Empire and the Mau Mau: A Story of Colonialism and Counter-Insurgency

By Katie EngelhartMay 13, 2013

Empire and the Mau Mau: A Story of Colonialism and Counter-Insurgency

Fighting the Mau Mau by Huw Bennett

IT WAS 1961, and things were not looking good in Vietnam. Viet Cong guerillas were gaining ground in the south of the former French colony, and the United States. was ratcheting up troop levels. In response, a newly elected President John F. Kennedy sent US State Department director Roger Hilsman to Saigon, to assess the situation firsthand.

The British Army was watching. Fresh out of Malaya (now Malaysia), where they had effectively quelled a communist uprising in their own colonial backyard, British generals were itching to share some lessons learned with their floundering American allies.

Shortly after Hilsman arrived in Vietnam, he met briefly with Sir Robert Thompson: a veteran of the “Malayan Emergency,” and head of the newly constituted “British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam” (BRIAM). The two men chatted counter-insurgency doctrine; Thompson outlined his tried-and-true strategy for pacifying civilian populations through forcible resettlement.

When Hilsman unveiled his 1962 “Strategic Concept for South Vietnam” — charting an American way forward, out of the Cold War quagmire — he gave Thompson his due in a wee footnote acknowledging that the “basic approach followed in this plan was developed by Mr. R. G. K. Thompson.” In 1963, Thompson would brief Kennedy himself. But soon enough, BRIAM was sidelined — by American officials who found little to glean from the Malayan example. 

Hindsight has been far from kind to the United States’ “Strategic Hamlet Program” — and to the 10-plus years of anti-Viet Cong battling that followed its inception. 

Sir Thompson did not escape the historical record unscathed. But the popular verdict has long been that more, and not less, British involvement would have been good for Vietnam. And that America should have embraced their British advisors, wise in the ways of imperial policing — not left them shouting into the strategic abyss. 

At the start of the 20th century, the focus of the British colonial army had shifted. While the late 19th century was marked by campaigns around the fringe of the empire, the new century brought new internal security challenges — like riot control and policing. Between 1919 and 1960, British forces carried out “internal security operations” on a quarter of the earth’s land surface. 

For many decades, it was fashionable to contrast British military restraint (embodied in the 1948–60 Malayan Emergency) with bloody American excess (as seen in the Vietnam War). There was said to be a “British way” of warfare: synonymous with economy, reserve, and a culture of “minimum force.” Yes, there were spectacularly bloody displays of British force — but ultimately, Britain got it, in a way that the Americans (and the French and Portuguese and Germans and Spaniards and Dutch) did not.

The conceit is that bumbling Britain managed a more graceful exit from Empire than its imperial peers. Recently, this seductive logic has been challenged — not least by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have renewed interest in British counter-insurgency techniques. But it is still a dominant paradigm shaping Britain’s postcolonial self-history. 

So how to confront what happened in 1950s Kenya?


Such is the goal of Huw Bennett, in his new book Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency.

At first glance, the cover photograph of Bennett’s book is familiarly numbing. It shows khaki-clad and gun-wielding British soldiers, standing before a line of stone-faced Black men: feet bare, eyes downcast. In one corner, a British soldier wearing a peaked beret kneels down to search a young Kenyan in a trench coat. 

On the left-hand side, another British soldier stands tall with his gun lazily pointed at the Kenyans. His back is turned, so we can only see a sliver of his smooth young face. It takes a moment to recognize that he is grinning.

It’s a good image for this book, which promises to “shatte[r] our view of Britain’s Army as the ‘hearts-and-minds’ counter-insurgency specialists” — using an incredible cache of newly discovered documents, as well as material released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Bennett’s account adds to a small, but growing chorus of revisionist Kenya historians led by two formidable scholars: Harvard University’s Caroline Elkins and Oxford University’s David Anderson. It is the first study of what the eight-year-long “Kenya Emergency” was like: not for the Kenyan, but for the British officer sent to quell unrest in an unfamiliar land. 

What a sight it must have been. In the 1940s, a rebel movement known as Mau Mau took hold in the Kenyan countryside. Several thousand Kikuyu squatters — displaced during Britain’s colonial land grab — swore an oath (willingly or under duress) to oppose European rule, and up to 25,000 fled to the forests to fight. Mau Mau rebels would murder hundreds, leaving some of their victims dismembered and cryptically arranged. 

Panicked, Kenya’s healthy population of white settlers — down-and-outs from South Africa and Brits with dwindling inheritances — demanded action. British troops more than complied: joining forces with the settlers and Kenyan loyalists to lead a grossly spectacularly excessive spilling of blood. In 1952, Kenyan Governor Sir Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency in the colony. 

Caroline Elkins, in her 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning account Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, calls what happened next “genocide.” Bennett does not. This is an important divergence — but either way, things were ugly.

Between 1952 and 1960 — just a few years after Allied forces liberated Nazi concentration camps — British troops detained tens of thousands of Kenyans in a “pipeline” of barbed-wire detention camps (Anderson says 100,000; Elkins says as many as 320,000), and displaced up to 1.5 million. Many were imprisoned and tortured for years without a single criminal charge against them. Up to 30,000 were killed.

During this time, an estimated 32 European civilians died at Mau Mau hands, as well as several thousand Kikuyu loyalists. 

In 1960, the emergency ended. Three years late, Kenya won independence. The detention camps were closed. In South Africa, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave his famous “Wind of Change” speech: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not.”

Back in London, however, army officials were feeling cagey. Some, like General George Erskine, had acknowledged as early as 1953 that revelation of Britain’s conduct in Kenya “would be shattering.” In response, they kept mum. The new administration in Kenya kept quiet too — upholding Britain’s ban on the Mau Mau movement. Mau Mau members were driven underground. In 2003, when the ban was finally lifted, most were long dead.

Only in 2005 did history resurface: with the publication of Caroline Elkins and David Anderson’s shattering books. That’s when time sped up. And things got litigious. 

Mau Mau veterans associations began popping up. In Nairobi, the Kenya Human Rights Commission began plotting a lawsuit — and eventually selected a handful of octogenarians to stand against the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The British government rejected the case on technical grounds. But this October, a High Court in London declared that the case could go to trial. (Early this month, The Guardian reported that the two sides are in settlement negotiations.)

This represents the first time, ever, anywhere, that colonial victims have been permitted to sue the British state.

Bennett’s new book benefits from this ongoing case in an unusual way. In 2011, Bennett agreed to act as an expert witness on behalf of the Kenyan plaintiffs. Through that role, he gained access to still-classified British documents. It is a lucky historian indeed who finds his work at the heart of judicial relevance. 


Bennett is the first to stir these new findings into established history. The thrust of his argument is that violence in colonial Kenya was not anomalous. It was not a drift away from orthodox army culture, or a breach perpetrated by rogue officers. It was also not a “breakdown” in military law. Rather, the British Army cultivated a legal environment in which massacres could safely be carried out. In this context, many soldiers acted honorably and with restraint. But many did not. 

For starters, Britain was unusually hostile to postwar international efforts to regulate wartime conduct. Four years after the Third Reich’s defeat, a number of nations drew up the Geneva Convention, which extended rights to noncombatants during internal conflicts. But Britain refused to ratify the convention until 1957, well into the Kenya Emergency. 

This resistance, says Bennett, was an imperial product: Britain was worried that the conventions might limit its sovereignty in the colonies. The Geneva Conventions were not even mentioned during officer training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst until 1961, when they were discussed for an hour. 

National military rules were also hazy. One of Bennett’s most interesting case studies deals with “superior orders.” 

Up until World War II, a British soldier accused of wrongdoing could appeal to “superior orders.” In other words, he could say that his superior had made him do it — and thus be exonerated. The rationale was that soldiers were more likely to disobey, or at least hesitate in the field, if they were required to second-guess the legality of every order issued. 

But World War II changed everything. By 1943, the Allies had committed to prosecute Axis war criminals. With those eventual trials in mind, Britain and the United States amended their military codes, so that “superior orders” was no longer a valid legal defense. Between 1945 and 1949, British courts tried some 1,783 Axis individuals for war crimes; during those trials, judges rejected pleas of obedience.

This change also meant that British soldiers now had a legal responsibility to disobey “obviously illegal” orders — or risk prosecution. But Bennett argues that colonial officers were kept largely ignorant of the law. Obedience at all costs was preserved.

Much of Fighting the Mau Mau chronicles (in often tedious detail) the specific measures that British Army officials took to skirt around, or marginalize, or manipulate restrictive laws — or else use the law to legitimate mistreatment after the fact.

Early on, the army made heavy use of special squads — sometimes “pseudo-gangs,” made up of ex-Mau Mau — for operations in the deep forests. These “gangs” were free from traditional oversight and distanced from traditional controls. British soldiers also leaned heavily on white settler and black Kenyan loyalists, whose respect for British law was lacking. And, importantly, great swaths of the civilian population were cast as “insurgents” — and thus deprived of legal protections. “The Kikuyu must be taught a lesson that will be remembered for generations and which will act as a warning to other tribes,” remarked Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Campbell in 1955.

In other cases, the law was simply not up to the task at hand. British Army units, for instance, were instructed to call “Halt!” before shooting. But they were instructed to speak in English, a language that the Kenyans did not understand. It seems Monty Python-esque — except that so many Kenyans were “shot while attempting to escape.” Bennett also argues that “rape was treated differently from other military offences, almost with a lack of interest.” 

Such were the needs of “imperial policing.” 

Weak parliamentary oversight is also added to the brew. Members of Cabinet “were generally uninterested in Kenya”; Winston Churchill, already 81 when the State of Emergency was declared, often failed to read key documents — especially after his stroke in June 1953. 

In the end, Bennett’s writing is far too dense and legalistic — indeed soldierly — to appeal to a mass audience. This book is clearly intended for a more informed crowd. Even those readers may charge that this book is a tad lacking in spirit — with even the most biting critiques cloaked in heavy academic speak. Throughout Fighting the Mau Mau, Bennett speaks of chaos and lawlessness and paranoia in Nairobi — buoyed by state weakness, an “intelligence drought” and growing fear. But we don’t feel any of it. And thus, our imaginations are not adequately equipped to see things from the perspective of the young soldier on the jacket cover. 

Stylistically, the book stands apart from Caroline Elkins and David Andersons’s more gripping tales. In the case of the former, the distance might be deliberate. Bennett is not shy about deriding Elkins’s (Pulitzer Prize–winning) methods — and, in particular, her heavy use of survivor testimony. (Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning uses 600 hours of interviews). His book is noticeably lacking in references to Elkins. In fact, throughout the book, Kenyan voices are barely heard at all.

Bennett’s clear contention is that “structural flaws within international law itself allowed […] violation.” But he often fails to fill a critical gap: between legal permissibility and the actual decision to carry out a murder or an illegal detention or a rape or a castration. In some cases, filling this gap would have required imaginative leaps on Bennett’s behalf; he refuses to make them. But “structural flaws” don’t kill people.

This book is, nevertheless, a meticulously researched moral audit of Britain’s exit from empire. And the presentation of these new documents will prove valuable — to a British public that is perpetually debating whether it should celebrate or atone for its colonial past, whether imperial history is too much at the fore or whether Brits have succumbed to “imperial amnesia” once and for all.


In some ways, Bennett has a harder task still ahead of him: writing history not for an engaged reader, but for a courtroom. Exactly what happened during the Mau Mau Emergency is being debated anew in British courts; here — as I have reported extensively in other outlets — the headlines say that British history is on trial.

Three Kenyans are suing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). They are Wambugu Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara, and Paulo Muoka Nzili: alleged victims of beating, rape, and castration, respectively. In her witness statement to the court, Muthoni Mara alleges that, as a 15-year-old, she was incarcerated at the notorious Gatithi screening camp — after militants forced her to swear the Mau Mau oath. There, four guards raped her with a glass soda bottle that had been filled with hot water. Wa Nyingi alleges that he was left for dead (amidst a pile of corpses) after being severely beaten. Muoka Nzili alleges that he was castrated with a pair of farming pliers.

When the claimants announced their suit against the FCO, the British government protested on technical grounds — arguing that modern-day Britain is not liable for colonial torture. But in October, after considerable wrangling, a London High Court ruled that the case could go forward. Imperial history will indeed be subject to the scrutiny of modern-day law — or, at least, addressed head-on in a settlement. For their part, the octogenarian Kenyans are asking for compensation and an apology. 

In order to make their historical case, lawyers recruited three historians to act as expert-witnesses: David Anderson, Caroline Elkins, and Huw Bennett. The alleged crimes, after all, are half a century old, and need to be contextualized. In order to charge the FCO, the Kenyans’ lawyers need to prove that violence against the Mau Mau was “systemic.”

Given Bennett’s expertise — and his contention that “the Army was quite seriously tarnished by the whole conflict” — he is an obvious asset to the claimants.

But Bennett clearly views his struggle as part of a broader crusade against orthodox colonial history — and the misconceptions of a post-colonial public. I spoke with Bennett last fall. “There has,” he told me, “been for a prolonged time this impression that the British army doesn’t do war crimes — that this is something that happens to the Americans in Vietnam or Abu Ghraib or something, the kind of thing that the French do in Algeria. But atrocities, that’s not British stuff, not our way of doing it.” He continued: “Interrogations, corrective punishments, very loose rules of engagement about when firearms could be used — these were things that were common to all of the post-war counter-insurgencies that Britain conducted.”

If you’re hearing War on Terror echoes, you’re on the right track. Though Bennett’s book sticks to the 1940s through 1960s, his history is lent urgency by this shadow plot — and by Bennett’s implicit suggestion that some of the same legal structures that opened the door to bloodshed in Kenya are in place today.


Katie Engelhart is a Toronto-born, London-based writer and reporter. Her work appears far and wide, and can be found at www.katieengelhart.com.

LARB Contributor

Katie Engelhart is a Toronto-born, London-based writer and reporter. Her work appears far and wide, and can be found at www.katieengelhart.com.


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