The Mau Mau war exploded in the British colony of Kenya during the 1950s. It pitted dreadlocked guerrilla fighters drawn from the Gikuyu ethnic group—Kenya’s largest, at 20 percent of the population, and sometimes rendered “Kikuyu”—against British security forces and their “loyalist” allies. Mau Mau fighters comprised a well-organized military force made up of poor, often youthful, and socially insecure Gikuyu, who had suffered disproportionately under the British colonial system. Operating with great skill and determination from bases within the thick forests of central Kenya’s highlands, they conducted a military campaign to attempt to drive the British from the colony and create a new, ordered society. While the bulk of the military engagements took place between late 1952 and late 1954, the British colonial government in Kenya held the colony under a “State of Emergency” from 20 October 1952 until January 1960. More than 80,000 Gikuyu were imprisoned in “detention and rehabilitation” camps, and another million in enclosed villages, where abuses were common. Mau Mau was a complex movement; some scholars argue that there was never one unified “Mau Mau,” but rather a messy conglomeration of similarly interested groups, each operating with a degree of independence from one another. Even the naming of the movement is controversial: while the term “Mau Mau” is generally used today to describe both the guerrilla fighters as well as the conflict itself, the fighters themselves never used it in the 1950s. Some, therefore, prefer to call the force the “Kenya Land Freedom Army,” the title most often employed by its leaders. As a result of these complications—combined with the global importance of Mau Mau in the 1950s—more scholarly and popular work has been written about Mau Mau than almost any other topic in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. It remains controversial, inspirational, and a subject of immense significance for contemporary Kenya.
Rosberg and Nottingham 1966 played an important role in rehabilitating Mau Mau’s image, depicting the movement as a legitimate nationalist movement, in contrast to British efforts to portray it as an irrational expression of atavistic savagery. Today, Rosberg and Nottingham, as well as Edgerton 1989, have been largely eclipsed by more recent scholarship, though they remain significant stepping-stones in creating our current understanding of the conflict. Maloba 1993 is a readable overview that is suitable for undergraduate students, but readers may wish to jump directly to Anderson 2005 and Elkins 2005, two more recent works of scholarship with interestingly divergent views that have transformed our understanding of the episode, based in significant part on recent archival discoveries and a large number of oral interviews, respectively.
Anderson, David. Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
The most authoritative general account of the conflict; uses the court cases of 1,090 Mau Mau hanged during the 1950s to tell the story of the war.
Edgerton, Robert. Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York: Free Press, 1989.
A somewhat sensationalist narrative whose writing style and occasional errors are balanced by a number of original insights into Mau Mau.
Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.
This Pulitzer Prize–winning book is focused on the British “detention and rehabilitation” camp system. Its narrative is built in part from the testimony of over three hundred interviews with Gikuyu detainees, as well as former British settlers and officials.
Maloba, Wunyabari. Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
A broad chronological account of Mau Mau that traces the episode from its roots in the Gikuyu peasantry to its appropriation and contestation by a broad range of actors in more recent years.
Rosberg, Carl, and John Nottingham. The Myth of “Mau Mau”: Nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger, 1966.
Now somewhat dated, but important as the first account to contradict British efforts to depict Mau Mau as irrational “savages.” The authors view Mau Mau as a nationalist movement aiming to achieve Kenyan independence. Published by Praeger for the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace (Stanford, CA).
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