Elkin's Book on Mau Mau veterans exposes shocking abuses

By Kipchumba Some

The nature and extent of atrocities committed by the British colonial government forces during its war of attrition against Mau Mau insurgents were first comprehensively documented by Prof Caroline Elkins of Harvard University in her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (2005).

Here are excerpts from her Pulitzer-prize winning book as selected by our writer.

“By 1950, Kenya was on the verge of one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars of decolonisation fought in Britain’s twentieth-century empire.  Mau Mau had enormous grassroots support, and it was clearly directed at both the white and black faces of British colonial rule, notably the settlers and the colonial appointed chiefs.

In the late afternoon of October 9, 1952, Senior Chief Waruhiu stepped into the backseat of his spotless Hudson sedan for what would become a most fateful journey away from the controlled order of downtown colonial Nairobi en route to the village of Gachie not far from the White Highlands. 

As the driver made a sharp turn, three men wearing British colonial police uniforms waved the car to a stop. One of them approached the car, leaned in and asked for Senior Chief Waruhiu. The senior chief no sooner identified himself than the man drew a pistol and shot him in the mouth and then three more times in the torso.  The murder of Senior Chief Waruhiu came just ten days after Sir Evelyne Baring arrived in Kenya to assume his new role as the governor of Kenya.  Baring knew Waruhiu had been one of the strongest supporters of Britain’s colonial enterprise in Kenya. 

Colonial patronage

Mau Mau adherents hated Waruhiu and other senior Kikuyu chiefs who controlled their lives and reaped the benefits of colonial patronage. The governor hurried back to Nairobi and, only a few hours after the senior chief had been murdered, he cabled the Colonial Office seeking permission to declare a State of Emergency.

With Operation Jock Scott, Kenya’s State of Emergency was officially launched. This code-named assault was directed at [Jomo] Kenyatta and 180 other identified leaders of Mau Mau. Operation Jock Scott ushered in the colony’s rapid decline.

With the Emergency now in effect, hundreds and eventually thousands of Mau Mau adherents fled to  the forests where a fragmented leadership had begun to establish individual platoons before the Emergency started and was now responsible for taking young men and women who had never seen combat and turning them in to soldiers.

From the moment Baring declared the State of Emergency, the treatment of Mau Mau suspects, with rare exception, was devoid of any humanity. Forced removals marked the colonial government’s first major assault against civilian population of Mau Mau suspects, setting an alarming standard for acceptability.

Ndiritu Kibira still remembers vividly the night of forced removals on the Kiringiti Estate.

The farm was in Molo, in the heart of the Rift Valley Province and its owner decided it was time to get rid of the “rats” as he called them that lived on his land.

“The door to our hut was smashed in by some Wazungu and Africans whom I didn’t know. My parents and sisters hurried around picking up our belongings, but there wasn’t just enough time. We had no warning. They were loaded in to the back of a lorry and carried off in to the night.”

When the mass deportations of Kikuyu to the reserves was started in early 1953, the colonial government began setting up screening centres throughout the Rift valley and Central provinces. In British colonial Kenya, screening was the preferred term for interrogation.

When interrogations of Mau Mau suspects by colonial officials turned bloody, screening took on a more sinister connotation.

Self-described screening experts like Christopher Todd claimed to know merely by the look of a suspect whether or not he or she was Mau Mau. When a suspect refused to talk, the screeners used this extraordinary intuition to justify use of third degree. Margaret Nyaruai a young woman at the time of Mau Mau was taken to the screening hut on the estate of her settler employer near Kabaru not long after the start of the Emergcency. There she was beaten by a white man whom the Kikuyu had nicknamed Karoki or He Who Comes at Dawn and by a young settler-turned-colonial officer nicknamed YY.

“They didn’t care that I had just given birth. In fact, I think my baby was lucky it was not killed like the rest… Apart from beatings, women used to have banana leaves and flowers inserted in to their vaginas and rectums as well as have their breasts squeezed with a pair of pliers; after which a woman would say everything because of the pain… even men had their testicles squeezed with piers to make them confess! After such things were done to me, I told them everything. I survived after torture, but I still have a lot of pain in my body even today from it.”

By the spring of 1953 Kikuyu loyalists were working side by side with the British forces to cleanse the Kikuyu countryside of the Mau Mau scourge. In 1953, a series of more assaults was launched against the civilian population by British-led forces. Then in 1954, came the massacre after the Mau Mau attack at Kandara, in the heart of Fort Hall District. Once the battle was over, the British forces just went crazy,” recalled one woman who survived. “They had stripped the local people naked and started beating them. Some were led off and shot; others were executed right here.

Later, the whites ordered them buried beneath the road and tarmacked it over again. But for a long time you could see the dried blood that had oozed to the surface and out of the sides.”

But this State-sanctioned terror hardly eliminated the Mau Mau from the reserves. Oathing also continued. The step up in oathing reflected the hardening ideological battle lines of the war. To break the Mau Mau support in the reserves, the colonial government continually turned up the heat. First came forced labor. When this was not enough, Baring ordered collective punishments and further confiscation of property and land.


Magayu Kiama never expected to survive screening. Facedown in a pool of his own blood, Magayu raised his head only to be kicked in the face again and finally knocked unconscious by one of the Home Guards in Aguthi Location, Nyeri District. When he came to, he was naked and slumped over in a ditch of cold, insect-infested water.

Baring generally refused to do anything to rein in the Home Guards sadistic tactics, arguing along with his officers in the field that wrist slapping or prosecutions would undermine loyalists morale.

Police brutality during screening and throughout everyday life was hardly a secret in Kenya or in Britain. In one case, Peter Bostock wrote that it was “quite common to shoot prisoners ‘while [they were] trying to escape’” and that one officer had told him proudly that he “got nine swines [sic] in that way.” While enduring the screening men and women were often reduced to looking and smelling like the animals they were claimed to be. While some of those arrested for directing Mau Mau activities were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison, Governor Baring used his power of detention without trial for the greater majority of the suspected Mau Mau leaders. Detention without trial was in violation of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights and its Five Protocols, to which Great Britain was a party.

The detention of Mau Mau suspects without trial seemed perfectly reasonable to many colonial officials. Most thought Africans and Asians not yet civilized and therefore not entitled to the rights and obligations that went along with the post-war notions of international citizenship.

In the Spring of 1953, Governor Baring and his ministers had turned their attention to mounting a kind of psychological assault against the Kikuyu. The civilizing mission, Britain’s raison d’être for colonizing the Kikuyu people could be introduced to the masses of suspected Mau Mau adherents through a program called rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation was to become the colonial government’s campaigns for the hearts and minds of the Kikuyu. Rehabilitation was an expression of the cultural hegemony that assumed Britain’s inherent superiority over anything Kikuyu. From the start rehabilitation hardly elicited widespread support. Hardly a European in the colony believed Mau Mau to be human beings.

By the end of 1953, the hard-line demand for summary retribution and for control of the Mau Mau population prevailed everywhere making the adoption of rehabilitation almost laughable.

Under Emergency law the Kikuyu had to work unpaid ninety days a year on communal projects like bracken clearing, trench digging, and the much-hated land terracing program. “Even before the Emergency villages,” Marion Wambui Mwai later recalled at her home in Nyeri District, “we went out nearly everyday to build the terrace. The loyalists just whipped you and whipped you. Even if you dug faster, they whipped you. They treated us just like animals - and the white officer who oversaw the project would just march about grinning at our suffering.” The events of April 24, 1954 would irrevocably change the detention camp system in Kenya and the lives of tens of thousands of Mau Mau suspects. On this day, Britain’s military launched an ambitious operation to reclaim full colonial control over Nairobi by purging the city of nearly all Kikuyu living within its limits. Quite befittingly, the assault was called Operation Anvil.

Nelson Macharia was one of the thousands of Africans caught in the purge. “I was arrested on April 24, 1954, at the garage where I worked,” Nelson later recalled. “I had no time to collect any of my things but I was lucky. When we arrived in the large place surrounded by barbed wire in the middle of Nairobi, there were many people who had obviously been beaten and harrased. They were shaking from fear. When I saw them I knew we were in trouble, though I had no idea the kind of trouble that lay ahead of us.”

Nairobi was the linchpin in Britain’s military campaign against Mau Mau and Erskine was determined to capture it once and for all. It was at this juncture in the Spring of 1954 that the fledgling Pipeline was impacted by Anvil’s mass arrests.

With sentences ranging from a few months to life, the convicts would be sent to one of the Mau Mau prisons within the Pipeline. The most notorious of these prisons was already in operation at the time of Operation Anvil. Located at Embakasi, it held nearly two-thirds of the Mau Mau prisoners, all of whom were forced to build the colony’s new airport, still in use today and since renamed the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Detainees came to dread the constant screening to determine whether their Mau Mau sympathies had changed. Suspects were whipped, beaten, sodomised, burned, forced to eat faeces and drink urine — all at the hands of the screening teams. “I was bent over the screening table at Manyani with my hands on my head,” recalled one man who lives in the Kariokor section of Nairobi.