous once again and so settler incomes increased, aided by the Agriculture Production and Settlement Board which ensured that European interests continued to be served. Furthermore, with the loss of many colonial administrators to the war effort, White settlers began to be given positions of power which, previously, had not been open to them. The power of White settlers therefore increased, both economically and politically. Once the war was over, it proved impossible to shift the balance of power away again, since the colonial Administration relied on the good will and taxes of the settlers to further Britain's colonial aspirations. Colonial settlers therefore steadily became a more and more powerful force.
At the same time however, Kikuyu entrepeneurs were also increasing their power and wealth, under the favourable conditions. This new African elite posed a double threat to the stability of Kenya. It threatened the settlers' monopoly of power and their "autonomous domain of the White Highlands"; whilst also challenging the political authority of chiefs and traditional elders within the Reserves (Throup, 1973). This increasing social differentiation started to cause unrest within the Reserves. According to Throup (1973), the colonial government's reaction exacerbated the situation, as it hedged its bets by supporting both of these powerful groups:
"Because of the Government's failure to decide in the 1930s which side it was going to support, settler and Kikuyu accumulators were on a collision course during the 1940s."
Three competing groups were therefore set against one another, but of these the least advantaged was always the ordinary Kikuyu people, whom the Administration ignored because of their lack of political power.
The real breaking point came with the enforcing of the Resident Native Labour Ordinance in the post-war period. This act had been introduced in 1937 to allow farmers to remove squatters from their land. It was only in 1945 however, with the return of soldiers and high crop prices, that settlers could afford to manage more and more of their farms for themselves. They could therefore afford to utilise all of their land for cash crops, and so wanted to convert the Kikuyu from tenant farmers to wage labourers. The Resident Native Labour Ordinance allowed them to do just that. It gave District Councils (which were run by settlers) the ability to pass measures to control squatting. Squatter cultivation was reduced to a maximum of just 1-2 hectares per family and, in most areas, herd sizes were restricted to ten sheep or goats and no cattle (Europeans wanted the Africans' disease-ridden cattle to be wiped out, so that it would not affect their stock). Squatters' incomes plummeted. In Naivasha District Council Area for instance, the Labour Department estimated that income per family dropped from an average of 1,400 Shillings in 1942 to just 300 Shillings in 1946. As Furedi (1974) described:
"Through the well known mechanisms of land alienation, taxation and forced labour, the Kikuyu were swiftly integrated into the colonial cash economy."
By 1953, almost half of the population of Kikuyu Reserves had no land (Buijtenhuis, 1971).
There was however, widespread support for this campaign, both in Britain and in Kenya. Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, saw it as an opportunity to increase efficiency by reorganising Kikuyu peasants into Soviet-style collectives in the White Highlands; while Kenyatta (the leader of the Kenya Africa Union (KAU)) wanted to remove squatters and thereby:
"...release the racial constraints that inhibited the thrust of indigenous capitalism."
Understandably, the Kikuyu did not see the move in quite such a favourable light. The Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), a branch of the KAU representing Kikuyu interests, therefore organised strikes which began in August, 1946 and rapidly spread throughout the White Highlands. White farms began to be attacked - farmers were killed, cattle maimed and farm machinery destroyed. This movement quickly collapsed however, owing to a lack of power and co-ordination. Nevertheless, the District Councils continued to encourage the removal of squatters from farms and the restriction of the land area they could farm. Owing to the overcrowding of Kikuyu heartlands, and the fact that many of the squatters were now second generation, most of these dispossessed Kikuyu had nowhere to go however. A stream of squatters therefore began to flow back to Kikuyuland and Nairobi.
In 1947, the Nairobi Municipal African Affairs Officer acknowledged that over 16,000 homeless Africans lived in Nairobi. The gap between rich and poor widened and militancy increased. Kinship ties became very important as a means of survival and so oaths of allegiance began to appear. This oathing acted as yet another threat to Europeans, who saw it as both primitive and militant. By May 1950, Nairobi was acting as a co-ordinating centre for Kikuyu militants, controlling campaigns in Kikuyuland and the Rift Valley. These campaigns were largely guerrilla warfare from the forests of Aberdere and Mount Kenya, acting against isolated White farmsteads. On the 20th of October, 1952, a State of Emergency was declared. On this day too, Kenyatta was arrested as leader of the Mau Mau, although it is now widely accepted that his activities did not directly support them. This arrest may have been a genuine mistake or a search for a scapegoat. The ultimate result was however, that Kenyatta's image was rehabilitated (after he had fallen from favour, having been seen as a colonial puppet) as he was seen as a martyr to the cause. Eventually, on his release, he was able to take up the presidency of independent Kenya and mediate between the different groups within Kenya, as well as the British. Kenya's independence in the early 1960s therefore proved to be the eventual solution to the problems:
So Was Mau Mau Resistance a Response to Colonial Economic Policies or Merely to Colonial Rule?
As can be seen from the discussion above, a wide variety of factors contributed to the Mau Mau uprising. I would argue however that, although the imposition of colonial rule caused hostility (as indeed it has done in almost every colonised country), it was only when the colonists began to affect the people's quality of living that this militancy reached a level where people were willing to fight for their beliefs. In this way, it was rather the colonial economic policies which catalysed the reaction, although the discontentment had always been there. Indeed ultimately, the only solution to the Mau Mau uprising was to tackle both the economic and imperialist strands of the problems together by Independence. The case of the Mau Mau supports this reasoning in several ways.
Firstly, the timing of the uprising is important. It did not occur, at the beginning of the colonial period, as would be expected if it was a direct response to imperialism. Instead, the emergence of the Movement coincided with the enforcement of the Resident Native Labour Ordinance's powers over the squatters. It was therefore only when people's livelihoods were being threatened that the Movement began to take hold. This is common to many peasant revolts, as most peasant groups lack real political power and so cannot easily change policies legally. Instead they must remain aloof from politics until they become so deeply-affected that stronger, often illegal, action is justified:
"The Mau Mau movement in the White Highlands was in many ways a classic example of rural protest generated by the breakdown of existing socio-economic relations observed throughout the world."
The issue of terracing also supports the theory that economics were of great importance to the rise of the Mau Mau. In Kikuyuland, the colonial government attempted to introduce the concept of short-based interval terracing, in an effort to increase the productivity of the area. Unfortunately, this technique was inappropriate, as the slopes are so steep that the terraces were repeatedly washed away. Many Kikuyu peasant groups therefore became disillusioned by the colonial obsession with terracing and it was in this way that they got their reputation for being averse to modernisation techniques. The issue of terracing became so politicised that it became one of the KCA's main grievances.
In neighbouring areas however, the Meru and Embu tribes became great supporters of the terracing campaign. In these areas broad-based interval terracing was introduced to enable coffee production to occur. This was an appropriate technology for the area and so Meru and Embu incomes increased:
"By 1952, 40% of Meru households and 25% of Embu were cultivating coffee or other cash crops, adding considerably to their income."
It is interesting to note that the Embu and Meru remained uninvolved in the Kikuyu's Mau Mau movement. One can only imagine that this must have been largely because their economic situations had actually improved with the coming of the British.
Even within the Kikuyu group itself, about 10% of members never joined the Mau Mau (Furedi, 1974). These were mainly educated, white-collar workers, who had benefited from the colonial regime, and therefore had too much to lose by supporting the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau therefore largely consisted of Africans who had been disadvantaged economically by colonial rule, a point appreciated by Throup (1985):
".... Mau Mau was indeed a civil war - a civil war based to a considerable extent on social class and differing perceptions of colonial rule."
All in all therefore, despite the Mau Mau's rhetoric stating that they were fighting colonial oppression; in my opinion, this ideological explanation would not, on its own, have been sufficient to drive the Kikuyu to such extreme lengths. Mau Mau resistance was certainly not atavistic however, as many of the European myths would claim. Instead, it was a logical political movement, fighting to improve their lifestyle which had been impoverished by colonial rule:
"Thus the rank and file of the Movement was the Kikuyu squatter, who had long experienced an erosion of his wealth and status, and was at the point of proletarianization."
BUIJTENHUIS, R. 1973 Mau Mau: Twenty Years After: The Myth of the Survivor Mouton, The Hague.
CLEARY, S. 1990 "The myth of Mau Mau in its international context." African Affairs 89 (355): 227-245.
COWEN, M. 1989 "Before and after Mau Mau in Kenya." journal of Peasant Studies 16 (2): 260-275.
FUREDI, F. 1974 "The social consequences of the Mau Mau movement in the White Highlands." Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (4): 486-505.
MAZURI, AL-AMIN 1987 "Ideology, theory and revolution: Lessons from Mau Mau." Race and Class xxviii: 53-61.
ROSBERG, C. & NOTTINGHAM, J. 1966 The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya EAPH.
THROUP, D. W. 1985 "The origins of Mau Mau." African Affairs 84 (336): 399-434.