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Mau Mau and the British Newspapers

In these days of the rehabilitation of the language of "liberal imperialism", it is important to recall that empire can be an expensive undertaking, and overseas involvement must be justified to an electorate arguably more interested in the mundane infrastructure of a welfare state for example.

July 1, 2004
7 min read

In the years immediately after the Second World War Britain retained a vast overseas empire. The empire was exploited to support the weakened domestic economy, and to construct an unprecedented experiment in welfare provision. In addition, significant numbers of “kith and kin” had made their homes in various imperial outposts. Particularly in Africa these settlers would prove an ongoing challenge to British colonial policy.

The last time that explicitly imperialist language was commonly used by British politicians was during the 1950s. These were also the last years of the dominant role of newspapers in the British mass media. Yet despite the apparent differences between the last years of the formal British Empire, and the first years of New Labour government, important shared patterns of mass media consensus, and therefore of limitations in the portrayal of complex events to the electorate, can be identified. It is useful to note how in both eras the portrayal of events has facilitated the development of aggressive imperialist policies.

At the end of September 1952, The Manchester Guardian described what the Kenyan rebels themselves called the Land and Freedom Armies like this: the “terrorist conspiracy known as Mau Mau”. The leader writer continued: “if force enough can be concentrated on the area most concerned in the next few weeks, the back of the conspiracy may be broken.”

It is always central to the description of colonial rebels, to forget that the contested territory is their home. The Manchester Guardian was a paper in the liberal tradition, and opined that “repression without reform is a dead end”, but of course this was “not to say that violence and murder are not to be repressed.” Imperial historian John Lonsdale reminds us that violence is incumbent upon the colonial power, an obvious point where conquest is involved, but conquest needs to be conveniently forgotten if imperialism is to be justified.

Whilst African leaders in Kenya were judged by the Manchester Guardian to “appreciate at least some aspects of western civilisation … Mau Mau does not seek a larger share in the benefits … it rejects them in favour of the relatively barbaric traditions of pre-European Africa.” Accordingly, Mau Mau was regressive in a way “not infrequent in primitive societies confronted with an advanced society which is so far beyond them that they cannot feel that they can ever play a worthy part in it.” If the colonial authorities and those Kikuyu in the security forces stood firm “Mau Mau can be stamped out and the forward march of the Kikuyu people resumed.”

In the months following the declaration of a State of Emergency in Kenya Colony in September 1952 a strong consensus dominated the coverage in the British press. Whilst it is important to note the exceptions, for example Colin Legum’s attempts to provide historical background to readers of the Observer, and John Redfern’s sometimes sympathetic pieces for the generally enthusiastically imperialist Daily Express, by and large Mau Mau was described in simplistic terms that ignored the role of the machine gun in the creation of Kenya Colony.

Visiting Kenya Colony, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman and Nation, initially predisposed to distrust the colonial authorities and the European settlers, felt justified in agreeing with the Conservative Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton that Mau Mau was “nationalism and thuggery”. He wrote that Mau Mau used for their “own purposes all the political and economic aspirations of land-hungry, dispossessed and terribly overcrowded African people.” Whilst recognising the existence of real grievances, Martin subscribed to a common imperial myth. He saw Mau Mau as opportunistic and criminal; he hoped for an African leadership that would create a reformist nationalist movement, in other words one which would develop a “recognised programme of emancipation” at a pace largely dictated by the colonial authorities, and preserving a multi-racial Kenya. Martin’s New Statesman and Nation wanted expert solutions to the Kenya crisis without realising that the rule of the expert was simply a different kind of imperialism. This is Franz Fanon’s clear distinction between decolonisation and liberation.

There were some superficial differences between the liberal papers and the more proudly imperialistic publications. Whilst the New Statesman and Nation looked forward to a gradual maturing of a moderate African polity in Kenya, the Daily Express held to its vision of a paternalistic and enduring empire. However, there is little difference between Martin’s acceptance that raw criminality lay behind Mau Mau, and the Express opinion column from the end of September 1952 which talked of the “slinking murderous terrorists of Mau Mau”.

Broadly then, at a time when thousands of Kikuyu were fleeing their homes, and with the Royal Lancashire Fusiliers on their way to the troubled colony, the consensus in the British press was strong. There was no mention of the Land and Freedom Armies, indeed this would always remain the case. There was only Mau Mau. Mau Mau was a combination of mental illness, criminality, and superstition. When it suited papers like the Express, Mau Mau appeared to have characteristics of a modern political movement, at other times it used the “African’s awe of witchcraft”. Mau Mau was against the interests of ordinary Africans, it was an irrational rejection of the benefits of British rule. Even Kenyan leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, certainly not a Mau Mau militant, were demonised, and British politicians, like Fenner Brockway, who were perceived as being too lenient on Mau Mau were relentlessly criticised in papers like the Express.

When settlers were attacked in Kenya the tales of their deaths were told with lurid fascination, and no personal details were spared. “Whirling their broad-blade double-edged knives the thugs slashed the middle-aged couple about the head and arms and ran” was the Express” description of an attack in October 1952. Mau Mau was always described as cowardly; its victims were always seen as heroes: “Dr Dorothy pulled herself from the floor by clutching the furniture and crawled upstairs. There she tore pillow cases and tried to staunch her many wounds.” It is important to remember that in the course of the Emergency seventy Europeans died. It is estimated that around ten thousand Africans met the same fate, but not until the Hola Massacre in 1959, when the Land and Freedom Armies had long been defeated in the field, did any story of the suffering of African rebels reach a British newspaper.

Analysis of the newspaper coverage of the so-called Mau Mau rebellion reveals that the British public was never given an adequate picture of the origins of the crisis. Only Colin Legum in the Observer even touched upon the complex impact of colonial policy upon indigenous Kenyan societies. Formally democratic Britain fought many dirty wars in distant colonial territories, and the case of Kenya would suggest that the British people were in no position to judge the causes of these wars, nor their true costs to those people who stood against the British empire.

Journalists depended on either the Colonial Office or Colonial authorities for much of their information. It is evident that no journalist trekked into the forests of Kenya to talk to the rebels. But what is perhaps more important is that across the mainstream spectrum the essential benevolence of British imperial policy was accepted. The violence with which the empire had been created and maintained was forgotten, and to this day the most enduring, and vital myth remains that British foreign policy is and always has been predicated upon progressive and generous ideals. A very public reassessment of the imperial legacy may be a vital prerequisite to a reassessment of ongoing British interventionism.

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