70 years on Mau Mau history reminds us of the British monarchy's violence

70 years on Mau Mau history reminds us of the British monarchy's violence
Adele Walton marks the 70th anniversary of the start of Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule by highlighting the death, torture and exploitation used by British colonialism in the name of the Crown.
6 min read
26 Sep, 2022
Britain has agreed to compensate Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule in the 1950s. [GETTY]

The Queen's passing has undeniably sparked new conversations around the legacies of British imperialism and colonial exploitation. A world of two tales has emerged, one of romantic memories of the British empire, and another which mourns the lives lost and heals from the collective pain under colonial rule.

Kenya is one country whose memory of the British Royal Family remains one tainted with bloody violence and brutal oppression. It was in fact on her official tour of Kenya in 1952 that Elizabeth II learnt of her father’s death, which would lead to her becoming queen.

70 years on it is not just the Queen’s death that is being marked, but also an equally significant anniversary for Kenya: the start of the Mau Mau rebellion, an 8-year struggle for liberation from colonial rule.

Just months after Elizabeth II came to reign, British colonialists introduced detentions camps and implemented the torture, rape, castration and killing of tens and thousands of people. The very same lodge in which the Queen learned of her father’s death, later became the site where British colonial soldiers gunned down Kenyan Mau Mau freedom fighters. 

''The systemic whitewashing and romanticisation of Britain’s imperial past remains more prevalent than ever, but the courageous resistance of those Kenyans lives on in those who continue to challenge and reject neo-colonialism today.''

The immense wave of political unrest and anti-colonial resistance is remembered as a pivotal point in the country’s history, and its fight for liberation from the shackles of the British Empire.

Land grabs, settler colonialism and displacement

When the British East African company was granted a charter in 1888, British colonisation of Kenya began. Within 7 years, Kenya was declared a British protectorate, granting Britain official rule over the country and opening up the highlands to white colonial settlers. The fertile highlands across Kenya were a natural resource the British wanted to exploit. Through a series of forceful displacements, native Kenyans were stripped of their land and homes, with many being forced to work as labourers on white settler farms. 

The colonial government tailored legislation to entrench exploitative landowner versus labourer relations, in favour of the British settler population who would profit from this process. By doing so, the British colonial government was also able to reap the benefits of Kenyan labour, whilst forcing the indigenous population to pay taxes to fund their expansion and consolidate their colonial power in East Africa.

The Master and Servant Act was a pivotal item of legislation that enabled white settlers to exploit the Kenyan population by criminalising any disobedience, making it punishable with prison or hard labour.

By displacing the Kenyan population from their means of production and survival through ancestral lands, they became empire’s disposable labour almost overnight. It also did not stop there, however, Kenyans were also forced to carry a Kipande (a form of identity card) around their neck at all times, in order to limit their movement across their country. 

An armed resistance

Over time, the increasing oppression of the Kenyan population reached boiling point. For years, the Kenyan African Union had challenged the injustices of British rule, but eventually these efforts proved fruitless, and a more militant approach was taken.

Younger activists in the Kenyan trade union movement developed a new coalition. The resistance was made up of the Kikuyu people, Meru people and Embu people, and together they formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The Mau Mau oath was taken by each individual in the movement, and it served to connect people across the country in their resistance. 

On the 9 October 1952, a senior chief who had supported British colonial rule was shot dead, signalling the start of the uprising. The Mau Mau military strategy consisted of guerrilla attacks which took place at night, targeting white settler farms and colonial loyalists.

On 21 October, the Colonial Office declared a state of emergency and deployed military troops to Kenya. The British waged war on 20,000 Mau Mau fighters and targeted those who had pledged an oath of loyalty, with any suspected of being part of the resistance being held in detention camps or executed.

torture memorial
A memorial in honour of victims of torture during the colonial era in Nairobi, Kenya. [GETTY]

The British did not stop there. They imprisoned more than 100,000 innocent people in detention camps, subjecting many to torture, sexual abuse, forced labour and malnutrition, in conditions that have been compared to the concentration camps used under Hitler

In 1953, Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenyan independence movement, was charged with directing the Mau Mau rebellion, and sentenced to 9 years in prison along with other freedom fighters. 7 years after the uprisings collapsed, Kenya became independent from British colonial rule.

Kenya today

On the day of the Queen’s death, Uhuru Kenyatta ordered 4 days of national mourning and the newly-elected president William Ruto, called the queen’s leadership “admirable”, reactions across the country understandably rejected the romanticisation which flooded mainstream media.

This is unsurprising given that in 2019, a petition gaining over 100,000 signatures from Kenyan victims of colonial violence and displacement was presented to the UN, demanding an apology and compensation.

The Kenyan Human Rights commission has said that 90,000 Kenyans were executed or tortured, with 160,000 being detained without trial. 32 white settlers were killed.


The British government paid out £19.9 million in compensation in 2013 to more than 5,000 Kenyans who had suffered from imperial violence during the Mau Mau uprising. Despite recognition of the systematic torture and abuse that Kenyans were subject to, no British officials have ever been charged for their crimes against humanity.

Whilst questions remain about the Mau Mau uprising and its complex nature, it is remembered as a pivotal period in the fight for Kenyan liberation from British colonial rule. One thing is certain, the connections between the British monarchy’s extreme wealth and the continued exploitation of formerly colonised countries can no longer be denied.

The systemic whitewashing and romanticisation of Britain’s imperial past remains more prevalent than ever, but the courageous resistance of those Kenyans lives on in those who continue to challenge and reject neo-colonialism today.

The parallels between the British monarchy and colonial exploitation are inseparable, without the former, the later might not have existed.

Adele Walton is an International Development graduate and freelance journalist, who has written for Jacobin, Tribune, openDemocracy, Vice, Dazed and more. She studied at the University of Sussex and wrote a dissertation critiquing the racialised logics of underdevelopment and good governance narratives. She is half Turkish and half British.

Follow her on Twitter: @adelewalton121

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.