The Mau Mau Detention Camps: Rehabilitation, Propaganda, Memory

The Mau Mau Memorial erected in Nairobi in 2015. Image – Daily Nation.

Lauren Brown
University of Dundee

Kenya’s Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1964) was plagued with violence. The rebellion was the result of discontent with British colonial rule. When the British had arrived in Kenya, they stole land from the native population; among them, the Kikuyu people suffered most from this. As living conditions grew harder for the Kikuyu under British occupation, they began an aggressive campaign to fight back against British colonial forces.  To quell the rising violence and anti-colonial sentiment, the British created a system of detention camps to incarcerate thousands of the Kikuyu population. In these camps, prisoners were tortured, abused, and, in some cases, murdered.  

The events that transpired in these camps have long been hidden away from popular historical narrative though finally, the repercussions of this are reaching the British government.

During my time researching within the British National Archives I came across a document detailing the categorization of Kenyan detention camp prisoners into different degrees of ‘Very Black’ to ‘White’. Detainees categorized as ‘Very black’ were perceived as degenerative, devoutly against British imperial rule and in need of ‘rehabilitation’ and as such would be subjected to torture and abuse all in the name of safe-guarding British imperial interests.

A Memorandum from the Major General from the Colonial Headquarters in Nairobi titled ‘Screening Categories’ within the British National Archives File -WO276428. Written 21/12/1954

After hours studying British imperial documents like this, it proved difficult to comprehend the outcome of a recent YouGov poll conducted in July 2014,[1] which indicated that by a ratio of 3 to 1, British people believed that the British Empire was ‘something to be proud of’.

The Mau Mau Uprising remains a harrowing part of history; a period in which 80,000 of the Kikuyu ethnic group were subjected to immense cruelty and even death under the cover of ‘rehabilitation’ in order to consolidate British rule.[2]

My undergraduate dissertation had investigated these camps and explored how the ingrained racism in the foundations of the camps’ ‘pipeline’, as it was coined by historian Caroline Elkins, allowed racism towards the Kikuyu people, to become commonplace in the British historical narrative and therefore justify the existence of such camps.[3]

However, the British government could not be seen to be detaining huge numbers of the Kikuyu people without just cause.

Consequently, a ‘Psychological Warfare’ campaign was launched, using propaganda through multiple media outlets demonize Mau Mau. Kenyan radio broadcasts dehumanised them and labelled them ‘hyenas in the dark’.[4] Advertisements of films showing ‘frenzied terrorist killers in savage blood drinking rituals’ and government-directed mobile cinema vans showing footage of Mau Mau violence were stationed and showcased around Kenya – the aim being to highlight Mau Mau’s alleged blood-thirsty barbarity to the masses and justify the establishment of the detention camps. [5]

Advertisement of a film showcasing Mau Mau violence – Image from Boston University African Studies Centre.

British local and national newspapers such as the Sunday Post, the Dundee Courier and the Manchester Guardian all described the Mau Mau as ‘terrorists’, demonstrating that the press often echoed the British colonial government’s perception of them as a dangerous organisation. [6]

An archival document detailed ‘brain-storming’ sessions amongst the colonial government’s ‘Psychological Warfare Staff’, where methods to distort the Kenyan public’s perception and thought up, as well as ways to entice the Kikuyu population to reveal the whereabouts of Mau Mau fugitives.

A list of ideas from the Psychological Warfare Committee on how to manipulate the Kikuyu community into revealing the whereabouts of hidden Mau Mau warriors. Document from The National Archives, File named ‘Ideas’ addressed to the Ministry of African Affairs FCO141/627. Dated 10/2/1956.

Recalling my own earlier schooling, little education was given about the ‘guile and trickery’ of the British colonial government.[7] Instead, Britain was framed as a country that modernised and ‘westernised’ far-away lands; this providing little information of its manipulation and oppression of the it’s subjects. Yet the British government has had a significant hand in ensuring that that the true history of its Empire has remained hidden from popular history.

However, due to the emergence of the 2012 Mau Mau court cases against the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), the older British narrative regarding the rebellion has begun the fall apart.

2011 marked the year when finally, the abuses under British colonial rule could be accounted for and the process of reparation could begin; the FCO could now be held accountable and tried for their crimes. Since then, many more cases concerning over 40,000 Kenyans followed.[8]

As a result, the British government decided their course of action was to compensate some 5,200 Kenyans who were abused in the camps. As a gesture of commemoration, a memorial was erected in 2015 [see top image].[9]

Not only this, but the FCO then admitted to having stored sensitive archival documents at Hanslope Park – previously unseen (and broadly unknown). These documents proved crucial in these court cases and were soon released into the public domain.[10]

The building of the memorial and the FCO’s confessions have signified for many that a future of recognition may be on its way.

However, despite the memorial funded by the British Government, one only has to look at the surrounding media coverage to get a taste of how entrenched Britain’s own historical narrative still remains in contemporary Kenya. In the past few years, various news outlets such as Kenya’s Daily Nation, the London Telegraph, and BBC News have all detailed how Mau Mau fighters ‘terrorised’ colonial communities’, or ‘attacked British officials’ and ‘began a violent campaign’. [11]  And just as the anti-Mau Mau propaganda leaflets circulated during the rebellion made no mention of the forced removal of land from the natives by the British settlers, neither did these news reports.[12]

Subsequently, the continuity of the British narrative from the 1950s to today remains central to modern Mau Mau press coverage as does the sense of colonial paternalism that Kenya desperately wanted to eradicate upon independence. Interestingly, upon the unveiling of the monument, the British High Commissioner stated that ‘we should never forget history’. Yet, curiously, the British government has seemingly supported the forgetting of the Mau Mau.[13] Furthermore, former UK foreign secretary William Hague stated on the day of the Mau Mau monetary settlement that the British government did not believe that this settlement ‘established a precedent’. Vice News reported that in this statement, Hague implied that the additional cases from Kenya ‘would not be entertained’.[14]

In light of this, it seems that the government feels it has now accounted for the actions carried out under the colonial regime; even though these gestures are either sullied, hold little integrity, or are simply not enough. It would appear, then, that the 2015 memorial was little more than a silencing tool which would end all further accusations against the government and attempts to pursue them for reprisals, reinforcing Britain’s self-held notion that authority should not be questioned decades after Kenyan independence.


Lauren Brown is a history postgraduate student at the University of Dundee. She holds an MA in History from the University of Dundee with First Class Honours. Lauren has a keen interest in African history with a focus on colonial and the early post-colonial period.

[1] Will Dahlgreen, ‘The British Empire is Something to be Proud of’,, 26/6/2014,, Accessed: 31/08/18.

[2] James Meredith, Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour (Jonathan Ball Publishers: South Africa, 2014) p. 4.

[3] Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2005).

[4] British National Archives, FCO141/6227, ‘The World of Today, Oct 11 1958: Broadcast from West Kenya Radio’, Radio Broadcast, 11/10/58.

[5]Boston University,  ‘Mau Mau Framed in Flaming colour’, ‘The Mau Mau Rebellion, Pardee School of Global Studies, African Studies Central, Accessed: 20/2/18; Myles Osborne, ‘The Rooting out of Mau Mau from the Minds of the Kikuyu is a Formidable Task’: Propaganda and the Mau Mau War, Journal of African Studies, Vol 56. (2015.) p.82.

[6] From the Office of the Director of Intelligence and Security, Nairobi, 16/3/56, To the Secretary of Defence, Nairobi, ‘Sunday Post’ FCO141/5670 Kenya Mau Mau Activities in Prisons and Detention Camps 1955-56; Manchester Guardian, 25/07/53, ‘Templer Rehabilitation in Use in Kenya.’ ‘Reforming Mau Mau Terrorists’.; Dundee Courier, 24/5/1954, British Newspaper Archives,, Accessed: 19/03/18. Nairobi, CO822: ‘Rehabilitation of Mau Mau adherents in Kenya’, 1953

[7] British National Archives, FCO141/6227, ‘War Council Directive Number 8: Establishment of Psychological Warfare Staff’ Directive from the Cabinet Office to the Psychological Warfare Staff, 25/10/55.

[8]David Anderson, Mau Mau in the High Court and the “Lost” British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle? Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 39, Issue 5 (Taylor and Francis Publishing: New York and London, 2011) p.669.

[9] Tony Karumba, Daily Nation, ‘Mau Mau Memorial Set to Open in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in Rare Colonial Apology’,, 11/09/15, Accessed: 02/09/18.

[10]Katie Engelhart, ‘An Alleged Victtim of British Colonial Abuse in Kenya Testifies in London – Six Decades Later’, Vice News, 12/07/2016,, Accessed: 02/04/18; David Anderson, ‘Mau Mau in the High Court and the “Lost” British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?’, p.712.

[11] Tony Karumba, ‘Mau Mau Memorial Set to Open in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in Rare Colonial Apology’;  Telegraph, ‘Kenya Unveils Memorial to Victims of Torture in Mau Mau Era’,, 12/09/15, Accessed: 01/02/18; BBC News, ‘Kenya Mau Mau Memorial Funded by UK Unveiled’, 12/09/2015,, Accessed: 03/02/18.

[12] Solimar Otero, eds. Toyin Falola, Hetty Ter Haar, Narrating War and Peace in Africa (University of Rochester Press: New York, 2010) p.61.

[13] Dr Christian Turner, ‘Launch of the Mau Mau Memorial in Kenya’,,, Accessed: 02/02/18.

[14] Engelhart, ‘An Alleged Victim of British Colonial Abuse in Kenya Testifies in London – Six Decades Later’.

One thought on “The Mau Mau Detention Camps: Rehabilitation, Propaganda, Memory

  1. I read Caroline Elkins’ book. The ‘Mau Mau’ uprisings seems to have been the kind of land and freedom struggle that would make the Kikuyu the ‘good guys’ in other contexts, and the underdogs whose side you would want to take in a computer game of the conflict. The real terrorists are the British colonialists, including the Colonial Office which appeared to take the task of confounding awkward members of Parliament quite seriously.

    I recently watched an amazingly hagiographical history of the RAF which left out its colonial role completely, and could hardly bring itself to mention the ‘lethality’ of the aircraft and weapons systems, let alone describe how people died (something that comedy show ‘Why Does Everyone Hate the English’ Germany episode at least addressed). The RAF was in Kenya. What did it do there (apart from “sky shout”, perhaps)?

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