Crushing the Mau Mau in Kenya

THE BRITISH CAMPAIGN TO crush the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s has become a byword for colonial brutality. Although not so well known as the French campaign in Algeria or the American campaign in Vietnam, nevertheless, in terms of the intensity and violence of the repression, the war in Kenya easily stands comparison and in some respects was worse. The British were just better at covering it up. Why, though, was “decolonisation” in Kenya such a bloody affair compared to Britain’s other African colonies? The answer is provided by the presence of white settlers, an armed community of white racists that was prepared to resist even the most minimal concessions to the black population, let alone majority rule and independence. While the British government was, however reluctantly, to hand over power to black governments—in Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, Tanganyika in 1961 and Uganda in 1962—with minimal violence, in Kenya the settlers offered fierce resistance that was to cost thousands of lives. The British attempt to sustain settler rule in Kenya led to an unprecedented attempt to crush and cow the African population. The violence of this attempt was a product of the manner in which the colony had originally been established. According to Elspeth Huxley, the best-known settler apologist, “no country in the empire has ever been opened up and settled with so little bloodshed and with the maintenance of such friendly relations with the native population”.1 The realities of conquest starkly contradict this.


The British had established their East African Protectorate in 1895 primarily for strategic reasons, but subsequently decided to open up the territory for white settlement. To persuade the African population to accept this required their large-scale slaughter by a succession of punitive expeditions. An expedition mounted against the Kikuyu in 1904 killed over 1,500 people, but the official report was doctored on the orders of the commissioner, Charles Eliot, who had the figure reduced to 400. An expedition against the Nandi in 1905 killed 636 people and seized 10,000 cattle and 18,000 goats and sheep. The following year the Nandi were once again attacked, this time with 1,117 killed and 16,000 cattle and 36,000 goats and sheep seized. In 1906 the award of a timber concession to a British partnership meant that the Embu, who thought the land was theirs, had “to be dealt with”. A punitive expedition duly killed over 400 and seized 3,000 cattle, and 4,000 goats and sheep. As a Colonial Office official piously observed, “Unless we are going to abrogate our civilizing mission in Africa such expedition with their attendant slaughter are necessary”.2

An expedition against the Kisii in 1905 inevitably involved large-scale loss of African life. A British officer, W Robert Foran, described the decisive encounter:

The machine gun was kept in action so long during this sharp engagement that it became almost red-hot to the touch. Before the Kisii warriors were repulsed, they left several hundred dead and wounded spearmen outside the square of bayonets. This was not so much a battle as a massacre.

The Kisii had to be punished again in 1908, but this time offered no resistance, being, according to Foran, “under the impression that the tribal surrender had been accepted”. Nevertheless, the expedition put in “some strenuous work—burning villages, devastating standing crops, capturing livestock and hunting down bolting natives”. On this occasion the reports reaching London caused some concern. One official estimated, extremely conservatively it must be said, that casualties were being inflicted on the Africans by more punitive expeditions in the ratio of 40 to one. The colonial under-secretary, Winston Churchill, complained: “I do not like the tone of these reports… It looks like butchery… Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale”.3 The Colonial Office was actually warned at the time that the settlers, “through acts of oppression and cruelty”, were trying to provoke trouble “and then to seize the opportunity for general spoliation of African possessions”. In April 1908, in the middle of an international scandal over conditions in the Belgian Congo, a report on forced labour in Kenya arrived in London that had noted in the margin, “It must on no account be published.” An official who read the report observed, “One might almost say that there is no atrocity in the Congo—except mutilation—which cannot be matched in our Protectorate”.4

As far as the men on the spot were concerned, massacre was absolutely necessary. As one practitioner, Richard Meinertzhagen, insisted, “When stationed with 100 soldiers amid an African population of some 300,000, in cases of emergency where local government was threatened, we had to act and act quickly”.5 The whites were so few in number that if the African population was to be broken to their will, any resistance had to be bloodily and decisively crushed. Even a severe critic of the settlers such as Norman Leys could still write in 1924 that “slaughter” was “the kindest way of dealing with native risings”.6

Once broken, the Africans were kept cowed by a regime of flogging. Elspeth Huxley, in her best-selling account of an idyllic childhood in the colony, The Flame Trees of Thika, could justify flogging for showing lack of respect on the grounds that:

Respect was the only protection available to Europeans who lived singly, or in scattered families, among thousands of Africans accustomed to constant warfare and armed with spears and poisoned arrows… The least rent or puncture might, if not immediately checked and repaired, split the whole garment asunder and expose its wearer in all his human vulnerability.7

Of course, when she wrote of respect, she really meant fear. It was recognised, though, that “repeated beatings” could well be counterproductive, and Lord Cranforth warned against this in his 1912 volume, A Colony in the Making. What was essential was that when a beating was called for it should be “thorough”. While recognising that this was not a popular view in Britain, he nevertheless insisted that “for certain crimes, such as lying, petty stealing and more especially cruelty to children or animals, the whip is the best and kindest preventative and cure”. His wife, Lady Cranforth, contributed a chapter on the supervision of African domestic servants: “One could not, for instance, learn by experience in England when it is the right time to have a servant beaten for rubbing silver plate on the gravel path to clean it, and that after several previous warnings”.8 A regime that was prepared to flog Africans for lying or petty theft or disrespect would commit the most fearful atrocities when confronted with a full-scale rebellion.

The Mau Mau revolt

The revolt was largely the work of the Kikuyu tribe for whom the white settlement had been a complete disaster. They were penned in by the settlers. By 1948 one and a quarter million Kikuyu were restricted to landholding in 2,000 square miles of tribal reserve, while the 30,000 white settlers held 12,000 square miles, including most of the best farmland. In the reserves there was considerable poverty, with almost half of the population landless. Only a small class of collaborators prospered. For the great mass of the people the situation was deteriorating. Outside the reserves some 120,000 Kikuyu lived as squatters on the white farms, receiving a small patch of land in return for their labour, in effect a form of serfdom. This group found their way of life and standard of living under concerted attack in the 1940s, as the farmers tried to transform them into landless labourers. According to one account, the squatters’ real income had fallen by 30 to 40 percent in the years before the revolt.9 These people were to provide the backbone of the revolutionary movement in the countryside. Many Kikuyu were forced off the land altogether and driven to seek work in the towns. The African population of Nairobi more than doubled between 1938 and 1952, increasing from 40,000 to 95,000 with the Kikuyu dominating the Eastlands district. Living conditions were appalling and getting worse. Nairobi was to become the centre of the revolt: in the graphic phrase of one historian, it was “the Mau Mau’s beating heart”.10

What drove the Kikuyu down the road to rebellion was the failure of the Labour government elected with an overwhelming majority in 1945 to offer any hope of improvement or advance. When the colonial secretary, James Griffiths, a former miners’ union official, visited Kenya in 1951, the moderate Kenya Africa Union (KAU) repeatedly requested that the African population be given 12 elected representatives on the Legislative Council. Instead Griffiths offered to increase African representation from four to five nominees. This left the 30,000 settlers with 14 elected representatives, the 100,000 Asians with six, the 24,000 Arabs with one and the five million Africans with five nominees. Even the settlers were astonished at how reactionary the Labour government proved to be. This shattering of hopes for peaceful change fatally compromised the influence of the moderates and strengthened the hand of the revolutionaries.

The revolutionary movement originated in the reserves and on the white farms, a product of Kikuyu land grievances. It was initiated by the banned Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) that in the late 1940s launched an “oathing” campaign to enrol the Kikuyu in a movement of resistance to the British. This movement was originally conceived as a protest movement, but it became increasingly radicalised. It is a testimony to the success of British propaganda that it is known as “the Mau Mau”, the bastardised name given to it by the British and their collaborators. To the rebels themselves it was known at the time as “Muingi” or “The Movement” or as “Muigwithania” or “The Unifier” or as the KCA.11 Whatever the name, it was without any doubt one of the most important revolutionary movements in the history of modern Africa and one of the most important revolutionary movements to confront the British Empire.

The movement was radicalised by a militant leadership that emerged from the trade union movement in Nairobi. Here the Transport and Allied Workers Union led by Fred Kubai, and the Clerks and Commercial Workers Union led by Bildad Kaggia were at the heart of the resistance. Most accounts of the Mau Mau movement either ignore or play down the role of the trade unions in the struggle, but the fact is that without their participation a sustained revolt would not have been possible.

The trade unions came together on 1 May 1949 to form the East African Trades Union Congress (EATUC) with Kubai elected president and an Asian socialist, Makhan Singh, elected general secretary. The organisation was seen as a serious threat by the authorities, a perception wholeheartedly endorsed by the Labour government in London. When on 1 May 1950 the EATUC issued a call for independence and majority rule, the first African organisation to do so, both Fred Kubai and Makhan Singh were arrested. The response was a general strike that saw 100,000 workers walk out throughout the colony. The British mounted a massive show of force and after nine days the strike was broken. Makhan Singh was to be interned without trial for the next 11 years, while Fred Kubai was only released early in 1951.12

The defeat of the general strike and the banning of the EATUC saw the leaders and militants of the trade unions throw themselves into the revolutionary movement. They established themselves as a new radical leadership committed to overthrowing colonial rule by mass action, strikes, demonstrations and armed struggle. In June 1951 they took control of the Nairobi branch of the KAU, using it as a front for the revolutionary activity. A Central Committee was set up in the city, enrolling the people and organising its own armed squads to protect the oath administrators and to deal with informers and collaborators. Its influence extended beyond the city into the reserves.

By now the colonial government was becoming alarmed. On 6 October 1952 Evelyn Baring arrived to take over as governor of the colony. The very next day a loyalist, Chief Waruhiu, was shot dead in broad daylight. Baring informed London that “we are facing a planned revolutionary movement”.13 On 20 October he declared a state of emergency which was accompanied by mass arrests. Among those rounded up were moderate opponents of the Mau Mau such as Jomo Kenyatta, who actually found himself charged with being its leader.


The Mau Mau revolt did not extend to the whole of Kenya. It was largely confined to the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru, and geographically restricted to the Central Province, an area of some 14,000 square miles. Nevertheless, the revolutionary cause had the support of the overwhelming majority of the Kikuyu, with General George Erskine estimating that over 90 percent were behind the movement.14 This popular support gave the movement the initiative in the first phase of the rebellion, as the Land and Freedom Armies formed in the forests and the network of supporters expanded to sustain them. Even in this phase casualties were heavy, but they were replaced by enthusiastic recruits determined to strike back against the settlers and their African collaborators. Only the rebels’ chronic shortage of firearms prevented them from inflicting crippling losses on the police and the settler community. Instead the movement’s wrath fell on the collaborators, Kikuyu who had benefited from colonial rule and who took the side of the settlers. In the course of this conflict more than 2,000 loyalists were to die at the hands of the Mau Mau. The most notorious incident was the Lari massacre of March 1953 in which over 70 loyalists, including women and children, were killed.15 This civil war dimension to the conflict was not something peculiar to the Mau Mau revolt. It is a feature, to one degree or another, of all wars of national liberation, including the American War of Independence.

Kenyatta was brought to trial in December 1952 before Justice Thacker and finally sentenced on 8 April 1953. There was no real evidence against him because, far from being the instigator of Mau Mau, he was its opponent. Indeed, the revolutionary movement’s leaders were seriously considering having him assassinated as a collaborator before his arrest. As far as the authorities were concerned, no distinction was possible between moderate and revolutionary nationalism, and the settlers were determined to destroy both. Thacker sentenced Kenyatta to seven years hard labour to be followed by restricted residence in the remote north of the country for life. For his services to British justice, Thacker received a secret payment of £20,000. Far from dealing Mau Mau a blow, however, Kenyatta’s travesty of a trial only served to rally people to the rebel cause.16

As late as January 1954 a parliamentary delegation from London visiting the colony could warn that Mau Mau influence over the Kikuyu “except in certain localities has not declined; it has on the contrary increased.” They believed that “the situation has deteriorated” and that “the danger of infection outside the Kikuyu area is now greater, not less than it was at the beginning of the State of Emergency”. As for Nairobi, “the situation is both grave and acute” with “Mau Mau orders…carried out in the heart of the city”. “Mau Mau courts”, they reported, sat “in judgement and their sentences are carried out by gangsters”.17 Particularly worrying was the intelligence that the revolutionary movement in Nairobi was recruiting members of the Kamba tribe. This was a very dangerous development because the Kamba were the backbone of Africa army units and of the African police. The rebels were also beginning to recruit from the Masai, and troops and police were despatched to the Narok district to prevent the “contagion” taking hold. One settler leader feared that they were in danger of losing “the battle for the mind of the African everywhere”.18

The tide was about to turn, however. General Erskine took command in Kenya in January 1953 and he had by now come to recognise the crucial strategic role that Nairobi played in the struggle. The Mau Mau were so embedded in the African districts of the city that only the most drastic action would break their hold. On 24 April 1954 Operation Anvil was launched. Some 25,000 troops and police cordoned off the city and proceeded to screen its African population. An incredible 27,000 men and women were interned without trial, mostly Kikuyu (indeed nearly half the city’s Kikuyu population were interned), and over 20,000 others, once again mostly Kikuyu, were expelled from the city back to the reserves. There can be little doubt that this blanket use of internment was only possible because the victims were black, so that the violation of their civil liberties caused little concern back in Britain. The revolutionary movement was struck a massive blow, one that hit the trade unions particularly hard. Any African in possession of a union card was automatically interned.19 According to one senior British army officer, Operation Anvil was “the turning point of the campaign”.20

The success of the operation gave the British the initiative. The loss of Nairobi cut the Land and Freedom Armies off from their most important source of supplies. Erskine followed this success with similar operations in other areas that were once again accompanied by wholesale internment. By the end of 1954 there were 77,000 people interned without trial including thousands of women, and children as young as 12. This was accompanied, once again, by the mass deportation of the Kikuyu back to the reserves, forcibly uprooting the squatter population and expelling them (at least those not interned) from the White Highlands.

To complete the isolation of the Land and Freedom Armies, the British borrowed from their Malayan experience, and in June 1954 introduced a policy of forced villagisation. Over a million Kikuyu had their homes and possessions destroyed and were herded into over 800 guarded villages. Men, women and children were often left to sleep in the open until they had built their own new homes. Poverty, starvation and disease were rife in the new villages where the Kikuyu were concentrated, deprived of all civil liberties and subjected to a brutal and arbitrary police regime.21 The settlement programme was the second crushing blow that the British inflicted on the Mau Mau. It left the surviving rebel fighters isolated in the forests, remorselessly hunted down by the British “counter-gangs”, mixed squads of soldiers, police and renegade Mau Mau. These counter-gangs often behaved as death squads. By September 1956 it was estimated that there were only some 500 rebels still at large. The following month Dedan Kimathi, the commander of the Land and Freedom Armies, was captured by a counter-gang. He was subsequently hanged. The British had successfully defeated the revolt, although the emergency was to continue until January 1960.22


The defeat of the Mau Mau involved a degree of savagery that is quite unprecedented in British 20th century colonial wars. One really has to go back to the suppression of the Great Indian Rebellion of the 1850s to find a comparable episode. The reality was that in Kenya the flogging, torture, mutilation, rape and summary execution of suspects and prisoners were everyday occurrences. The extent of the violence was successfully covered up at the time but when news of particular incidents did leak out, it was overwhelmed by the government-sponsored propaganda campaign that portrayed the Mau Mau as primitive savages, barely human, who had to be put down.

In his account of the Mau Mau, the historian Robert Edgerton provides a graphic portrait of police methods during the emergency:

If a question was not answered to the interrogator’s satisfaction, the subject was beaten and kicked. If that did not lead to the desired confession, and it rarely did, more force was applied. Electric shock was widely used, and so was fire. Women were choked and held under water; gun barrels, beer bottles, and even knives were thrust into their vaginas. Men had beer bottles thrust up their rectums, were dragged behind Land Rovers, whipped, burned and bayoneted… Some police officers did not bother with more time-consuming forms of torture; they simply shot any suspect who refused to answer, then told the next suspect, who had been forced to watch the cold-blooded execution, to dig his own grave. When the grave was finished, the man was asked if he would now be willing to talk.

As far as the settlers were concerned there was open season on the Kikuyu. Anyone thought suspicious could be flogged, tortured and, if necessary, killed, with virtual impunity. When Field Marshall John Harding visited the colony early in 1953, he acknowledged that the settlers had taken the law “into their own hands” but this had been “fortunately hushed up”.23

As part of her research into the British conduct during the emergency, Caroline Elkins interviewed a number of former settlers who had been members of the Kenyan Police Reserve. They described the torture they had carried out with as much concern as they talked about the weather. One man told her how he had dropped by a Special Branch interrogation centre to check up on a suspect and had:

Stayed for a few hours to help the boys out, softening him up. This got a little out of hand. By the time I cut his balls off he had no ears and his eyeball, the right one, I think was hanging out of its socket…he died before we got much out of him.24

One should not mince one’s words about this. Elements within the security forces in Kenya, particularly the police, used the methods of the Gestapo at their worst. This is no exaggeration or hyperbole, but a plain statement of fact. Except for a few isolated instances, where unwelcome publicity made action unavoidable, they were never held to account. On the few occasions when they were, their punishments were derisory. Unofficial repression was accompanied by the most ferocious official repression. As well as the tens of thousands interned without trial (the best estimate is that over 160,000 people were interned during the course of the emergency), even more were imprisoned for emergency offences. Between 1952 and 1958 over 34,000 women were to be imprisoned for Mau Mau offences, and the number of men imprisoned was probably ten times that figure. According to one historian, “at least one in four Kikuyu adult males was imprisoned or detained by the British colonial administration”.25 At the same time the government presided over what can only be described as a judicial massacre. Between the declaration of the emergency and November 1954, 756 rebels were hanged. By the end of 1954 the number was over 900 and by the end of the emergency had reached 1,090. Of those, 346 were hanged for murder, 472 for possessing arms or ammunition, 210 for consorting with rebels and an incredible 62 for administering illegal oaths.26 A mobile gallows was specially built so that prisoners could be hanged in their home districts to provide an example. At one point, they were being hanged at the rate of 50 a month. The massacre even caused some concern in London where the prime minister, Winston Churchill, urged “that care should be taken to avoid the simultaneous execution of any large number of people”. He was worried about the effect that “anything resembling mass executions” would have on public opinion. Churchill intervened to stop Evelyn Baring adding the possession of incendiary materials to the list of capital offences because they would soon be hanging men for the possession of a box of matches.27 Despite this slaughter, there is no doubt that Frank Kitson, one of the originators of the counter-gang strategy, was speaking for many when he complained that the army and the police “had firmly fastened one of their hands behind their back with the cord of legal difficulties”.28

In his outstanding account of the hangings during the emergency, Histories of the Hanged, David Anderson puts names to some of the victims. He records the fate of Wakianda Gachunga, hanged for the possession of two rounds of ammunition, and of Karanja Hinga, hanged for the possession of 13 rounds. He tells of the police informer who sold firearms and then promptly betrayed the purchasers to the hangman. He was found dead with his tongue cut out. He tells of the 13 internees at Embakali detention camp who overpowered their guards and escaped. The eight men subsequently recaptured were all hanged for being in possession of the guards’ weapons. And he tells the story of Karithii Muthomo, arrested on his way to carry out an assassination in Nairobi in January 1954. He had been betrayed by Hussein Mohamed, a Special Branch informer, who was subsequently shot dead in broad daylight. When Muthomo was sentenced to hang, he told the judge, “I am dying for my land and I am not afraid to die for that”.29 The one-sided nature of the conflict is demonstrated quite dramatically by the casualties suffered by the two sides. The official British figure for rebels killed in action was 11,503, but the real number was much higher. Some estimates go as high as 50,000, and this is much closer to the truth. The casualties suffered by the security forces were considerably lower: only 12 European soldiers and 51 European police were killed, three Asians and 524 African soldiers and police. This disparity is a product of the overwhelming superiority in firepower that the British possessed and their readiness to use it. As for settler casualties, only 32 were killed in the course of the emergency, less than died in traffic accidents in Nairobi in the same period. What was successfully portrayed by the British government as a pogrom against the white settlers was in fact a pogrom against the Kikuyu.

How was it that British governments headed by such respectable figures as Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan were able to preside over the Kenya scandal without British public opinion calling them to account. What happened in Kenya was far worse than anything revealed at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay but excited considerably less controversy. Certainly, racism was an important factor. The savagery of the repression in Kenya was possible because the victims were black and this undoubtedly constrained public concerns. Moreover, the government was very successful at portraying the Mau Mau as a reversion to a savage barbarism that had to be stamped out by whatever means were necessary. And, of course, the government consistently and systematically covered up and denied what was going on. The colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, a fascist sympathiser in the 1930s, was to freely admit after his retirement that he had been actively engaged in “cover-up operations” for the security forces. He remarked on the shock of his successor, Iain Macleod, when he briefed him on what was really going on.30 A number of Labour MPs—Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle, John Stonehouse and others—did campaign to expose the atrocities that were being committed in Kenya. They received little help from the Labour front bench, which obviously hoped to become the government in the near future and consequently would have had to continue the cover-up itself.

Only with the Hola camp massacre of 3 March 1959 did the cover-up machinery finally break down. On this occasion detainees who were refusing to do forced labour were attacked by guards. Many of them were injured and 11 were beaten to death. What is interesting is that this was far from the first time that men were beaten to death in the camps. At Manyani camp in 1955 six men had been killed by the guards and their cause of death registered as typhoid. This was the normal way of proceeding. By 1959, with Iain Macleod as colonial secretary, the political situation had changed. He was looking to an agreement with the moderate African nationalists, something bitterly opposed by both the colonial administration and the white settlers. The exposure of the Hola camp atrocity would fatally compromise this opposition, so Macleod, instead of collaborating in the cover-up as Lennox-Boyd had done as a matter of routine, allowed what had really happened to become a cause of public scandal. This indicated a decisive shift in British government policy.


Even though the Mau Mau had been defeated by the British, the movement did win a posthumous victory over the white settlers. The settlers dreamed of a permanent white supremacist regime in Kenya that would be strong enough to sustain itself with or without the support of the British state. They looked to the example provided by Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Mau Mau, however, had shown that the settlers did not have the strength to survive on their own. Without the British government coming to their assistance in the 1950s, Mau Mau would have won. Consequently, the white settler community found itself completely dependent on the British at a time when the British government was beginning to separate its interests from those of the settlers. The British recognised that Mau Mau had only been defeated because of its lack of modern weapons. It was also clear that the maintenance of settler rule would sooner rather than later provoke another rebellion. Next time the rebels would be armed by the Communist bloc. The white settler regime was clearly no longer viable. Moreover, as Colin Leys has shown, while the white settlers dominated Kenya politically, they did not dominate it economically. The settlers owned some 20 percent of the foreign assets in Kenya in 1958, the remainder being owned by British and foreign companies. While African rule would be fatal for the settlers, British and foreign business interests were confident that they could reach an accommodation with moderate nationalists.31 Indeed, settler intransigence increasingly came to be seen as a threat to British strategic and economic interests in Kenya. The settlers found themselves cut adrift, in their terms “betrayed” by the British government as it set about reaching an agreement with the African moderates, including the soon to be rehabilitated Jomo Kenyatta. As late as 1959 Evelyn Baring was assuring the settlers that Kenya would never get full independence. On 12 December 1963 independence was granted and a Kenyatta government was installed in power.

Kenyatta had always been an opponent of Mau Mau, even during his captivity. There was never any acknowledgement on his part that it was only the bravery and sacrifice of the revolutionary movement that eventually brought him to power. Kenyatta promised reconciliation in the new Kenya, but it was a reconciliation between moderate nationalists, collaborators and those settlers prepared to accept the black population gaining the vote. The Mau Mau were excluded. Indeed, in 1965 Kenyatta was to tell Baring that “if I had been in your shoes at the time I would have done exactly the same”.32 From being a prisoner of the British, by the end of 1964 Kenyatta had the Special Air Service (SAS) training his bodyguard. The security of his regime was regarded as being in the British national interest. Not until the late 1970s was “the baton”, in this respect, taken up by the United States.33

The other rebellion : Southern Rhodesia

An interesting comparison can be made between the way the British state went to assist the white settler regime in Kenya against black rebellion and the way that it did not go to the assistance of the black population in Southern Rhodesia when the white settlers rebelled. In Southern Rhodesia the black population was effectively abandoned by Harold Wilson’s Labour government and left to free itself from settler rule. As the historian Peter Clarke observed, “its handling of Rhodesia” showed that “it made little difference that a Labour government was now in office”.34

What was to become Southern Rhodesia had been conquered in 1893 by Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company. This private enterprise exercise in imperial expansion was not unprecedented. For the government, it certainly proved convenient. As the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer, William Harcourt, remarked, Rhodes might be “ a great jingo, but he is a cheap jingo”.35 The conquest of the Ndebele was accompanied with little British loss and much slaughter. At Shangani on 24 October 1893 a Ndebele attack was routed by machine gun and artillery fire and a few days later at Imbembesi another attack was beaten off. As Frederick Courtney Selous observed, the Ndebele “were in each case driven off with heavy loss by the fire of the Maxim guns”. The conquest, he enthused, “will ever be remembered as one of the most brilliant episodes in the history of British colonisation in Southern Africa”.36 Rhodes, a thief and a murderer, who was really only a gangster who stole countries rather than knocked over banks, was made a privy councillor, and his lieutenant, Starr Jameson, became a Companion of the Bath.

Once the territory had been conquered, the black population were ruthlessly despoiled as white settlers began to move in. According to Frank Sykes, the British South Africa Company “proceeded to administer the land upon the basis of a white dominant race and a helot nation of conquered blacks”. Black women, he makes clear, were regarded as part of the spoils.37 When Rhodes and Jameson tried to seize the Transvaal in 1895, stripping Matabeleland of troops, the Ndebele seized the opportunity to revolt. Taken by surprise, some 140 settlers (127 men, ten women and three children) were killed. The British response was ferocious. According on one historian the settlers’ deaths raised “a spirit of fury among the whites unparalleled since the Indian Mutiny”. Rhodes ordered no quarter and insisted on personally counting the African dead. “Wipe them all out…everything black”, urged one British officer.38 Another officer, Robert Baden-Powell, the future founder of the Boy Scouts, acknowledged “the extraordinary bloodthirsty rage of our men”. Indeed, he confessed that he “felt it myself later on”. But he still insisted:

Don’t infer from these remarks that I am a regular nigger-hater for I am not. I have met lots of good friends among them… But however good they may be, they must, as a people, be ruled by a hand of iron in a velvet glove… In the present instance they have been rash enough to pull off the glove for themselves and were now beginning to find out what the hand was made of.39

The Ndebele and Shona revolts of 1896-1897, known as the first Chimurenga, were put down with considerable brutality and bloodshed. Settler rule was successfully imposed on the country.40

The British government’s abandonment of the white settlers in Kenya provided their “kith and kin” in Southern Rhodesia with a good indication of their likely fate. Unlike Kenya, however, the Rhodesian settlers felt that they were numerous, wealthy and powerful enough to sustain themselves in power without British assistance. There were some 250,000 white settlers in Southern Rhodesia and, moreover, they were confident of support from neighbouring South Africa. Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government decided to declare independence from Britain rather than make any of the concessions to the black majority that the British were pressing for. White supremacy was to be maintained at any cost and the aspirations of the black population were to be crushed with whatever amount of force was necessary.

UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) was declared on 11 November 1965. The white settlers had rebelled and Wilson made it clear that under no circumstances would he even contemplate the use of force. There can be no doubt that if the whites in Rhodesia had been threatened by a black revolt, British troops would have been sent to help maintain “law and order” without any problem. A black population threatened by a white revolt was a different thing altogether.

The Wilson government was seriously constrained at the time. It was politically weak with a parliamentary majority of only four and was confronted by open sympathy for the Rhodesian settlers on the part of much of the British establishment. A good instance of this is provided by Wilson’s attempt to secure details of Rhodesian sterling holdings in London from Lord Cromer (yet another member of the Baring family!), the governor of the Bank of England. Cromer refused to divulge this information to the elected government and Wilson was too politically weak to replace him. By the time legislation was passed compelling Cromer to release the information, the Rhodesians had, to his great satisfaction, run their balances “ down to practically zero”.41 Even more remarkably, the Chiefs of Staff seem to have made it clear to the government that the armed forces could not be used against the settlers. When Wilson ruled out military intervention, according to one historian, he averted a “potential Curragh”, a reference to the threat by army officers to resign rather than disarm Ulster in 1914.42 There is no evidence, however, regardless of the army’s attitude, that the Labour government would have been prepared to intervene militarily in Rhodesia. Instead of force, Wilson attempted to force Smith to negotiate by means of economic sanctions. These were to prove futile, with even British Petroleum, the state-owned oil company, overtly breaking sanctions with the secret connivance of both Labour and Conservative governments, the so-called “Oilgate” scandal.43 In the end, the black majority in Rhodesia were left to overthrow settler rule themselves in a protracted guerrilla war, the second Chimurenga, that only finally came to an end in 1979.44

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