The Mau Mau Uprising, a revolt against colonial rule in Kenya, lasted from 1952 through 1960 and helped to hasten Kenya’s independence. Issues like the expulsion of Kikuyu tenants from settler farms, loss of land to white settlers, poverty, and lack of true political representation for Africans provided the impetus for the revolt. During the eight-year uprising, 32 white settlers and about 200 British police and army soldiers were killed. Over 1,800 African civilians were killed and some put the number of Mau Mau rebels killed at around 20,000. Although the Uprising was directed primarily against British colonial forces and the white settler community, much of the violence took place between rebel and loyalist Africans. Thus the uprising often had the appearance of a civil war with atrocities on both sides.
The uprising, which involved mostly Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group in the colony, began to take shape when more radical Kikuyu militants were invited in to the nationalist KAU (Kenya African Union). Called Muhimu, these activists replaced a more moderate, constitutional agenda with a militant one. The Muhimu began widespread Kikuyu oathing, often through intimidation and threats. Traditional oathing ceremonies were believed to bind people to the cause, with dire consequences like death resulting on the breaking of such oaths. The British responded with de-oathing ceremonies. Additionally, the Muhimu attacked loyalists and white settlers.
Although the exact origins of the conflict are in dispute, the war officially began in October 1952 when an emergency was declared and British troops were sent to Kenya. The British response to the uprising entailed massive round-ups of suspected Mau Mau and supporters, with large numbers of people hanged and up to 150,000 Kikuyu held in detention camps.
Many Mau Mau rebels and armies based themselves in forest areas of Mt. Kenya and Aberdares. Urban militants, however, waged the struggle in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities. The largest single massacre of the