How Did Kenya Gain Independence? | History Hit

How Did Kenya Gain Independence?

Sarah Roller

12 Jan 2021
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On 12 December 1963 Kenya gained long-awaited independence from Britain, after nearly 80 years of British colonial rule. 

British influence in the area was established by the Berlin Conference of 1885 and the foundation of the Imperial British East Africa Company by William Mackinnon in 1888. In 1895, with the East Africa Company floundering, the British government took over administration of the region as the British East African Protectorate.

british east africa map

1898 map of the British East African Protectorate. Image credit: Public Domain. 

Mass immigration and displacement

The early years of the twentieth century saw the arrival of large numbers of white settlers and the sale of vast areas of the Highlands to wealthy investors. Settlement of the inland areas was supported by the construction, from 1895, of a railway line linking Mombasa and Kisumu on the western border with the neighbouring British protectorate of Uganda, although this was resisted by many natives at the time. 

This workforce was largely made up of labourers from British India, thousands of whom opted to remain in Kenya when the line was completed, founding a community of Indian East Africans. In 1920, when the Colony of Kenya was formally established, there were nearly three times as many Indians as there were Europeans settled in Kenya. 

The Colony of Kenya

After the First World War, during which British East Africa was used as a base for operations against German East Africa, Britain annexed the inland areas of the British East Africa Protectorate and declared it a crown colony, establishing The Colony of Kenya in 1920. The coastal region remained a protectorate.

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Throughout the 1920s and 30s, colonial policies eroded the rights of the African population. Further land was bought up by the colonial government, primarily in the most fertile upland areas, to be farmed by white settlers, who produced tea and coffee. Their contribution to the economy ensured their rights remained unchallenged, whereas the Kikuyu, Masai and Nandi peoples were driven from their lands or forced into poorly paid labour.

A growing nationalist movement resulted in the emergence of the Kenya African Union in 1946, led by Harry Thuku. But their inability to bring about reform from the colonial authorities led to the emergence of more militant groups.

Mau Mau Uprising

The situation reached a watershed in 1952 with the Mau Mau Uprising. The Mau Mau were a militant nationalist movement of primarily Kikuyu people, also known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. They launched a violent campaign against the colonial authorities and white settlers. However they also targeted those among the African population who refused to join their ranks.

Upwards of 1800 Africans were murdered by the Mau Mau, far greater than the number of white victims. In March 1953, in perhaps the most infamous episode of the Mau Mau insurgence, the Kikuyu population of Lari was massacred when they refused to swear allegiance. More than 100 men, women and children were butchered. The internal division within the Mau Mau prevented them from achieving their aims at the time. 

mau mau uprising britain kenya

British troops of the King’s African Rifles on patrol during the Mau Mau Uprising. Image credit: Ministry of Defence, POST 1945 Official Collection

The actions of the Mau Mau led the British government in Kenya to declare a State of Emergency following an initial period of denial. The British launched a counterinsurgency campaign to subdue the Mau Mau, which mixed military action with widespread detention and the introduction of agrarian reforms. They also introduced policies to stop any potential sympathisers, including land seizures: these were unsurprisingly met with hostility by locals. 

The British response however quickly disintegrated into horrific brutality. Tens of thousands of suspected Mau Mau guerrillas were detained in wretched labour camps that were overcrowded and lacked basic sanitation. Detainees were routinely tortured in order to extract confessions and intelligence. A show trial of the group known as the Kapenguria Six was widely condemned as an attempt to justify the seriousness of events to central government back home. 

Most notorious was Hola Camp, set aside for those considered hard-core Mau Mau, where eleven detainees were beaten to death by guards. The Mau Mau uprising remains one of the bloodiest events in modern British history, with a minimum of 20,000 Kenyans killed by the British – some have estimated much more. 

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Independence and reparations

The Mau Mau uprising convinced the British of the need for reform in Kenya and the wheels were set in motion for the transition to independence. 

On 12 December 1963 Kenya became an independent nation under the Kenya Independence Act. Queen Elizabeth II remained the nation’s Head of State until exactly a year later, when Kenya became a republic. The Prime Minister, and later President, Jomo Kenyatta, was one of the Kapenguria Six who had been arrested, tried and imprisoned by the British on trumped up charges. Kenyatta’s legacy is somewhat mixed: some herald him as the Father of the Nation, but he favoured his ethnic group, the Kikuyu, and many saw his rule as semi-dictatorial and increasingly corrupt. 

In 2013, after a lengthy legal battle following the alleged ‘losing’ of thousands of colonial records of abuse, the British Government announced that it would pay compensation totalling £20 million to more than 5,000 Kenyan citizens who were abused during the Mau Mau Uprising. At least thirteen boxes of records still remain unaccounted for to this day.

kenya flag independence

The Kenyan Flag: the colours are symbols of unity, peace and defense, and the addition of a traditional Maasai shield adds a touch of poignancy. Image credit: Public Domain.

Sarah Roller