The Mau Mau rebellion in 1952 was undeniably caused by the growing tensions between the Kikuyu and the white European settlers in Kenya. However, despite growing unrest, the precise causes of the rebellion remain unclear. This essay will discuss a number of possible reasons for the revolt, examining the economic, social and political tensions caused by the colonial administration in an attempt to discover the real reasons for the Mau Mau rebellion and why the Kikuyu were so unhappy with their colonial administrators.
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Arguably one of the most important reasons for the Mau Mau rebellion was the economic deprivation of the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu had long been unhappy with white settlers in Kenya taking their land, and their economic deprivation lead to vast discontent throughout the Kikuyu. Despite attempts to address this issue, the Kikuyu’s were ignored. Michael Coray has argued that by failing to create a system through which Africa grievances against white settlers could be settled fairly, the Kikuyu grew more dissatisfied with the colonial administrations failures, thus playing a significant part in the development of the Mau Mau rebellion. Economic deprivation continued throughout colonial rule; by 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyu were restricted to 2000 square miles whilst 30,000 white settlers occupied 12,000 square miles, demonstrating the extent to which the Kikuyu were disadvantaged by the white settlers, causing them anger and resentment. As a result to these poor living conditions, there was a huge increase in the number of Kikuyu migrating to the cities; leading to poverty, unemployment and overpopulation. Despite these factors, it has been argued that economic deprivation was not of particular importance in relation to why the Mau Mau rebellion broke out. Claude Welch has claimed that grievances were expressed primarily on a tribal basis as opposed to a class basis, which he uses as evidence to suggest that economic deprivation is not as significant a factor as one might believe. However, regardless of whether or not it contributed greatly to the break out of the Mau Mau rebellion, there is little doubt that the unrest caused by economic deprivation had an impact on the Kikuyu, and trough this contributed to the Mau Mau rebellion.
As well as economic deprivation, the Kikuyu were arguably angered by their loss of economic independence during the colonial period. As Eric Brown has stated, the loss of land to white settlers meant not only that the Kikuyu were bereft of their land, but also that they had to then find work in order to make a living; usually working for the white settlers. Brown has paralleled this with Serfdom, and argues that Kikuyu reliance on white settlers caused an increase in social tensions amongst the Kikuyu. Though already at a disadvantage, the Kikuyu would also earn on average only a fifth of the payment which white workers would earn for the same amount of work, which only furthered the Kikuyu resentment of the settlers. Despite migrating to the cities, which one might consider puts the Kikuyu at an economic advantage, the Kikuyu were in fact disadvantaged when considering their prosperous position prior to colonial administration; coffee growing in particular was a rewarding industry due to the fertile land held by the Kikuyu, and so the prohibition of coffee growing imposed by the colonial government crippled the Kikuyu. In this light, a rebellion against the British settlers might be seen as inevitable. The Kikuyu were the most populous ethnic group in Kenya, with what Brown calls a “flourishing society; therefore, when the Mau Mau offered them an opportunity to revolt against British colonialism, the group grew rapidly. One could then argue that a main reason why the Mau Mau rebellion broke out was so that the Kikuyu could regain the economic independence that they longed for, and were used to prior to colonial disruption.
However, the social conditions of the Kikuyu cannot be ignored when attempting to address the main reasons for the break out of the Mau Mau rebellion. Harsh restrictions were placed upon the Kikuyu; they were taxed heavily (which when one considers that they were earning only a fifth of the wages white settlers were earning, seems particularly severe), and racial tensions increased. White settlers saw the Kikuyu as agricultural competition, thus explaining why such heavy restrictions were placed upon them. Disciplinary measures were introduced by white settlers on the Kikuyu who worked on their land; workers were often tortured or abused by the white settlers. This horrific treatment of the Kikuyu only angered them further and caused greater discontent between black and white. Alongside their economic deprivation, the Kikuyu and other people of Africa were made to feel like outsiders within their homeland, and became alienated from society. Many Kikuyu had no choice but to become squatters on white land, which to them seemed degrading considering the land was rightfully theirs. There were also increasing tensions between the Kikuyu people themselves. Kikuyu land owners and those forced to work on white land began to despise each other; Furedi argues that this led to the land owners and their white allies releasing “a wave of repression onto those with no land, thus increasing social tensions throughout Kenya. This meant that poorer Kikuyu workers were not only angered by the white settlers but also by their own people, thus strengthening the argument that the Mau Mau rebellion was a ‘peasant revolt’ against the wealthy and the white.
The vast growth of the Kikuyu Central Association also accounts for the break out of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952. The KCA made its aims clear to reclaim the land taken from them – and ran a campaign of civil disobedience in order to protest against the white settlers taking their land, which demonstrates the unrest amongst the Kikuyu prior to the rebellion. The KCA also made radical demands, for example the return of their land, in hope of returning to their economic position prior to colonial rule. The growth in membership of the KCA can be accounted for in the popular demands it made; for example, higher wages and the right to grow coffee again. It has already been established that the Kikuyu were greatly unhappy with their social and economic position within Kenya, and so the KCA offered them an opportunity to voice their discontent and attempt to make a change through convincing the government that if their demands were not met, they would create more trouble. Despite these protests, the KCA was largely ignored by the colonial government, thus furthering tensions between the two. The KCA’s grievances originated in the 1920s and 1930s, and so by the time the Mau Mau rebellion broke out in 1952, decades had passed with little change to benefit the Kikuyu, and therefore the rebellion had arguably been a long time coming. Consequently, the growth of the KCA reflects the growing tensions amongst the Kikuyu which led to the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952.
Another key reason for the break out of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952 was the internal divisions within the Kikuyu. It has been argued that there “never was a single Mau Mau. One possible reason for this argument is that the Mau Mau never made their goals clear; many have attempted to discover their goals through Mau Mau actions, and yet there is no solid evidence to suggest what the Mau Mau’s goals might be. Clough has argued that Mau Mau goals were political, and that they wanted to “drive out the white settlers and isolate African “enemies. There is certainly some validity to this argument; as Clough notes, memoirs from Mau Mau meetings show that a great effort was made planning what the Mau Mau relationship should be with detained leaders, and how they would communicate with the British to get their message across, demonstrating the importance of political motivations. Others have argued that their goals were economical, and that as previously stated the Kikuyu people strived to regain their economic independence that was lost through colonialism. The Mau Mau was a rapidly expanding group, and therefore the lack of a well-known, common goal meant that internal divisions were inevitable. Therefore the rebellion in 1952 was arguably caused by Mau Mau intentions to achieve something in order to avoid being seen as a radical group without a goal. However, as Lonsdale has pointed out, despite internal divisions, the Mau Mau were bound to each other by hopes of citizenship and bureaucracy, and therefore perhaps the broadness of such a goal benefitted the Mau Mau rather than causing a failed uprising.
It can therefore be concluded that there were a number of reasons for the break out of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952. Arguably the most important cause of the rebellion was the economic discontent of caused by white settlers claiming Kikuyu land and its consequences. The restrictions placed upon the Kikuyu, both economically and socially, also played a significant role in the break out of the rebellion, as the Kikuyu were made to feel alienated from their own society and repressed by white settlers. However, the most likely cause of the Mau Mau rebellion was a combination of all the above factors, which led to a growth in discontent amongst the Kikuyu and left them with no other alternative than to revolt. In this sense, it can be concluded that there was not just one cause of the Mau Mau rebellion, but a vast amount of varying causes encompassing economic, social and political tensions.
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Shaw, C., Colonial Inscriptions: Race, Sex and Class in Kenya (University of Minnesota Press, 1995)
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Lonsdale, J., ‘Foreword’ in Kershaw, G., Mau Mau from Below (Ohio University Press, 1997)
Clough, M., Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory and Politics (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998)
Odhiambo, E., and Lonsdale, J., Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration (Ohio University Press, 2003)
Kenya Information Sheet <http://watchingthewarmakers.org.uk/Downloads/kenya%20info%20sheet.pdf> (Accessed 21st November)
Eric W. Brown The Early Days of the Mau Mau Insurrection <http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/feneric/maumau.html>
Jens Finke, ‘Kikuyu Colonial History’ <http://www.bluegecko.org/kenya/tribes/kikuyu/history2.htm> (Accessed December 2nd 2009)
Coray, M., ‘The Kenya Land Commission and the Kikuyu of Kiambu’ Agricultural History 52 (Jan 1978)
Grinker, R., Perspectives on Africa: A reader in culture, history and representation (Wiley-Blackwell 1997) pg. 654
Coray, M., ‘The Kenya Land Commission and the Kikuyu of Kiambu’ Agricultural History 52 (Jan 1978) pg. 179-93
 Kenya Information Sheet <http://watchingthewarmakers.org.uk/Downloads/kenya%20info%20sheet.pdf> (Accessed 21st November)
 Shaw, C., Colonial Inscriptions: Race, Sex and Class in Kenya (University of Minnesota Press, 1995) pg. 43
 Welch, C., Anatomy of Rebellion (SUNY Press, 1980) pg. 65-66
Eric W. Brown The Early Days of the Mau Mau Insurrection <http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/feneric/maumau.html>
 Mwakikagile, G., Africa and the West (Nova Publishers, 2000) pp. 95
 Harcourt, W., Feminist Perspectives on Sustainable Development (Zed Books, 1994) pp. 133
 Furedi, F., The Mau Mau War in Perspective (James Currey Publisers, 1989) pp. 7
 Berman, B., and Lonsdale, J., Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (James Currey Publishers, 1992) pp. 446
 Jens Finke, ‘Kikuyu Colonial History’ <http://www.bluegecko.org/kenya/tribes/kikuyu/history2.htm> (Accessed December 2nd 2009)
 Lonsdale, J., ‘Foreword’ in Kershaw, G., Mau Mau from Below (Ohio University Press, 1997)
 Clough, M., Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory and Politics (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998) pp. 167
 Brown, The Early Days of the Mau Mau Insurrection
 Odhiambo, E., and Lonsdale, J., Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration (Ohio University Press, 2003) pp. 77
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