When The British Built Concentration Camps in Kenya

Bruno Ribeiro Oliveira
Apr 3 · 7 min read
Suspects of being Mau Mau are rounded up for screening. Screening involved interrogation through psychological and physical torture in concentration camps or prison facilities.

Mid 20th century, Africa was to decolonize one way or another. In the Colony of Kenya, founded in 1895, it was no different. But something in this process was uncommon. As the sun was setting for the European Empires, the British Empire and its subjects found themselves owning too much land in a black man’s country.

It wasn’t in the 1950s that the British took control over the land. They had been evicting and taking agricultural land for decades when people organized themselves in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army to fight the British back.

In the year of 1952, the governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency in the Colony. The enemy? The Mau Mau. Cannibals, uncivilized, dangerous, maniacs, criminals who hated Christendom and who practiced witchcraft, murder and rape.

That is, according to British and Colonial authorities, newspapers, reports, and even cinema. As expected, a biased view, in order to justify the racist regime in the Colony of Kenya.

Colonization (1895–1939)

As imperialism drove the conquest of Kenya through pacts and through violence, the native populations of what was to become Kenya soon founded themselves fighting against the new master for control of resources. The Colony of Kenya had plentiful of land for agricultural needs for the natives or for production of good desired in the Empire’s capital market.

One of the most hit areas by land grabbing was the central highlands of Kenya, where Nairobi lies today. So many white settlers came to the area that the place became known as White Highlands throughout the colonial period. The problem was that the settlers were not taking an empty land. They were taking Kikuyu land.

The Kikuyu were mainly an agricultural group and land played a major role in their social sphere. It is through land that a Kikuyu acquire richness; it is through land that a Kikuyu builds a family; it is through land that a Kikuyu will be remembered by the future generations. And the land was being taken away, little by little.

Land dispossessed Kikuyu, also know as ahoi, were becoming working hands in British farms in exchange of low wages. Former landowners were selling their workforce or paying a price to squat in settler owned land. Taxes were also implemented and those who could not pay faced forced labor.

When World War I came, thousands of subjects of the Crown were draft into the carrier corps and many died fighting the Germans in what would be Tanzania. Many others perished under Spanish influenza. The end of the war did not bring amelioration. Law after law was written to restrict ownership of the land by natives, to punish those who do not work, to increase and to create new taxes.

The land was becoming the central question in Kikuyu collective life together with the hard work conditions. In 1922 Harry Thuku spoke up against the Colonial Government during a general strike in Nairobi and was imprisoned for that. The mob that gathered to protest his arrest was received with bullets. It was the beginning of Kenyan alliances and groups who would later develop Kenyan nationalism and the fight for decolonization.

Even with mobilization and strikes the Colonial Government never ceded to any of the African demands. Contrary, they elevated each time more and more the harsher conditions for the working men and women.

After the War (1939–1952)

In the Second World War, many Kenyans served in Burma and in other regions of the Empire under attack. After the war, all they received was a return home with empty hands. Some of these veterans would become nationalist agitators for independence and others would turn to crime. Anake wa Forty was one of these so-called gangs that stoled arms and other valuable goods in the regions of Nairobi.

It is in this period after the war that Jomo Kenyatta grows as the voice of a generation and the voice for independence. While people protested against labor laws, lack of land, lack of representation, the Colonial government never gave in to any of the demands.

Political unions, who still believed in a peaceful and constitutional way of dealing with the colonial political segregation, were losing control over the younger generation who saw the old one as unable to achieve what they wanted. Peaceful negotiations were becoming a thing of the past. Agitation and open fight were appearing on the horizon.

In the growing violence running in the streets, a dramatic event happened in Olenguruone region. Threatened with eviction, the Kikuyu population fought the land robbery, resisting the British as they could. It was the beginning of a series of violent clashes between people who wanted land and self-rule and people who wanted privilege and prejudice.

It is in 1952 that a Kikuyu supporter of the government is assassinated by gunfire. It is the final act before the declaration of emergency. The first military operation that led many political Kenyan political figures to jail encircled Nairobi. This was the first wave of imprisonment, for that would be the norm after the declaration of emergency until its suspension in 1960.

Prion camp in Kenya.

How to Deal with Mau Mau: the British way

After closing down Nairobi with colonial police and British military, the government had another problem. The remaining freedom fighters had all run away to the forests of central Kenya. They started an all-out guerrilla war against the Britons and they had to be clever in conducting the war for they had no equipment besides a small number of firearms and ammunition.

The British empire was used to insurgency guerrillas. They fought the Boers in South Africa many decades before and they were still dealing with the Malaysian insurgents. Some historical examples served for dealing with the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and its supporters.

The British divided the population from the guerrilla fighters. Doing it, they were trying to avoid that the guerrillas in the forest could get any support. The British completely demolished and burned down whole villages to the ground and resettled the population in areas they could control.

The famous Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was a victim of such practice. After coming home from school he found his house burned down and his family gone. After looking around he discovered they were living and working in a fenced village where they were all controlled by local police or Kikuyus that were loyal to the Colonial Government.

According to the research conducted by Caroline Elkins and published in the book Imperial Reckoning, she describes the camps built by the colonial authorities as British Gulags. The British gave themselves the right to arrest without trial, which led to mass incarceration within the Kikuyu people.

With twenty-one big concentration camps and a greater number of smaller ones, the British developed a whole system of imprisonment and torture in order to break down the guerrillas and the populational support. Torture was widespread and acknowledged by the authorities.

The declaration of emergency allowed the colonial government to implement a set of oppressive measures. People could not move without permission papers, land and property were confiscated from fighters and suspects, censorship was put forward all over the country, native organizations were closed and only organizations supporting the colonial state were kept.

The condition was harsh in the camps. The infamous Hola massacre is one of these episodes. Eleven people were clubbed to death and a greater number suffered permanent injury. The authorities tried to cover up the story but it ended reaching out to the world. Other kinds of torture involved bottles being pushed into people anus and vaginas. Beatings were common and forced work were constant.

Ian Henderson, one famous British officer was responsible for a great number of tortures and deaths. In his book Man Hunt in Kenya, he never treats the Kikuyus as fellow humans but as mere inhuman terrorists. Much of his opinion comes from the book of the psychologist J.C. Carothers. Carothers wrote that the Mau Mau was no freedom fighter but was mentally ill. In his memoir of war, strangely, Henderson never mentions any fact of violence except when it is done by a native Mau Mau.

Jomo Kenyatta at the Uhuru, freedom.

After the War

The Mau Mau or Kenya Land and Freedom Army were defeated in 1960. Way more Kenyans were dead after the war. Only 32 British lost their lives against roughly 12.000 Mau Mau fighters and supporters.

The independence came in 1963. A negotiated independence with the Britons. Kenya could raise its flag after a vicious time of violence. Under the rule of Jomo Kenyatta, who treated the veterans with oblivion, Kenya became a free state. Only in recent times the Mau Mau are being listened to and are receiving reparations.

Although there are lots of historical and sociological studies about the Mau Mau conflict and the people involved, Mau Mau history still needs to reach further so people can recognize the value of Kenyan people during a difficult period of fighting against a genocidal force that was colonialism in Africa.

Bruno Ribeiro Oliveira

Written by

Brazilian Latin American without money in the bank. M.A. in History (specialized in Africa), Ph.D. candidate at Lisbon University.