How the Hola massacre lifted the lid on British atrocities

by Rose Wangechi

In many international discourses over Mau Mau, usually framed to belittle, degrade and disparage the character of the fighters, a glaring fact gets hidden: The colonial establishment’s investment in propaganda and in efforts to prevent information about the war from reaching the international media.

In reality, the  Kikuyu, Embu and Meru had mounted gruesome attacks on government establishments, settlers and their local supporters.  The British also committed untold atrocities that were covered.

Then, the Hola massacre happened – and the lid was lifted.

Initially, the British government’s propaganda machine had depicted the Mau Mau as a group of savagery individuals.

With admirable success, the British government managed to avoid international coverage on the atrocities it had perpetrated in Kenya. However, on 08 June 1959, the lid to bottled secrets was blown.

Under the title The Hola Scandal, the Time magazine reported: “In Kenya’s sweltering sun one morning last March, husky African warders herded 85 ragged prisoners out of the inner compound at Hola camp, 220 miles east of Nairobi, and into an adjacent field. The prisoners were the last hard-core remnants of Mau Mau terrorism. Each had taken the bloody oaths to kill, each had killed; many were sullen and confused men warped by their savagery. For all of them it was to be another day of digging on an irrigation ditch.”

“Suddenly, as if by pre-arrangement, dozens of the prisoners fell to the ground, refusing to work. The African guards moved in without hesitation, swinging thick clubs against skulls, spines, and limbs. Some of the prisoners made for the fence but were clubbed away; others built “Mau Mau pyramids,” falling atop one another in heaps to avoid the harsh blows. When the guards were done, eleven prisoners lay dying, and another 23 needed hospital treatment,” the magazine reported.”

This coverage, despite being tethered on veiled disdain for Mau Mau, infused outrage in many quarters including in the House of Commons. While the thesis of the report focused compared Mau Mau to a “terrorist group” that had taken “bloody oaths” to kill, the magazine uncovered the bread and breath of atrocities in Kenya. The British government moved to save face.

Barely a week after this report, then Newport representative Sir Frank Soskice moved a motion in the House of Commons and said the massacre had “shocked and dismayed civilized opinion all over the world.”

Soskice’s had started his exhortations in a sober and mercurial approach. But as he continued developing his argument, a streak of contempt for the Mau Mau manifested.

He characterized detainees at Hola Camp as “irreconcilables” and “men known to be inveterate in their hatred, apparently impossible to win over by any process of rehabilitation. Many had, no doubt, committed the most horrible crimes.”

It is therefore not surprising that Governor Evelyn Baring decided to destroy records that would have given evidence of torture at Hola. The governor said the government did not have enough storage to keep all government records.

However, after the Hola scandal, the Mau Mau issues morphed from a violent agenda to a more political agenda.

The British government embarked on a strategy to demonize the movement, only upscaling underhand dealings it had employed all along.

The Mau Mau oath was termed as a primitive act that bordered on magic. Writing to Governor Evelyn Baring, Secretary Oliver Lyttelton once described Kenyatta as a daemonic figure who made him “see a shadow fall across the page- the horned shadow of the Devil himself.”

But as the British labored to contain the Mau Mau movement in Kenya, new patterns of resistance were taking shape in Uganda, Tanganyika, and Sudan. None other than Canon F.C warned that Mau Mau was a global issue. This is despite the government spending years suppressing the Mau Mau.  

While the  Kenya African Union (KAU) was banned in June 1953,  and termed a cover organization after it mobilized resources for Kenyatta’s defense team, the lack of an organised political group was the undoing of the colonial government.

There was more crackdown that went on – even among the British Mau Mau sympathisers. Peter Evans, a British lawyer, was declared an illegal immigrant in Kenya and Tanganyika after defending Kenyatta in court. He was detained at Fort Jesus on flimsy accusations.

By the end of 1959, Kenya was more than just a colony. It was among the last British stronghold in Africa and boasted of a strategic military base. Anti-colonial sentiments had gained pace internationally and this made the British uncomfortable to continue with violent oppression.

The Brits feared the United Nations (UN), where the United States had massive influence, could take over Africa.

In 1961, President J.F Kennedy addressed the UN and expressed his sympathy for the Kenyan people and their desire for independence. This alerted the British who thought the Mau Mau – even from their camps – would use the US to force key reforms.

However, all the international politics did little to quell the violence in Kenya.

You may also like


Mike Ngatia July 16, 2021 - 9:36 am

Well written, give us more

Dan mwaura July 18, 2021 - 6:52 am

It’s wierd that history has been made optional subject in schools – how will our children learn their history?

We’ve where it’s taught why is it so sketchy?


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy