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The Early Days Of The Mau Mau Insurrection

By Eric W. Brown <feneric@ccs.neu.edu>, 1988

The following is a little talk I was roped into giving back in '88. The Mau Mau Insurrection is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it serves (like the Salem, MA witch trials and later American Communist hunts) as an excellent example of mass hysteria. It is an even more exceptional case though because while it seems that the Mau Mau were originally invented by the European settlers (even the word "Mau Mau" appears to be a European invention) there can be no denying the fact that real Mau Mau appeared on the scene shortly thereafter and quickly became a tangible army and active fighting force. Even the most bizarre claims of the settlers (that the Mau Mau consisted of multiple tribes that historically didn't really get along) eventually came into being to some extent although the Mau Mau were always mostly of the Gikuyu people. One final word -- the best reference to the Gikuyu culture and the peoples of Kenya before the Mau Mau Insurrection occurred is without doubt Facing Mount Kenya: the tribal life of the Gikuyu by Jomo Kenyatta (NY Vintage Books, 1965) and reading this book cover to cover should be the first step undertaken before beginning any Mau Mau research. Certainly it was a very interesting event in history. I wonder why American high schools don't seem to cover the incident much...

I will be talking about the economic aspect of the Mau Mau movement in Kenya from the point of view of the Mau Mau during the early stages of the Mau Mau Insurrection.

The economy of the natives in Kenya prior to the coming of the Europeans was based on a few simple things. They had no system of currency, so wealth was measured in terms of land, sheep, goats, and cattle. When the British came to Kenya, they changed a few things in their attempts to "civilize" the natives. First, they introduced money as we know it. Second, they introduced the concept of taxation. Neither one of these changes pleased the natives much, but the main problems were due to a slight misinterpretation. When asked about the land in which they lived, various natives referred to it as "our land". The British felt (conveniently) that this meant that all the land was owned by the tribal government, and that since they were replacing the tribal government, they should obviously get possession of the land. In point of fact, land was privately owned, though by families and not individuals. So when the British claimed the land in the name of the new government, the peoples of Kenya universally considered it outright theft.

Linked with the loss of land was the loss of economic independence. When a man could not farm his own land, he would have to serve someone else; either farming their land or working in the British settlements. This ammounted to little more than serfdom, for there was a clear double standard. The Kenyan natives would only get one fifth the compensation the settlers got (on the average) for the same amount of work.

Under such hardships, it was only a matter of time before the natives revolted. The Mau Mau movement found its roots in the Gikuyu tribe. They were the most populous tribe in Kenya, and the quickest to get Western education. Their civilization also allowed secret societies to flourish; they had had secret societies like the Arogi operating against the law since before the Europeans came to Africa, and they took oaths very seriously. Thus, when a new secret society like the Mau Mau came along preaching help to the Gikuyu and other tribes, it quickly grew. Note that to this day no one really knows what the original goals of the Mau Mau were. The organization was declared illegal on the assumption that it was anti-government.

The Mau Mau survived as a secret society and as a fighting force because they were able to get supplies from a few different sources. First, they had the popular support of the people. Second, the people who did not give to them willingly were generally forced to support their cause, and they were able to get still more supplies through theft. They also charged money from the new members as payment for the oath cerimony, and all possessions of all the members were expected to go into the cause if needed. They were also able to get some supplies from the forests in which they hid. Contrary to the popular belief at the time, they did not recieve any support from the International Communist Conspiracy.

This describes the situation for the Mau Mau until March 26, 1953. On this date, they lost much of their popular support because of the Massacre at Lari. It is far from certain that the Mau Mau caused it, but they were blamed by the people and the press at the time. Further, in April of 1954, the Mau Mau Central Committee was neutralized by the government, effectively destroying their only organized supply network. Once their sources of supply were thrown into disarray, it was a downhill struggle for the Mau Mau.

Copyright 1988 E. W. Brown