How Did Kenya Gain Independence?

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On 12 December 1963 Kenya gained independence from Britain.

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.

1898 map of the British East African Protectorate.

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.

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.

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. 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. 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. 

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

The actions of the Mau Mau led the British Kenya government to declare a State of Emergency. The British launched a counterinsurgency campaign to subdue the Mau Mau, which mixed military action with widespread detention and the introduction of agrarian reforms.

This 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.

Most notorious was Hola Camp, set aside for those considered hard-core Mau Mau, where eleven detainees were beaten to death by guards.

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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. Queen Elizabeth II remained the nation’s Head of State until the following year when it became a republic.

The flag of the Republic of Kenya, adopted on the day of independence in December 1963.

In 2013 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.

Image: Mombasa, 1880-1925

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