Kenya and the Mau Mau

African opposition to colonial rule in Kenya had been smouldering ever since the advent of European settlers, but it came to a blaze after the Second World War. The burning issue had always been the invaders’ expropriation of the land. “When someone steals your ox,” a Kikuyu elder told the Labour MP Fenner Brockway, “it is killed and roasted and eaten. One can forget. When someone steals your land, especially if nearby, one can never forget. It is always there, its trees which were dear friends, its little streams. It is a bitter presence.”1 Or, to quote a less literate African, “no other thing is good than soil, land, all good things belonged to soil, milk, fat, meat, fruits, gold jewery, diamond, silver coins, petrol, oil, breads.”2 Land was life to the Kikuyu, Brockway observed, and its seizure was a “classic example of the injustice of colonialism.”3 What made its loss more galling was the gross discrepancy between white and black holdings. Some three thousand European farmers owned twelve thousand square miles of cultivable land whereas over a million Kikuyu were allotted only two thousand square miles. The authorities even whittled away this area by constructing missions, roads, sports grounds and other public works.

As the African population multiplied between the wars, land hunger caused hunger—90 per cent of Kikuyu recruits to the army were rejected because they suffered from malnutrition. Pressure on the soil intensified, sapping its fertility and causing erosion so drastic that the red earth of the Kikuyu hills, carried away by the Tana River, stained the Indian Ocean twenty-five miles out to sea. Settlers accused the 200,000 squatters on their farms of eating “the heart out of the land.”4 With government connivance they imposed increasingly harsh conditions on the squatters, adding to their work load, eliminating their livestock and transforming them from tenants into serfs. In the name of conservation the Nairobi administration also resorted to coercion on the “native reserves.” In 1938, for example, it tried to reduce overgrazing in the Machakos district, south of the capital, by the forced sale of 22,500 Kamba cattle. Many of them were bought by white settlers at knockdown prices, which provoked fierce protests. So the battle lines were drawn for internal strife before the outbreak of the global conflict, which itself aggravated ethnic discord in Kenya.

This was because the settlers became much stronger during the war. The Depression had hurt them, many relying on state subsidies to keep in the business of growing export crops such as coffee, tea and sisal. By contrast African peasants and squatters had done well, using modern ploughs and hoes to till more ground and supply low-cost commodities such as maize for the domestic market. The war transformed this situation. Settlers could sell at a profit everything they produced. So they paid off their mortgages and sought to improve and mechanise their estates, often at further cost to the squatters. True, the settlers were by no means a homogeneous community. They were a congeries of individualists, not to say eccentrics, liable to breakfast on pink gin or to serve guests a lunch of scrambled eggs and puff adder. As one official wrote, they comprised “a number of European tribes”5 as distinct from each other as those of the Africans. They belonged to different clubs and hunted with rival packs. They also pursued competing ends: for example, arable farmers relied on squatters while cattle ranchers wanted to be rid of them. What united the settlers, though, was their visceral determination to control the “raw savages” who could turn Kenya into a “second Liberia.”6

They managed this through district councils (which gained power over squatters in 1937) and by filling administrative posts left vacant by the wartime manpower shortage. So the Nairobi government, which had previously maintained a façade of impartiality, became much more closely identified with the interests of the settlers. It appointed “native chiefs” who would readily cooperate with them, dividing Africans from their nominal leaders so sharply as to foment civil war. It ensured that the system of taxation and trade regulation favoured the whites. It bore down more heavily on black farmers, telling them what to plant, how to grow and where to sell. According to the Chief Native Commissioner, Kenya’s maize marketing organisation was “the most barefaced and thorough-going attempt at exploitation the people of Africa have ever known since Joseph cornered all the corn in Egypt.”7 The government also supported evictions. Various schemes were initiated during the war, notably the removal of eleven thousand squatters who had been expelled from the Rift Valley to a bleak area of the Mau escarpment adjoining a bamboo forest, known as Olenguruone. They at once claimed ownership of the place. They rejected the dictation of officialdom and engaged in a long, bitter, doomed struggle to establish their claim. In 1944 they took the first bloody oaths of solidarity.

At about the same time, an agricultural field officer named George Nightingale supervised a less well-known but equally abortive scheme at Kilifi, just north of Mombasa. It proposed to give ex-squatters twelve-acre plots on which to grow coconuts, cashew nuts, oil palms, bananas, oranges, lemons, grapefruit and cassava. According to Nightingale’s typed memoir, the Governor personally assured them that after three years they would receive a

certificate of ownership of their plots if they had carried out the Department’s instructions and proved otherwise suitable. As I was the only official they dealt with, it was to me they looked for the government part of the bargain to be carried out. Well it never was and that fact, and the government turning the whole settlement on to cotton production after the war, was the reason I resigned from the Agricultural Department. Of course there was a long history of promises to Africans broken by the government.8

State direction might have been more tolerable had it been less fickle. But during the war Africans were pressed to use every bit of ground as intensively as possible, abandoning fallow periods and ignoring the dangers of soil erosion or exhaustion. At the end of the war the fat little Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, warned that “the native reserves are just frankly going to the devil.”9

He therefore approved a programme to raise fertility and ward off a “really shocking disaster.”10 It involved an enormous amount of backbreaking unpaid work, imposed by white men and largely carried out by black women, to terrace, mulch and otherwise conserve the land. Not only was tillage limited and the cultivation of profitable crops such as coffee, tea, sisal and pyrethrum prohibited on the African reserves, but herds were reduced. Compulsion was disguised as welfare provision. Meanwhile the Europeans, their numbers swelled by another post-war influx of soldier-settlers, increased the pace of eviction from their own farms. Between 1946 and 1952 a hundred thousand squatters were deprived of their livestock without compensation (on the excuse that moving it might spread disease) and forcibly “repatriated”11 to so-called homelands that few of them had ever seen. Here they placed an additional burden on the earth. Such contradictory and repressive policies sowed the seeds of revolution, especially among the poorer Kikuyu. Demands for “land and freedom” were accompanied by more ferocious oathing ceremonies, which aimed to unify resistance to what was seen as a white tyranny. One woman said, “I took the oath so that my children would not be enslaved in the way I had been.”12

The subjugation of Africans was also apparent in urban jungles such as Nairobi, especially to the 97,000 African servicemen who returned after the war. Having fought for liberty beside white troops overseas, they faced repression at home because they were black. Colour prejudice was enshrined in law: white men who had sexual intercourse with black women faced no penalty, for example, whereas black men who had sexual intercourse with white women were liable to be hanged. Unlike Tanganyika, a mandated territory where the races mixed freely, Kenya imposed a colour bar. Post offices, hospitals, schools, churches, cinemas, railways and lavatories were segregated. Africans and Asians were excluded from hotels, bars, restaurants and other amenities, including polling booths. Clubs, of course, “were strictly Europeans only and not all Europeans at that.”13 The Jockey Club even refused one Governor’s request to make the Aga Khan a temporary member. Nairobi, a bursting city of nearly 150,000 people by 1950, was a monument to development “along racial lines.”14 Sir Herbert Baker’s hill-top Government House, a Palladian mansion boasting an arboretum and ample wine cellars, overlooked the luxuriant western suburbs sprouting tennis courts and swimming pools at every turn, the official quarter with its pillared and porched bungalows set amid dahlias and gladioli, and the commercial centre, a late flowering of concrete and glass. Asian districts were squalid by comparison, the Eastlands bazaar consisting of rickety, fly-blown shops (dukas) reeking of sweat, smoke, dung and offal. Finally, African “locations” such as Pumwani were among the most noisome of what Margery Perham called “tropical East Ends.”15

On his visit to Nairobi in 1950, when he outraged settlers by staying with Africans, Fenner Brockway reported to the Colonial Secretary on the clear demarcation of areas between the three races.

I was driven through the residential district of Muthaiga, a wooded valley with entrancing glimpses of deep descents to a winding river. It is lined with beautiful houses, enclosed in large gardens bright with flowering trees…No African is allowed to have a house amidst the loveliness of Muthaiga. The next day I went to the residential quarters of Nairobi which are reserved for Africans…The land is treeless, bare and flat, covered by coarse, brown grass…Visiting this dreary expanse, I could understand the bitterness of the Africans who accompanied me when, pointing to the wooded hills where the Europeans lived, they asked why they should be condemned to the wilderness.16

Brockway anticipated Frantz Fanon, who noted in his classic indictment of colonialism The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that the look “the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession.”17 Such dreams reflected the nightmare of the African shantytowns.

In Nairobi’s dark agglomerations of stone, bamboo, wood, tin, cardboard, tarred sacking and corrugated iron, men might sleep fourteen to a room, with verandahs, packing cases and derelict buses serving as overflow dormitories. The water supply was inadequate, long queues forming at standpipes hours before dawn. Sanitation was minimal and disgusting, with perhaps one public lavatory for a thousand persons. Disease was rife. Few could struggle out of the morass of poverty, though most citizens were Kikuyu, enterprising people whom whites called “the Jews of Kenya”—a description not intended to flatter either race. Unemployment was endemic. Wages were the lowest in the Empire and Africans doing the same job as Europeans received a fifth of their salary. Child labour was ubiquitous since schooling was not compulsory for Africans and young mouths had to be filled as the cost of living spiralled. Between 1939 and 1953 the price of maize flour rose by some 700 per cent and by 1948 few Africans in Nairobi ate “more than one meal a day, very few indeed.”18 Only a minority could afford decent clothes, most wearing blankets or ragged European garb.

Often terrorised by criminals, who roamed the streets in armed gangs, Africans were also harried by the forces of law. Policemen checked passes, inspected tax receipts, executed removal orders and enforced petty regulations, notably over the sale of spirits, which was prohibited to Africans. Bribes were frequently extorted in lieu of fines or beatings. Women were treated as prostitutes and men as vagrants—those suspected of having venereal disease were publicly mustered on Bahati Road. Whites seldom strayed into the “Black Zoo,”19 which they sometimes explained away by remarking that “Rome was not built in a day.”20 In fact Africans were generally invisible to Europeans, though they were noticed to be humiliated, to have their laughter hushed, their hats doffed and their heads bowed. Sometimes, wrote the Luo trade union leader Tom Mboya, white missionaries even insisted that black church-goers should ruffle their hair and bare their feet. Africans responded to racial discrimination on such a scale by intoning “the one word uhuru—freedom.”21

It soon became apparent that the Kenya African Union (KAU), founded as the party of moderate nationalists in 1944 to take the place of Harry Thuku’s banned Kikuyu Central Association, could not win uhuru. That goal was opposed from the top. Sir Philip Mitchell, Governor from 1944 to 1952, believed that Britain should not attempt to give the immature African “an excessive degree of freedom from control before he is ready for that freedom.”22 Mitchell was a conservative with a liberal reputation, gained by advocating the creation of a multi-racial society in East Africa. Yet even this was a reactionary concept as he envisaged it, for Mitchell maintained that the different ethnic groups should “have a share and vital interest according to their several needs and capacities.”23 So only the European settlers could improve the land and guide Kenya’s native people from their state of “primitive ignorance and indolence.”24 In this task they should be assisted by the British-appointed chiefs on the reserves, Mitchell thought, rather than by urban politicians, whom he regarded as agitators and troublemakers. Clever, articulate and acerbic, the Governor was also fiercely competitive—he longed to crown his career with a peerage and he apparently married his wife because she was the first woman to beat him at golf. Claiming that progress was being made with agricultural and other welfare measures, Mitchell largely managed to impose an old-fashioned colonial policy on Kenya. He tightened restrictions on KAU meetings. He impeded the collection of party funds. He limited press freedom and trade union activity. He played down the sporadic disturbances, responding to protests, strikes, riots, cattle maimings and arson attacks with more white repression instead of more black representation. He excluded Africans from his Executive Council (until 1952) and refused to appoint the new leader of the KAU to his Legislative Council. This was Jomo Kenyatta, whom Mitchell regarded as a dangerous firebrand.

In fact Kenyatta was a man of moderation, as Mitchell himself had recognised when they first met in 1931. By then Kenyatta, born into a peasant family and educated by Scottish missionaries, had become Secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association and editor of its journal Muigwithania, which means “The Reconciler.” His own contributions were notably emollient: he praised the British Empire for preserving freedom and justice. Less a radical than a rake, Kenyatta sported plus-fours, drank literally inflammatory Nubian gin and so indulged his sexual appetites that he was suspended from church membership. He lived an equally bohemian existence in England, which became his base after 1931. Ostensibly he was there to plead the African cause with the British government. But his mission grew more hazy over the years, though absence inflated his reputation at home. Travelling and conferring widely, Kenyatta adopted a variety of expedients to survive. He sponged off sympathisers, bilked his landlady and took money from Moscow during a flirtation with Communism. He did odd jobs, even acting as an extra in Alexander Korda’s film (starring Paul Robeson) of Edgar Wallace’s drum-beating, empire-building novel Sanders of the River—a role that he did his best to forget. Kenyatta assisted with academic research into Kikuyu phonology, though he would not allow his voice to be recorded “for fear of evil consequences.”25 He contributed to Nancy Cunard’s avant-garde tribute to the Negro (1934), declaring that the confiscation of ancestral lands in Kenya had stricken the African soul “nigh unto death” and denouncing Britain’s “imperialist system of slavery, tax-paying, pass-carrying and forced labour.”26 Still worse was Mussolini’s rape of Ethiopia. Kenyatta not only condemned it in print but, to honour the Emperor Haile Selassie, grew his famous beard. Elspeth Huxley thought it “gave him a Mephistophelian look.”27

Kenyatta also studied anthropology under Malinowski, which led to the production of an important book entitled Facing Mount Kenya (1938). This was a vindication of the organic Kikuyu traditions that were being undermined by colonialism; but it left him facing in two directions at once. Whereas Kenyatta the social conservative looked back to a tribal golden age, Kenyatta the political progressive looked forward to a modern democratic state. However, he believed that “full self-government” should be achieved through reform rather than revolution. Going against the grain of the fifth Pan-African Congress, he declared that it would be impossible to force the British from his homeland and he abjured “a bloody insurrection.”28 By now Kenyatta had matured from prodigal son to exiled father of his people. He had become a benign combination of statesman and showman, dignified and eloquent but jovial and flamboyant. When he returned to Kenya in 1946, leaving an English wife and child behind, he alone could aspire to transcend tribal differences and become the national patriarch. A British journalist described him the following year:

A big, paunchy man, bearded, with slightly bloodshot eyes, a theatrically monstrous ebony elephant-headed walking stick, a gold-rimmed carnelian signet ring about the size of a napkin-ring, an outsize gold wrist-watch fastened to his hefty arm with a gold strap, dressed in European tweed jacket and flannel slacks—with as pleasant, ingratiating and wary a manner as you have ever met.

Later, after his arrest, Kenyatta’s stick and ring were confiscated, and he wondered sardonically whether the British thought they had taken his ju-ju. At the time, too cautious to give anything away to a white stranger, the black leader conversed in a series of equivocal grunts, “Unh-hunh!”29

Over the next few years Kenyatta was obliged to master several types of ambiguity. Hailed as Saviour by the Kikuyu, he had to appeal over their heads to the other two-thirds of Kenya’s non-white population. He had to rally indifferent Masai and hostile Luo, to reconcile distant Somalis and hesitant Indians. But while trying to drive forward the KAU as the vehicle of national liberation, he had to steer clear of sedition. He did crusade against obvious ills such as the colour bar, the forced labour of women on terracing and the tyranny of the kipande. Like Zik in Nigeria, he said that the tree of liberty must be watered with blood. He even promised to hold open the lion’s mouth if his people could “bear its claws.”30 However, aware of the constant presence of the Special Branch, he generally spoke in Delphic language. He preached patriotism and moral uplift. He recommended education and self-help. He repeated the Kikuyu proverb: “That which bites you is within your own clothes.”31 Yet his words were imbued with the power of his “burning personality.”32 It was this incandescent force that made Kenyatta, despite his inordinate greed, ambition and vanity, a natural leader. Transmitted through eyes like red-hot coals, it seemed messianic to Africans, satanic to Europeans. And it caused all to study his utterances like oracles. On hearing Kenyatta’s tame explanation of the KAU flag, one supporter wrote: “What he said must mean that our fertile lands (green) could only be regained by the blood (red) of the African (black). That was it!”33When Kenyatta agreed to condemn African militants known as the Mau Mau in 1952, Britons interpreted his solemn curse as a blessing in disguise. In fact the ascent of these dispossessed extremists within the bourgeois ranks of the KAU took Kenyatta by surprise. While he had been slowly building a national coalition they had been secretly administering mass oaths, collecting weapons and preparing to fight for land and freedom. Revere Kenyatta though they might, the young men of violence, who had already assassinated Kikuyu chiefs loyal to the government, threatened to kill him if he continued to oppose the Mau Mau. Speaking more softly, he compared himself to “a tongue between the molars and the lower teeth.”34

The name Mau Mau was as obscure in its origin as the movement was nebulous in its structure and vague in its strategy. Evidently a loose amalgam of evicted squatters, deprived farmers and urban poor, it seemed to be part Kikuyu conspiracy, part peasant revolt and part criminal gang. According to one African, Mau Mau was nothing but “a hunger of land in Kenya.”35 A white official described it as “a form of Spartacus uprising of the unemployed and landless Kikuyu.”36 Anyway, bound together by dark rituals, it espoused revolutionary terror. As such it was banned in 1950. But Sir Philip Mitchell, who wanted to end his governorship in an aura of multi-racial harmony, refused to dignify the Mau Mau by taking stronger action. He assured his successor, Sir Evelyn Baring, that although Nairobi contained “riff-raff” and the rural peasantry were easily misled, “The Africans in the mass have no politics.” Mitchell seemed more interested in domestic matters. He gave Baring much advice about managing “native servants” and divorced whites. The latter should be excluded from luncheons and dinners at Government House but might be invited to “Garden Parties and large Cocktail Parties, unless, of course, there is an open scandal.”37 However, as Mau Mau attacks on white farms and black collaborators increased during 1952, while a few militants joined ex-soldiers such as Warahui Itote (“General China”) in the forest, the new Governor came under acute pressure from Europeans to crack down on Africans. The son of Lord Cromer, Baring kept a portrait of his father in his office and would stop ministers in front of it and ask what they thought he would have done under the circumstances.

As this suggests, Baring was weak where his own countrymen were concerned. Indeed, the “tall, lean, greying, immaculate”38 and clean-shaven Governor seemed positively effete to the settlers, many of whom were still “moustached heavily, in the guardee fashion, with the hairs upcurling into their nostrils.”39 Baring was devoted to theology and the classics, fond of playing charades and sardines in Government House, keen on exotic birds and wild flowers—the bourgeois aspidistra he (and a coterie of equally refined Oxford contemporaries, including the future Prime Minister Lord Home) had vowed to destroy whenever he saw it. The Governor allowed himself to be convinced that Kenyatta was the master spirit behind a diabolical plot, a view confirmed by his solitary sight of the KAU’s President, across the grave of a murdered chief, when he felt “the demoniac force of Kenyatta’s personality.” Writing to the Colonial Secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, Baring denied being “carried away by panic on the part of excitable Europeans.” But he recommended the arrest of Kenyatta and his henchmen, and the declaration of a state of emergency. All this was accomplished on 20 October 1952. The operation and its aftermath showed that Baring had more than a streak of the paternal ruthlessness when confronting “lesser breeds.” In the words of his sympathetic biographer, he was not “very fastidious about the exercise of imperial power.”40 In the opinion of a recent critic, he was laying the foundations of one of the most brutal and “restrictive police states in the history of the empire.”41

Ironically the state of emergency created the emergency, for it turned the Mau Mau from a scattered jacquerie into a guerrilla army. Baring acted harshly from the start, hoping to destroy the “hydra” at a stroke.42 As well as decapitating the KAU and rounding up scores of the best-educated nationalists, he paraded Lancashire Fusiliers through the slums of Nairobi, where they were greeted with looks of sullen animosity. (The Royal Navy staged a more Pavlovian but less pertinent show of force by sending a cruiser to Mombasa.) In a hundred-mile arc north of the capital stretching from the cedar-clad flanks of the Aberdare Range to snow-capped Mount Kenya, the authorities detained and interrogated tens of thousands of Kikuyu. They also herded thousands of squatters from the White Highlands back to the reserves, many via squalid transit camps, depriving them of homes, possessions and livestock. This vast piece of social engineering swelled the ranks of the Mau Mau, within a year driving some fifteen thousand, mostly Kikuyu but many Meru and Embu, and some Kamba and Masai, into the forests. There they began to organise and to retaliate, killing the first white settler in October 1952. Hundreds of horrifying murders followed, mostly of Kikuyu “Judases.”43 Ordinary Africans had to pay for these hit-and-run attacks in doubled taxation, collective punishments such as the confiscation of cattle and the closure of schools, as well as sporadic reprisals, official and unofficial. European settlers had often taken the law into their own hands and now, whether acting as freelance vigilantes or as members of the Kenya Regiment or the Police Reserve, aptly compared to the Black and Tans, they took the emergency as a licence to kill. They hunted down “Kikuyu troublemakers”44 like wild animals. They tortured them at will, sometimes castrating men and raping women. They exterminated them without mercy. In the words of one farmer, “We just take out our sten guns and, vee-vee-vee, vee-vee-vee, we let the bloody vermin have it.”45

Settlers in the security forces were more systematic. They formed “strike squads”46 to carry out assassinations, shot civilians in cold blood and massacred the innocent with the guilty. Called “little Hitlers of the Highlands,” “Kenya cowboys” or the “white Mau Mau,”47 they often boasted about their exploits. Their hackneyed motto was, “The only good Kikuyu is a dead one.”48 Some advocated genocide, suggesting that the atomic bomb should be used on Kikuyu or recalling how Americans “used to poison the wells of their Red Indians and infect the blankets with smallpox.”49 All this alienated liberal opinion in Britain and the United States, while providing ammunition to anti-imperialists like Nasser and Nehru. Pointing this out, one white woman said that the harm caused by the brutality “can’t be computed—it could be the down-fall of this country.”50 Moreover, as intelligent and sensitive District Officers like Thomas Cashmore said, perpetrators of atrocities were the best recruiting agents for the Mau Mau. Upset by the sight of a colleague bringing in dead bodies, Cashmore asked whether there were many prisoners:

He laughed and asked me what did I expect, or was I yellow? When I responded that taking no prisoners meant more desperate terrorists, he merely commented that he had probably set back my “education” by several months, but the realities of the situation would eventually register…Of course, I hated to be thought a coward, yet I also believed such action was not only morally wrong but plain stupid.51

It was certainly foolish, from the colonial standpoint, to sustain the view that the Mau Mau had genuine grievances. For the British maintained that, far from being a national liberation movement, it was an obscene reversion to savagery. Kenyatta was its evil genius. Its witch doctors practised perverted forms of black magic. Its warriors were, in the words of a leading settler, Michael Blundell, “debased creatures of the forest.”52 According to Elspeth Huxley, Mau Mau was “the yell from the swamp.”53

The most sinister evidence for this verdict lay in Mau Mau ceremonies which, in the words of a police report, were “driving the Kikuyu to become primative [sic] beasts who will ultimately massacre all Europeans in Kenya.”54 On pain of death, militants forced most Kikuyu and many others to swear allegiance to their cause. Before taking the oath, initiates stripped naked and passed through a banana stalk arch seven times. They also took seven bites from the heart and lungs of a goat and drank a concoction containing its blood. Men and women making homicidal vows would, respectively, place their penises inside goat meat or insert goat meat into their vaginas. There were more revolting variations and, exceptionally, forest fighters swore “advanced oaths involving human blood and flesh.”55 The use of such taboo substances, apparently a desperate measure in the face of defeat, shocked Africans themselves. But the usual oaths were merely adaptations of traditional Kikuyu rites. Educated Africans likened them to “the oaths of Freemasons” and described an experience akin to Evangelical conversion. “I felt exalted with a new spirit of power and strength,” wrote J. M. Kariuki. “I had been born again.”56

Europeans, by contrast, depicted a Saturnalia of horrors. By their account crazed fanatics drank semen and menstrual blood, ate human faeces and babies torn from their mothers’ wombs, and indulged in bestial orgies. Some whites explained this behaviour as a pathological reaction caused by the exposure of barbarism to civilisation. Others, including the now-conservative Harry Thuku, saw it as a manifestation of pure evil. From retirement Sir Philip Mitchell denounced the Mau Mau as “carrion-eating reptiles” who, in the spirit of Belsen, perpetrated “monstrous, nauseating wickedness.”57 In a famous commination Oliver Lyttelton waxed still more hysterical about the hellish character of Mau Mau, identifying Kenyatta as its Lucifer. Lyttelton said that, while penning memoranda about Kenya, “I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page—the horned shadow of the Devil himself.”58 Of course, there was authentic evidence of Mau Mau viciousness: 1,800 African civilians murdered, captives tortured to death, black families incinerated in their huts, white settlers butchered with heavy-bladed knives (pangas). But by demonising the movement the British authorities attempted to vindicate a counter-attack more ferocious than anything contemplated in the forest.

The settlers demonstrated the kind of measures they wanted when the Mau Mau campaign against their farms began in earnest during 1953. On 25 January, after trusted servants had hacked to death a popular young family, hundreds of white men and women marched on Government House. Clad in their Sunday best, light suits, hats and ties, or print dresses, they assembled on the grass in front of its white Palladian portico, screaming obscenities and baying for lynch law. Some waved pistols. Others frothed at the mouth. Still others, in what Michael Blundell called the settlers’ invariable preface to “some desperate action to demonstrate their contempt of Colonial Office rule,” sang “God Save the Queen.”59 Furious at being held back by a cordon of African police, they shouted “dirty niggers”60 and stubbed out their cigarettes on the bare, linked arms of the askaris. Then they tried to storm Baring’s barricaded ten-foot front doors, which bent and shook under the assault but did not give. Eventually, Blundell persuaded the mob to disperse. It had achieved its aim for, despite the Governor’s refusal to appear, he had understood its message. Baring quickly brought in General W. R. N. (“Loony”) Hinde to reorganise the security forces and regain the initiative from the forest bands. Meanwhile, they were made to pay heavily for each attack. On 26 March, for example, insurgents massacred nearly a hundred loyalist Kikuyu in the village of Lari. Government units, including the African “Home Guard,” at once took a hideous but hidden revenge. They killed at least twice as many Mau Mau sympathisers and blamed all the deaths on “terrorists insatiable for blood.”61

This intensified hostilities between so-called “Black Europeans,” those prosperous, privileged Kikuyu who were collaborating with the British, and the indigent and usually illiterate militants. Baring relentlessly supported the loyalist side in this developing civil war. He turned the Home Guard into an armed militia, 25,000 strong, manning a chain of entrenched strongholds reminiscent of “the days of Caesar and the fortified camps of the Gallic Wars.”62 He pursued a clandestine policy of counter-terror. He imposed the death penalty for offences that ranged from taking Mau Mau oaths to possessing a single bullet. The Colonial Office feared that this would lead to “expeditious injustice,”63 and summary executions did follow. Between 1952 and 1958 1,090 Africans were hanged, some on a travelling gallows built at the Governor’s behest. In fact, Baring sacrificed justice to expediency. The most notorious instance was the rigged trial of Kenyatta and five colleagues. Baring was determined to eliminate the KAU leadership even though the security services doubted whether Kenyatta could control the Mau Mau and said that he had “advised against violence.”64 Accordingly witnesses were bribed, defence lawyers were harassed and the judge was paid £20,000. This was enough to secure a guilty verdict and to remove Kenyatta from active politics until 1961. Ironically, the champion of constitutional progress, who had himself been menaced by the Mau Mau, was imprisoned for being its architect. Kenyatta’s martyrdom ensured that he would one day rule Kenya; more immediately it consigned the country to further violence.

Britain demonstrated its resolve to smash the Mau Mau by superseding “Loony” Hinde, who had been instructed simply “to jolly things along.”65 His replacement was General Sir George (“Bobbie”) Erskine, a tetchy, portly, untidy figure who came armed with a warrant from his friend Winston Churchill authorising him, if necessary, to proclaim martial law and take over the government. He kept this paper in his spectacles case which, to emphasise his points, he opened and loudly snapped shut. Erskine tried “gingering up” the Governor, who was “terribly wobbly.”66 He scarcely bothered to conceal his disdain for the settlers. They were “middle-class sluts” and Kenya was, to repeat his oft-quoted but unoriginal remark, “a sunny place for shady people.”67 Erskine blamed them and their rotten administration for the rebellion. And he proposed to eradicate it with military might such as only the imperial power could marshal, thus ensuring that Kenya’s fate would be decided in London rather than Nairobi. By the autumn of 1953 Erskine had deployed twelve British battalions, supported by armoured cars, artillery and two RAF squadrons consisting of obsolete Harvard and Lincoln bombers, later supplemented by Vampire jets. Along with local contingents, these forces carried out patrols, raids and ambushes in an effort to root out and break up the forest bands. At first the “bag” remained small though, until Erskine put a stop to it, cash prizes were awarded for “kills.” Despite their overwhelming advantage in weaponry, his troops had much to learn about guerrilla warfare. They transported superfluous comforts into the bush by mule, among them iron bedsteads. They gave themselves away by disturbing wild animals and exuding the smell of soap, cigarettes and brilliantine. They inflicted many, perhaps most, of their casualties on themselves—one battalion even managed to kill its own colonel. By calling in air strikes, which were terrifying but ineffective, they indicated areas temporarily safe from ground attack. No wonder African commanders taunted them. One informed Erskine that the Mau Mau were building a canning factory so that they could eat tinned white flesh.

This was a joke but it suggested the most serious weakness of the self-styled Land Freedom Army. Like other guerrilla forces, it relied on the surrounding population for food, clothes, munitions, information and other aid. From the first Erskine had tried to cut its sources of supply. He sealed off African locations in Nairobi. He created a cordon sanitaire, clearing banana and sugar cane plantations between the forests and the Kikuyu reserves. He constructed a barrier worthy of Hadrian, a fosse extending a hundred miles along the forest fringe. Those who still managed to help the combatants faced further collective punishments and systematic violence from the Home Guard. More effective still was the incarceration of suspected Mau Mau adherents. In April 1954 Erskine delivered his coup de grâce, Operation Anvil, the complete blockade of Nairobi with twenty thousand troops. They seized most black people for questioning or “screening” and sent some 24,000 men and women, nearly half the city’s Kikuyu population, to hastily established detention camps. The British pulled no punches in this huge round-up, which destroyed much of the central Mau Mau organisation and dealt a crushing blow to the revolt.

As Kenya’s captives multiplied more than fifty camps were built to accommodate them. By the end of 1954 about seventy thousand Africans were detained or imprisoned, about half the total number held in camps during the course of the emergency. Yet Erskine was already embarking on a still more ambitious exercise in confinement, one that would place almost the whole Kikuyu nation under restraint. Following Templer’s example in Malaya rather than Kitchener’s in South Africa, he masterminded the eviction of more than a million people from their scattered homesteads, many of which were then looted and burned by the Home Guard, and their resettlement in 850 gaol-villages. Here, surrounded by barbed wire and overlooked by watchtowers, loyalists were protected and subversives were punished—subjected to a regime of searches, curfews, contagions, restrictions, shortages and forced labour. So the forest Mau Mau were starved as well as hunted. They became increasingly desperate, reduced to wearing monkey skins and fighting with bows and arrows. And they took the disastrous course of preying on their own supporters. “Henceforth,” wrote one, “freedom-fighters were treated like wild animals by everybody.”68

As the Mau Mau reeled from Erskine’s hammer blows, many guerrillas defecting, others hiding deeper in the jungle, Baring tried to win African hearts and minds. His efforts, though encouraged by Churchill, were feeble. For anything that smacked of conciliation enraged the white settlers, who “still believed themselves to be the sole and natural heirs of colonial rule.” Thus when the Governor proposed a negotiated settlement in 1954 they accused him of shaking hands with murder. Blundell even charged Baring with having taken the Mau Mau oath, though he quickly apologised. Meanwhile, as Thomas Cashmore cynically wrote, the state tried to give its rule “a touch of strength through joy.”69 It sponsored welfare programmes. It fostered adult education and vocational training. It encouraged Boy Scouts, sports clubs and dance troupes. It promoted football, though some feared that the game “had become the successor to tribal warfare.”70 Cashmore, who noted that “a majority of single white officers probably did, on a casual basis, sleep with African women,” found to his embarrassment that one of the “ladies involved, an ex-Chief’s daughter,” was several times his co-judge in local needlework competitions. Officials also recruited soothsayers, known as “Her Majesty’s Witchdoctors” or the “Wizards of Oz,” to “cleanse”71 involuntary oath-takers.

Much more important were endeavours to improve African living standards. Permitted to develop, trade unions negotiated wage rises in new industries such as brewing and oil refining. An agricultural revolution was in train, as land holdings were consolidated and Africans were allowed to cultivate cash crops such as coffee. There remained a strong dash of paternalism. It annoyed George Nightingale, now a District Officer, that the government tried to teach the Kikuyu how to grow coffee when, as they laughingly said, “we planted the coffee trees in Kenya for the Europeans, and have always done the pruning, spraying and harvesting.”72 British soldiers were also encouraged to be friendly, though this led to the spread of venereal disease and to the dissemination of a colloquial expression with which African children greeted a startled Oliver Lyttelton, “Fuck off.”73 The Colonial Secretary continued to demand more political progress in Kenya. In fact he made it clear that unless whites agreed to the election of more black representatives on the Legislative Council, he would disown them. Like other Colonial Secretaries, he disliked these “parasites in paradise.”74 Lyttelton especially deplored their eagerness to mete out semi-official murder and he once rebuked Blundell for suggesting that the government should “line up 50 people and shoot them.”75

Throughout their imperial history the British always paid lip service to legality, but by the mid-1950s it was an open secret that Kenya had become a police state that dispensed racist terror. After all Dr. Malan, the Nationalist Prime Minister of South Africa, took it as a model for his apartheid regime. Frequent reports of institutional cruelty reached the outside world, some of them reminiscent of worse regimes. When Kenya’s interrogators “screened” suspects, they generally began by softening them up with “a series of hard blows across the face”—the standard shock tactic used on prisoners in Stalin’s Lubianka. In most cases further beatings followed, some of them fatal. This treatment was variously justified on the grounds that the Mau Mau were subhuman and that it would purge them of political sickness or sin. But those who administered the violence displayed “a strong streak of sadism…under the red heat of action.”76 This was still more evident in further torments to which “screeners” subjected men and women, mostly Kikuyu. These included electric shocks, burnings, near-drownings, mutilations and sexual abuse.

The Special Branch, known as “Kenya’s SS,” were particularly expert at inflicting pain but freelance interrogators could be even more vicious. According to a recent historian, one settler in the Rift Valley was christened the “Doctor Mengele of Kenya” for exploits that included “burning the skin off live Mau Mau suspects and forcing them to eat their own testicles.”77 Everyone in the security services knew that such atrocities occurred; many units were involved, some notoriously so; but there was a concerted effort to hush everything up in the interests of imperial solidarity. Michael Seward, a humane community development officer in Meru much upset by his countrymen’s activities, “was told to be a good chap and get on with your job…and keep your mouth shut.”78 When protests were made, Lyttelton himself turned a deaf ear and a blind eye. With “soapy smoothness,” as that outspoken parliamentary critic Barbara Castle put it, Baring conducted “complacent cover-ups.”79 Soldiers looked after their own. Cashmore recounted how a private in the Kenya Regiment was court-martialled because, when questioning a young Kikuyu woman, he “had forced a beer bottle into her and caused her not only pain but bodily harm.” The private was acquitted and “the judgement was thought to be good for morale and welcomed by many in the regiment.” Even Cashmore felt it right to suppress his squeamishness about such matters, “for it is not possible to impose the civilities of Cheltenham in the foothills of Chuka.”80Needless to say, episodes of this kind stiffened opposition, global as well as local, to the colonial order.

Yet the “screening” process was a mere prologue to the immense volume of suffering inflicted on Africans in what has exaggeratedly been called Britain’s “gulag.”81 The avowed purpose of the camp complex was rehabilitation. Hardcore Mau Mau suspects (significantly categorised as “black,” whereas the doubtful were “grey” and the innocent were “white”) had to be cured of their “disease.” This Europeans continued to diagnose in different ways, some maintaining that the forest fighters were suffering from a “communal psychosis,” others insisting that they were infected by atavism and had become “primitive beasts.”82 But there was wide agreement about the remedy. The Mau Mau ruled by fear so, according to one alleged expert, “we had to create a greater fear of our camp.”83 This meant that punishment, designed to extort confession and enforce submission, became almost an end in itself. There were humane commandants but in most cases torture was used to break the spirit of the detainees. Thus on arrival at camps such as Manyani they had to run the gauntlet of baton-wielding guards—the very same routine practised at Dachau. Forced labour was illegally exacted, often by means of violence and starvation. An inscription over the gate at Aguthi recalled the Nazi motto, Arbeit Macht Frei: “He who helps himself will be helped.”84

Beatings were savage enough to leave Kenya with hundreds of “crippled beggars.”85 Evenings and nights at South Yatta Camp were “a holiday from pain,” wrote J. M. Kariuki, but each day was one “long agony.”86 Elsewhere inmates were so habituated to whip and club that they flinched and jerked from the guards like marionettes. The violence took many forms and sexual atrocities were commonplace. Prisoners were often killed, some by being released in lion country. One guard later confessed that he and others in the Kenya Regiment regularly liquidated “hard-core scum”: “Never knew a Kuke had so many brains until we cracked open a few heads.”87 More than twenty thousand Mau Mau fighters lost their lives during the emergency but how many died in the camps is not known, though it far exceeded the figure, a mere thirty-two, for white civilian deaths. Clearly, however, the Kenyan archipelago was one of the worst blots on Britain’s imperial escutcheon. The assistant police commissioner, Duncan McPherson, told Barbara Castle, still leading the assault on abuses, that conditions in some camps “were worse than anything I experienced in my four and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese.”88

By 1956, though, Baring could feel more confident about the situation in Kenya. With steely resolve he had managed to obscure the worst excesses of the colonial regime. He had effectively legalised torture by approving his Attorney General’s spurious distinction between “punitive force,” officially banned, and “compelling force,” which was permitted. He had designated the emergency a civil disturbance, thus depriving detainees of rights as prisoners of war. He had made efforts to square the Red Cross, to squash the churches and to mislead hostile MPs such as Barbara Castle—“that Castellated Bitch.”89 The Governor had received stalwart support from Alan Lennox-Boyd, nicknamed “Bwana Kilimanjaro” in East Africa and described by Barbara Castle as a “Guardsman type”90 imbued with the conviction that the British ruling class could do no wrong. Under his aegis the Colonial Office continued to use every technique to defend Baring. It denied the more serious charges against his administration. It suppressed evidence, discredited witnesses and spun a web of deception worthy of Albion at its most perfidious. While burying bad news, Lennox-Boyd advertised the real progress being made in Kenya. Improved counter-insurgency measures had virtually eradicated the Mau Mau. The detention camps were being phased out, all but “black” inmates gradually gaining their freedom. Rehabilitation officers such as Major and Mrs. Breckenridge had achieved genuine success in killing sedition by kindness. If the mass of unpublished letters they received from detainees are to be believed, the Breckenridges persuaded many Kikuyu to condemn “the evils brought about by the Mau Mau” and to “come to the side of good citizenship.” A pupil-teacher named Cyrus Karuga praised the Major for his work in “reforming the hardest of hard-cores, of whom I was one…I thank you very much for the battle you fight behind the scenes so that I may be accepted back home.”91

Loyalist Kikuyu were prospering. In 1957 the first Africans were elected to the Legislative Council, among them Tom Mboya and his inveterate rival Oginga Odinga. The latter outraged white members by appearing at the Assembly “with a skin round my waist, a coat of long tails, beaded stockings, sea-shell sandals, a beaded collar and cap, and carrying a whisk of a cow’s tail.”92 Odinga dismissed Mboya, a dynamic pragmatist who himself sometimes wore Luo robes and goatskin sashes, as “a rabid black dog that barked furiously and bit all in his path.”93 Baring was equally hostile, describing Mboya as a “rabble rouser”94 and a “lapsed Roman Catholic with the morals of a monkey.”95 Nevertheless, for a time Lennox-Boyd hoped to persuade such anti–Mau Mau, non-Kikuyu nationalists to support a constitution based on multi-racial power sharing. A moderate minority of settlers led by Blundell, who actually thought Mboya a “ruthless and ambitious thug,”96 was becoming reconciled to such a compromise. By 1959 black people gained the right to acquire land in the White Highlands and some districts were seeing a rapprochement between the races. Social relations became “much more relaxed,” wrote Cashmore, because “young settlers had fought alongside African loyalists and grown to trust and like them.” Despite engrained “suspicions and prejudices,” he himself was “completely taken by Mboya’s very real charm.” However, he also noted that the old attitudes died hard. When a few members proposed to invite Africans and Indians to the Meru Club they were “bitterly opposed by a majority of white officials, seemingly out of fear that the guests might dance with the officials’ wives.” Moreover, as the emergency neared its end, nothing was done to reconcile the “black” detainees. On the contrary, they were “threatened, flogged, shaved,” and warders sent them on their way with “additional heavy blows and kicks.” Cashmore thought this valedictory violence was “crazy and that it was bound to backfire in the end as a result of some incident taken to excess.”97 On 3 March 1959 his prophecy was realised at Hola Camp, where eleven prisoners were beaten to death.

Hola, situated in a torrid, mosquito-ridden wilderness near the coast, was the chosen repository of the last “black” detainees. Baring called them “political thugs.”98 Reporting that they were the “inner core of the hard core of the Mau Mau,” the London Timesdescribed them as “degraded and fanatical ruffians, detained and put to labour in the hope of redemption by means of stern discipline.”99 What precipitated the massacre was the sudden introduction of a scheme to force the toughest of them to work. The scheme, afterwards deemed unlawful, was designed by the senior prison superintendent, John Cowan, who reckoned that coercion in the camps was “all just like a good clean rugger scrum.”100 But while trying to make prisoners dig an irrigation ditch at Hola the guards, commanded by an inexperienced ex-naval officer called G. M. Sullivan, got out of hand. Sullivan claimed that the deaths were caused by contaminated drinking water and, after a cursory investigation, Baring endorsed this account. However, the inquest soon exposed its falsity, also revealing that many other prisoners had suffered serious injuries. The whole episode, as a Labour leader said, “shocked and dismayed civilised opinion all over the world.”101 Outrage grew as it emerged that no one would be prosecuted for any offence—indeed, Cowan was awarded the MBE. The British Empire was best sustained, Lennox-Boyd concluded, by declaring that it would not surrender power in Kenya for the foreseeable future, by issuing an amnesty to wrong-doers on both sides, and by changing Hola’s name. Critics remained vociferous. The most eloquent of them was Enoch Powell, a fervid Tory radical whom Macmillan would move from the seat opposite him at the cabinet table because he could not bear the look of his wild, staring eyes.

In a speech which electrified the Commons, Powell described Hola as “a great administrative disaster.” Failure to take responsibility for it, he argued, undermined Britain’s endeavour to plant responsible government in its dependencies.

All government, all influence of man upon man, rests upon opinion. What we can still do in Africa…depends on the opinion which is entertained of the way in which this country and we Englishmen act. We cannot, we dare not, and in Africa of all places, fall below the highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.102

Powell specifically exonerated Lennox-Boyd, which did not please all who congratulated him on having spoken for “everything that is finest in the British tradition—things that will last longer than any empire.”103 For example, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Asquith’s daughter and Churchill’s friend, protested that Lennox-Boyd had again and again refused public inquiries into conditions in the camps when “the fact that their inmates were rotting with scurvy alone warranted some enquiry.” The chain of responsibility, she told Powell, “goes right up to the top.”104

Lennox-Boyd did, in fact, offer to resign. But on the eve of a general election, and at a time when the Devlin Report charged that Britain had turned Nyasaland into a police state, Macmillan was determined to keep his ministry intact. So the Colonial Secretary expressed complete confidence in Baring and dismissed as fanciful Labour’s accusations of an official whitewash. To his successor, though, Lennox-Boyd justified the iron-fisted tactics employed in Kenya. It was impossible, he told Iain Macleod, who was appointed after the Tory victory in October 1959, to “apply the canons of a cloister to a battle in tribal Africa.”105 Macleod was horrified, as he was by the Hola murders. He cross-questioned Blundell about them minutely. He observed the acute pangs of conscience they provoked in his compatriots, a significant number of whom were now convinced that imperialism necessarily involved the violation of human rights and thought it “better to accelerate the grant of independence to colonial peoples than to become responsible for such appalling events as the Hola Camp incident.”106 He heeded the words of Enoch Powell. Macleod later said that “this was the decisive moment when it became clear to me that we could no longer continue with the old methods of government in Africa and that meant inexorably a move towards African independence.”107

Almost at once Macleod decided to end the emergency and to release nearly all the remaining Mau Mau detainees. He acted quickly because internal tensions were rising in Kenya, there was a resurgence of terrorism and he feared “terrible bloodshed.”108 More generally he was responding to the pressures that produced Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech. Macleod was especially susceptible to international opinion, as expressed in the United Nations and the United States. Tom Mboya’s plea for “undiluted democracy”109 won a sympathetic audience in America, where he was seen as a black George Washington intent on making the British, who had scrambled for Africa, “scram out of Africa.”110 Many Americans, too, thought that western interests in the Cold War would now best be served by the swift dismantling of reactionary European empires. Macleod was particularly concerned that France and Belgium would win the race to decolonise in Africa and that Britain would be left behind with Portugal, still ruled by the quasi-fascist dictator Antônio Salazar. The £60 million cost of the emergency also perturbed Macleod, as did the ending of National Service. In more senses than one, he concluded, Kenya was becoming impossible to defend. So in January 1960 he convened a meeting of the country’s white and black leaders (excluding Kenyatta) in London.

It took place at Lancaster House, a massive square edifice of honey-coloured Bath stone built between Green Park and St. James’s Park in 1825 for the Duke of York. Queen Victoria, crossing the road to visit this mansion, said that she had left her house for a palace. Now refurbished to recall for new Elizabethans the majesty of the Victorian era, it was the stage on which many colonial conferences were set. And it was intended to awe representatives from the far corners of the shrinking Empire, as the Septizonium had awed barbarians approaching Rome along the Appian Way. As Alan Lennox-Boyd wrote, throughout his negotiations with colonial leaders “the dignity and splendour of the building” exerted “a potent and helpful influence.”111 What met their gaze was the Corinthian portico, the Baroque atrium, the black caryatids, the rococo fireplaces, the crystal chandeliers, the Italianate pictures, the gigantic marble staircase embellished by Charles Barry, and the Great Gallery with its painted ceiling supported by gilded columns in the shape of Palmyra palms. Critics, though, deplored a showy eclecticism extending from Augustus to Louis XV and dismissed Lancaster House as casino architecture. And Blundell was struck by a theatrical contrast between the blue tables and the red velvet plush of the conference chamber and the linoleum floors, cage lifts and plywood partitions behind the scenes. Here most of the work was done and here was revealed the threadbareness of Britain’s imperial panoply. This also emerged in Macleod’s opening speech. It acknowledged the inevitability of majority rule in Kenya and, in the words of the popular press, “promised independence.”112

This was a momentous concession, leading as it soon did to a Legislative Council dominated by Africans. But although the democratic principle had triumphed and the shift of power was irreversible, the transition to self-government was anything but straightforward. The various parties, all divided among themselves, remained at odds. Personal animosities rankled. For example, Blundell had found it particularly difficult to deal with Macleod.

He is an aggressive, tough and ruthless character; very ambitious, with a first-class brain; and very close indeed to the Prime Minister. Not a likeable personality and not a straightforward one. We caught him in falsehoods on several occasions during the negotiations…I would not trust him an inch.113

The timing of change was problematic. Macleod envisaged that the handover of sovereignty would take about a decade and his constitutional checks and balances (for example, the Governor retained the right to choose his own ministers) aimed to retard the process. Moreover, the Colonial Secretary reluctantly supported Baring’s successor, Sir Patrick Renison, when he declared that the courts had established Kenyatta’s guilt as “the African leader of darkness and death.”114

Renison was endeavouring to pacify hard-line settlers, who fumed that Blundell’s moderates had handed victory to the Mau Mau at Lancaster House. Blundell himself acknowledged that the promise of independence came as “a tremendous shock to European opinion in Kenya.” But he argued that in a country of six million increasingly militant Africans, “60,000 Europeans aren’t really a firm base for self-government.”115 The enragés continued to insist on white supremacy, maintaining that, but for this, Kenya’s prospective black leaders would still be “racing through the bush, spear in hand, dressed as the Heavenly Tailor had turned them out.”116 When Blundell returned to Nairobi one of these settlers threw a bag of thirty silver sixpences at his feet, shouting “Judas.”117 Renison, an unimaginative civil servant influenced by his own community, could not grasp that Kenyatta, designated President of the new Kenya African National Union (KANU, the successor of KAU), was the inescapable man. As late as 1961 the Governor gave District Commissioners a forty-minute lecture on the political situation without once mentioning Kenyatta’s name. Asked why this was, Renison replied: “He is a busted flush.”118

In August that year the Governor was obliged to release Kenyatta, who alone could secure the cooperation of KANU, the majority party. His return delighted Africans as much as it disgusted Europeans, who feared that a race war was about to engulf the continent. There were troubles in Algeria, Angola, the Congo, Kenya itself and, especially, in South Africa, which left the Commonwealth a year after police massacred sixty-seven black people at Sharpeville and three months before Kenyatta was freed. The Colonial Secretary pressed for an understanding with him precisely because Britain sought to distance itself from the apartheid state and to avert such bloody confrontations in Kenya. Despite his long and harsh imprisonment, Kenyatta remained a reconciler. Apparently bearing no malice, he reassured whites that they would be secure in a black man’s country. But many whites lambasted the likes of Blundell for “fawning at the feet of this evil thing.”119 One was moved to denounce such race Quislings in verse:

We are the renegade whites, praying “Forgive us our skin!”

False to our own flesh and blood, wronging our own kith and kin…

We are the renegade whites, drumming up black, yellow, brown,

Laying the burden aside, bringing the jungle to town.120

Whites of this persuasion could not bear the fact that “life in Paradise was changing.”121

Six thousand of them, a tenth of the European population, left in 1961 and the British government (assisted with dollars provided by the World Bank) gave grants to buy out Europeans and to pay for African resettlement. This took some of the “steam out of the land kettle.”122 It also accelerated the march towards Kenyan independence since the Treasury wished to minimise further claims. Meanwhile, Kenyatta reiterated his new watchword “Harambee”123—“Pull Together”—in an attempt to unite rival African constituencies during the scramble for land and freedom. He was by no means successful. Tribal and other minorities feared domination by a Kikuyu-controlled KANU and pressed for a federal constitution. When Reginald Maudling, Macleod’s successor as Colonial Secretary, visited Kenya the Kalenjin people greeted him with banners urging “Reggie for regions.”124 Despite Tory objections at home, Maudling pressed forward—Macmillan said that he was “plus noir que les nègres.”125 Leading the KANU delegation to a second Lancaster House conference in 1962, Kenyatta conceded many of the devolutionary demands. He was rightly confident that he could transform Kenya into a strong unitary state when he gained the power that would stem from compromise. In June 1963, after a KANU victory at the polls, Kenyatta duly became Prime Minister. Six months later he led his country to uhuru.

During the independence ceremony, staged in a floodlit stadium on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenyatta took the cockerel badge from his lapel and pinned it on to the white uniform of the Duke of Edinburgh, who was representing the Queen. The cockerel was also incorporated into Kenya’s national crest. It symbolised Kenyatta’s determination to turn a multi-racial country into a one-party state. He himself was to be its avatar, as appeared from his developing personality cult. Soon every shop had to display his picture. His face was engraved on stamps and cash. He dominated the air waves and the newsreels, a film crew accompanying him everywhere. As well as monopolising power, Kenyatta engaged in what a critic called the “senseless accumulation of property.”126 Insofar as avarice and misgovernment had characterised the imperial order, Kenyatta represented continuity—like white settlers, he even spoke of England as “home.”127 However, the rampant corruption of his regime was a novelty and it provided yet another retrospective justification of the Empire.

Even as the Union Jack was being lowered in Nairobi, Margery Perham affirmed the merits of the colonial inheritance:

A large part of this inheritance is the patient, quiet construction of hundreds of British officials; of missionaries who brought western education and opened the door to Christendom; of Asians who contributed their commercial enterprise and manual skills. To the disinherited and abused settlers Kenya owes a wealth of agricultural and economic achievement won by long and costly experiment.128

Other old imperial hands elaborated the argument. They stressed the benefits of British rule: the elimination of slavery and tribal warfare, the control of famine and disease, the growth of prosperity and population, the drive “to lead Africans towards civilisation.”129 Of course, for the sake of their own amour propre, many officials who served in Kenya felt bound to believe that they had contributed to a progressive venture. One appraised the British achievement in Kenya thus: “I wouldn’t wish any of it undone. It was absolutely vital to advance.”130 For their own reasons Labour politicians and conservative historians echo this view today, urging their compatriots, as Gordon Brown did in 2004, to “be proud…of the empire.”131 But thoughtful liberals such as Thomas Cashmore, looking back on his experience of Kenya, were doubtful. He hoped that the British record was not without virtue, and certainly it was better than that of all other European countries in Africa. Contemplating the many mistakes and injustices, though, he feared that future generations would “judge us more harshly for failing in our trust; because we did not prepare our successors adequately for the perils of independence, and left too soon.” Alternatively, they would “curse us for not going sooner, or for even coming at all.”132 If the final verdict was fair to Kenya, it was equally so to central Africa, the scene of Britain’s last and most protracted colonial struggle on the continent.

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