When The British Built Concentration Camps in Kenya

Suspects of being Mau Mau are rounded up for a screening. Screening involved interrogation through psychological and physical torture in concentration camps or prison facilities.

In Mid 20th century Africa was to decolonize one way or another. In the Colony of Kenya, created 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 (KLFA) to fight the British back. The KLFA did not appear from one day to the other, this guerrilla army had years of political struggle between colonizer and colonized behind its back.

The Kikuyu people from central highlands, where Nairobi is located, were deeply impacted by the intrusion of the British colonizers who took the best land for themselves and kept pressuring the native population into reservations. The Kikuyu who lost their lands had to sell their labor for low wages in British farms. This situation kept escalating over the years. The Kikuyu resisted by organizing themselves in political associations.

From the 1920s to the beginning of the 1950s many names became prominent in the struggle for a better quality in working conditions, in demanding more political rights and struggling for equality and freedom. Harry Thuku (1895–1979), who led struggles in the 1920s, and Jomo Kenyatta, (1894–1978), who led the many African political associations in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, becoming Kenya undisputed leader from 1963 until 1978, are some examples.

In the year of 1952, the governor of the colony, Evelyn Baring (1903–1973) 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 and the use of violence against an African population.

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 found themselves fighting against the new master for control of resources. The Colony of Kenya had plentiful land for agricultural needs for the natives or for the production of goods desired in the Empire’s capital market.

One of the most hit areas by land grabbing was the central highlands. 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 land was being taken away.

Land dispossessed Kikuyu, also know as ahoi, were becoming working hands in British farms in exchange for 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 and their famous guerrilla commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870–1964) in what would later be known as Tanzania. 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 did not work, to increase, and to create new taxes.

The land was becoming the central question in Kikuyu 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 his defiance. The mob that gathered to protest his arrest was received with bullets. It was no turning point for Kenyan alliances and groups who would later develop Kenyan nationalism and fight for decolonization and independence.

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. It was in the nature of the colonial state to mistreat people it considered to be lacking in humanity. And, as a capitalist power, the British colonial state understood people as coal to be burned for infinite gain.

World War II and its Aftermath (1939–1952)

In the Second World War, many Kenyans served in Burma and in other regions of the Empire that were 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 and its surroundings.

It is in this period after the war that Jomo Kenyatta grows as the voice of a generation and the voice for independence. Meanwhile, people protested against abusive labor laws, lack of land, lack of representation, the overwhelming power of the colonial government and how it 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 across the White HIghlands, 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 colonial government called Waruhiu was assassinated by gunfire in broad daylight. It was 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.

Prison camp in Kenya.

The British Way in Dealing with the Mau Mau

After closing down Nairobi with colonial police and the 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 decades earlier and they were still dealing with the Malaysian communist insurgents in the Far East. These historical examples served when 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 novelist and political thinker Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938-) 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 of Kamiriithu where they were all controlled by Kikuyus that were loyal to the Colonial Government. His brother joined the guerrillas in the forests and his mother was removed to a fenced village. These memories of times of war would flower in his first published novel, Weep, Not Child (1964), and in his autobiography Dream in a Time of War (2010).

The British gave themselves the right to arrest without trial, which led to mass incarceration within the Kikuyu people. With many 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 was constant.

Ian Henderson (1927–2013), one famous British officer was responsible for a great number of tortures and deaths. In his book Man Hunt in Kenya (1958), he never treats the Kikuyus as fellow humans but as mere inhuman terrorists. In his memoir of war, strangely, Henderson never mentions any fact of violence except when it is done by a native Mau Mau. Much of his opinions about Africans came from the book of the psychologist John Colin Carothers (1903–1989). Carothers wrote that the Mau Mau was no freedom fighter but was mentally ill. The colonizers were neglecting any kind of rationality to the demands of the guerrilla fighters and treated the case as a fight between civilization (that could only be Western and British) against the barbarism of uneducated, uncivilized and inferior people.

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. Few British lost their lives against 12.000 to 20.000 Mau Mau fighters and supporters. Commanders of the many guerrilla units operating in the forests would later become legendary names such as Dedan Kimathi (1930–1957). Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) and Malcolm X (1925–1965) regarded Kimathi as a hero and an example.

The independence of Kenya 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 that took a conservative and capitalist way of development, unlikely the neighbor Tanzania, who went the road of African socialism.

The recognition of the Mau Mau struggle and Mau Mau veterans is still something recent. Only in recent times the Mau Mau are being listened to and receiving reparations. The Mau Mau became a classical theme in African Studies, but still, Mau Mau history still needs to reach a further audience and have their fight recognized as an anti-colonial force against a racist and genocidal force that was colonialism in Africa.

All History and No Play

All Things History

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