Why Mau Mau troops destroyed the Treetops Hotel where Elizabeth became queen

by Stephen Macharia

The death of Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, has rekindled the memories of the Mau Mau war in Kenya.

Phillip and Elizabeth were in Kenya when Elizabeth became Queen after her father, King George VI, succumbed to cancer. It was also during her tenure that the State of Emergency was declared in the country.

It happened that King George VI died when the royal couple was in the country on a safari – and to receive the wedding gift of Sagana Lodge. As part of the safari, both Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Pumwani Maternity Hospital to evaluate levels of maternal care.  

The governor of Kenya Sir Philip Euen Mitchell received the couple at the Eastleigh Airport on 31 January 1952 where the Royal Air Force Guard had mounted a parade in honour of the couple. In her speech, Princess Elizabeth acknowledged Nairobi as a “center of commerce and finance” and termed Kenya as the “capital of British colonies”. She also paid tribute “to men and women of all races” who worked hard to develop the country.

The Queen also celebrated towering colonial chiefs for their contribution in entrenching British interests.  

It was in their last days of the tour that the couple visited the Treetop Hotel in Aberdare Forest near Nyeri.

The hotel, built in 1932 by Eric Sherbrooke Walker, a decorated military officer cum hotelier, offered guests close sight of the wildlife and epitomized luxurious British living in the Kenya colony.

Built in an arboreal setting, Treetops Hotel was an artistic masterpiece. The two-room treehouse quickly became a magnet that attracted elitist British rulers and investors. Nested on top of a mature Mugumo tree near an animal watering hole, Walker’s investment invited the high and mighty.

The original Treetops Hotel in Nyeri before it was destroyed by the Mau Mau

But not everyone was happy with the hotel. It was an act of sacrilege for Mau Mau and the Agikuyu community who revered Mugumo trees as sacred.  

For its fame as an epitome of British luxury living, the hotel – an extension of Walker’s Outspan Hotel – was one of the places the couple had planned to visit during their stay in Kenya. They spent a night at Treetops watching wildlife, a break from official duties. Hosting the royal couple catapulted the hotel to international fame in 1952. However, their trip had faced hurdles from its onset.

The Mau Mau revolutionary war had started across the White Highlands. Reports indicate the officials responsible for the princess’s tour of Kenya were uncomfortable with her visit due to the threat of Mau Mau who had executed killings targeting British nationals in the colony.

British security forces could not guarantee the safety of the couple who were meant to spend days in Central Kenya, the hotbed of the Mau Mau uprising. But for fear of ridicule for cancelling her trip on account of a militant group armed with rudimentary weapons, the British government allowed Elizabeth and Phillip to visit Kenya. 

Mau Mau, the greatest revolutionary movement in Kenya, was secretly recruiting and preparing for war. Originally Kenya Land and Freedom Army, Mau Mau had an army regiment of over 2,000 soldiers. The revolutionary movement was known for its guerrilla military operations.

The Mau Mau raided Treetops Hotel months after the Queen’s visit.

Before they burned down the hotel, an annex to Nyeri’s Outspan, the Mau Mau freedom fighters stole binoculars and gun cases.

They had acquired important tools. From the forest hideouts, the Mau Mau used the binoculars to spot police and home guards from a distance. It was another collection to an assortment of tools used to fortify war operations.

The raid gave Mau Mau international media coverage, a boost in morale for the militant group operating from the forest. More so, the government was subjected to ridicule for failure to contain the militant group. For the Mau Mau, the coverage boosted their morale and desire to conduct many more raids.

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