[David Anderson] and [Caroline Elkins] describe the Mau Mau insurgency, which lasted from 1952 to 1960, as an extreme response by the Kikuyu tribe to British injustice and land grabbing -- a response that might have been minimized had the British not reacted with so much fury. The British suppression was as bloodthirsty and irrational as the Mau Mau uprising itself. Despite all the tales, only 32 white settlers died at the hands of the Mau Mau terrorists. Tens of thousands of Kikuyus -- Elkins says perhaps more than 100,000 -- died at the hands of the British forces and their African allies, often in cruel and barbarous detention camps during the uprising.
Yet the Mau Mau rebellion came out of sophisticated nationalist feelings, especially among the Kikuyus, the largest tribe in Kenya. These feelings were powered by resentment over the large tracts of farm land monopolized by whites while the overcrowded African areas had too little land to go around. Kikuyu hotheads began to unite their compatriots against the British through a traditional religious ceremony known as oathing. The oaths, reinforced by such rituals as the smearing of blood on a forehead and the chewing of a goat's innards, were regarded as so binding that an oathed Kikuyu risked supernatural vengeance if he or she betrayed the tribe. The term Mau Mau -- first coined by the British -- was probably derived from the Kikuyu word for oath.
The first victims of the uprising were Kikuyus themselves -- chiefs, landowners, Christians and others who refused to go along. To deal with this, Sir Evelyn Baring, the British governor, foolishly declared a state of emergency in October 1952, arrested Kikuyu nationalist leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and called for more British troops to pacify the colony. At the time Baring issued his decree, only a single white farmer had been killed. The emergency inflamed the insurgency and drove thousands of young Mau Mau to take refuge in the mountain forests of Kenya. The British insisted that Kenyatta was the Mau Mau leader, but both Anderson and Elkins dismiss the notion. In fact, they regard him as the only hope -- before the emergency declaration -- of moderating the movement and leading the Africans to majority rule peacefully. The conflict itself became a kind of civil war, with many Kikuyu fighting alongside the British against Mau Mau.