The Journal of African History

Colonial Minds

Mau Maus of the Mind: Making Mau Mau and Remaking Kenya1

John Lonsdalea1

a1 Trinity College, Cambridge

This article explores the imaginative meanings of Mau Mau which white and black protagonists invented out of their fearful ambitions for the future of Kenya. Within the general assumptions of white superiority and the need to destroy Mau Mau savagery, four mutually incompatible European myths can be picked out. Conservatives argued that Mau Mau revealed the latent terror-laden primitivism in all Africans, the Kikuyu especially. This reversion had been stimulated by the dangerous freedoms offered by too liberal a colonialism in the post-war world. The answer must be an unapologetic reimposition of white power. Liberals blamed Mau Mau on the bewildering psychological effects of rapid social change and the collapse of orderly tribal values. Africans must be brought more decisively through the period of transition from tribal conformity to competitive society, to play a full part in a multi-racial future dominated by western culture; this would entail radical economic reforms. Christian fundamentalists saw Mau Mau as collective sin, to be overcome by individual confession and conversion. More has been read into their rehabilitating mission in the detention camps than is warranted, since they had no theology of power. The whites with decisive power were the British military. They saw the emergency as a political war which needed political solutions, for which repression, social improvement and spiritual revival were no substitute. They, and the ‘hard-core’ Mau Mau detainees at Hola camp who thought like them, cleared the way for the peace. This was won not by any of the white constructions of the rising but by Kenyatta's Kikuyu political thought, which inspired yet criminalised Mau Mau.


1 An earlier version of this essay was read to the Royal Historical Society in December 1989 and will appear in the society's Transactions. Much of my material is derived from a research project on ‘Explaining Mau Mau’ shared with Bruce Berman of Queen's University, Ontario. Some of my ideas are also his, but I have been unable to test on him this particular approach, which is preliminary to our larger work, and cannot ask him to share the blame. The classic study of the Kenya whites’ imaginative construction of Mau Mau is Carl G. Rosberg and John Nottingham, The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: Nationalism in Kenya (New York and London, 1966); this essay is part of the revision to which this work is now subject with the availability of archival material. Four other colleagues to whom I am also grateful for help in understanding the European constructions of Mau Mau are: Frederick Cooper, ‘Mau Mau and the discourses of decolonization’, J.Afr. Hist., XXIX (1988), 313–20; Dane Kennedy, ‘The political mythology of Mau Mau’, paper presented to the American Historical Association, December 1989; David W. Throup, Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau (London, 1987); Luise White, ‘Separating the men from the boys: constructions of gender, sexuality and terrorism in central Kenya, 1939–1959’, Int.J.Afr.Hist. Studies, XXIII (1990), 1–27. I also see myself as revising the ‘Euro-African myth’ presented in Robert Buijtenhuijs, Mau Mau Twenty Years After: The Myth and the Survivors (The Hague, 1973), 49–62, which has no consideration of Kikuyu political thought. For this I lean heavily on the unpublished work of Great Kershaw and on Tabitha Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau (London, 1987). Richard Waller has commented wisely. Finally, I must thank those who were there at the time and who have shared their thoughts over the years, especially: Tom Askwith, Peter Bostock, Dick Cashmore, Thomas Colchester, Terence Gavaghan, Richard Hennings, Harry Hilton, Cyril Hooper, Elspeth Huxley, Frank Loyd, Desmond O'Hagan, Tommy Thompson, and Dick Turnbull. They bear no responsibility for my conclusions, which I hope they will find not too distorted by hindsight.