The role of violence was central to the theme of African resistance to settler colonialism in Caroline Elkins book, “Imperial Reckoning”. During the British settlement of Kenya and accompanying land grabs, the settlers and state militias used brutal acts to force Kenyans off of hundreds of thousands of acres of their land, and subsequently forced them to work for the settlers in slave-like treatment and conditions. While the death tolls of rural dwellers stretched toward the tens of thousands (234), and the oppression and brutality was extreme-particularly in the camps- the Kikuyu spawned uprisings of surprise attacks resulting in deaths of many settlers and their families. These deaths, although involving violent murders of men, women, and even the youngest of children, being slaughtered in their beds while they slept, or burned to the ground in their homes, per Kenyan testimonies, necessary to quell the murderous rampage occurring in the names of Britain’s economic expansion and settlement (75).
Despite the Brit’s reporting one-sided stories of African violence and massive death, the “Mau Mau Emergency,” as it were, was defended by the Kikuyu as exclusively in response to the comprehensive and violent attacks on the Kenyan people, with the stealing of their own personal land, and moreover, their very identities and culture. Elkins conveys the testimony of Kikuyu recalling the reasons for the uprising, as that they took the land without notice or warning and responded violently to innocent trespass. “If a Kikuyu happened to graze on the land,” Elkins relayed, “you could be beaten or killed…when you are treated like slaves on the land that you once owned, you are bound to be angry about it” (74). Additionally, the treatment by the settlers and leadership to the Kenyan people were extreme, not only with improper camp conditions and lack of proper hygiene causing boils and spreading deadly plagues (221), but they were forced into demeaning acts like carrying human waste buckets long distances on their heads with it running down their hair, faces, and backs, while being whipped (196).
Furthermore, the violence by the camp leaders was rampant with many deaths caused by abuse and neglect, regular beatings, torture, hacking off body parts including testicles, and sexual violence from penetrations to the forcing of sticks, dirt, rocks, and other items inside the sensitive organs of both men and women. This behavior supports what Elkins says of the British’s settlement plan, was of “self-aggrandizement” and to further boost their own masculinity. Thus, Elkins says, they not only stole their land, but attacked everything important to the Kikuyu men in attempted emasculation, and displayed dominance over “their women, their children, and their [own] bodies (208).
While the Mau Mau used harsh brutality and death in their attacks against British settlers, these incidents paled greatly in number and to the gravity of the extreme brutality, torture, and death, even against women and the youngest Kikuyu, whom often died from neglect in the camp confines (226-228), and that, moreover, existed well prior to these upsurges of resistance. In response to the Kenyan uprising, the British relayed stories to the homeland of how the Kenyans were on a murderous rampage and even docile servants had turned mad with violence, hacking up their children as they slept in beds (43). But, while this ramped up the local violence, this war-like state now had the attention of the British parliament, labor unions, and British newspapers-whose eyes were being drawn to take a closer look at the settlements in Kenya and the reported abuses (335). Thus, outrage from groups like the British Labour Party (275) eventually forced stoppage of the atrocities being committed in Africa, albeit slowly and without much consequence for the offending British. But, in 1961, the Kenyan people gained their freedom from European rule, and as the Mau leader, Kenyetta, spoke to the world (and more directly, to his own people) it became clear that their violent rebellion had won them the much needed reprieve from oppression and violence they so desperately needed and desired (359).
Elkins, C. (2005). Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York, USA: Owl Books-Henry Holt and Company LLC .
Professors Note: Teri- This is a very vivid and thorough characterization of the nature of systemic and physical violence that existed under the British colonial regime in Kenya, and you demonstrate well the reasons for the Mau Mau’s own violent response to this oppression. Great work!