The Mau Mau Emergency


The Mau Mau Emergency, also known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, Mau Mau Revolt or the Kenya Emergency, was a conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 - 1960, when a group collectively known as the Mau Mau rose up against white settlers and were violently repressed by means including mass detention, torture, rape and murder, conceived of and authorised by the British government.

The extent of the violence inflicted by the British Colonial Administration during this period was so extreme that on the eve of Kenyan independence - just three years later - the British government ordered the destruction of documents detailing the most egregious state-sanctioned abuses in an official exercise known as Operation Legacy. As smoke from the burning documents blew over Nairobi, the British colonial administration vowed to ‘draw a veil over the past’.

Others, however, could not forget the violence and in 2009 five Kenyan survivors of torture launched a class action claim for historical reparations from the British crown. After many years and multiple hurdles, the veterans agreed to an out of court settlement of almost £20 million. A statement of regret from the British Government and a permanent monument to victims of colonial torture were also included in the settlement. 40,000 more Mau Mau have since come forward with similar claims.

Who were the Mau Mau? 

The Mau Mau was a complex and indeterminate group that coalesced around their commitment to the restoration of ithaka na winathi - or land and freedom - for people of Kenya and, thus, an end to British Colonial Rule. 

Popularised as the Mau Mau in the 1940s, this groups was - in many ways - the culmination of opposition to British Imperialism that had been rising in Kenya for many decades. Unsettled by the Mau Mau’s increasingly violent attacks against white settlers through the late 1940s and early 1950s, the British Colonial Administration outlawed the Mau Mau as a terrorist organisation and, in 1952, declared a State of Emergency. 

The State of Emergency, it was hoped, would allow the administration to enact a swift crackdown on the rebels and retain control of one of their most precious and coveted colonies. Contrary to expectations, what played out was a protracted and dirty war that was to become one of the most brutal, violent, and shameful episodes in British colonial history, characterised by detention without trial, forced labour, villagisation, torture ‘without respite’ and unlawful killing. 

In 1960 the Emergency came to an end. Three years later Kenya declared independence from the British. To conceal the extent of their repressive measures, members of the British Colonial Administration destroyed and removed vast quantities of documentation detailing the most egregious acts of state-sanctioned torture, detention, and abuse. The Mau Mau remained outlawed as a terrorist organisation until 2003 and the era of the Emergency was consigned to the ‘forgettory’ of British history. 

In 2011, with the law banning the Mau Mau as a terrorist organisation lifted, and extensive and groundbreaking work by academics to support their claims, a small group of veterans lodged a compensation claim for torture and mistreatment against the British Government. During the course of this trial, tens of thousands of unlawfully ‘migrated’ and concealed files supporting these claims came to light as a result of a court order. The British Government had been knowingly and willfully denied the existence of these files for over half a century. On the basis of the evidence before them - the British Government agreed to an out of court settlement to the tune of £20 million.

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