Revisiting the Battle of the Dandora Swamp – 67 years later

by Stephen Macharia

One of the most intriguing Mau Mau battles is what is known as the ‘The Battle of Dandora Swamp’.

Dandora, on the eastern side of Nairobi, was a large uninhabited swath of land with marshland and teaming with wild animals. There was a sisal estate, too.

Here, the Mau Mau staged a fight – and it was epic.

It all started on 25 October 1954, when a Luo migrant worker in the European owned sisal estate sighted Mau Mau hiding in the sisal farm and informed the police. The worker had little sympathy for the Mau Mau and the course of liberation in Kenya.

His action set off a gory attack at the Dandora Swamp that ended in death of 16 Mau Mau fighters and the arrest of the survivors.

After receiving the tip from the migrant worker, the government, which had been accused of inability to stem Mau Mau in Nairobi, acted quickly fearing the fighters could overrun police and government installations in the area. 

Ralph Hamilton-Paxon, the commander of the 22 Platoon of the General Service Unit (GSU) of Kenya, quickly assembled a platoon of GSU officers and led the officers to the sisal farm.

What we know is that the officers conducted through reconnaissance of the area until they went to the confluence of Kamiti and Nairobi rivers. From this confluence, Hamilton-Paxton sighted a Mau Mau camp tucked between thorn trees near a swamp in the area.  Available documents describe the camp as being surrounded by “thick papyrus where the Mau Mau gang was hurdled together in groups of three or four.”

Desperate to arrest and kill Mau Mau members, Hamilton-Paxon assembled his officers to cordon off the area and prevent any Mau Mau member from escaping.

But it was not going to be an easy time for the police officers.

At around 9:00 pm, the GSU launched an attack. But the response from the Mau Mau was more than what Hamilton-Paxton and his team had expected. They had underestimated the Mau Mau fighters. Mau Mau were generally ill equipped for such attacks at the time.

It was, therefore, little concern for the government forces that the Mau Mau members were armed. The GSU did not expect the fighters to mount significant form of resistance. Hamilton-Paxon and his team thought they were on a light assignment. They were in for a shock.

The Mau Mau fighters took defensive positions in the papyrus. They also seemed to outnumber the police officers available for the assignment.  

Shortly after the police launched the attack, Mau Mau appeared ready to defend themselves. The freedom fighters held their positions and shot at the police from multiple locations.

Hamilton-Paxon and his group were taken aback; the government had underrated the Mau Mau’s ability to fight. Barely two hours into the attacks, Hamilton-Paxon ordered his men to withdraw.  By the time, some GSU officers had gun wounds. Hamilton-Paxon could not allow his team to be defeated. He therefore hatched other plans to deal with the Mau Mau fighters hiding in the sisal farm by calling for reinforcement.

Later that night, members of the Kenya Regiment, a British military unit comprising white settlers arrived at the scene. While a set of Kikuyu home guards were also brought, plus a contingent of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers from Thika, this were still not enough to counter the Mau Mau fighters.

At dawn, the government officers invited the Mau Mau fighters to surrender. However, in line with the Mau Mau oath, none of the fighters surrendered

The government now brought in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, an infantry regiment of the British army. The army embarked on mortar bombing of the Mau Mau camp. This exercise continued for hours. The Mau Mau fighters countered it with gunfire from the papyrus.

This battle lasted more than a day with casualties on both sides.

In their book Mau Mau & Nationhood, Prof Atieno Odhiambo and John Lonsdale describe the battle of Dandora as a fierce encounter. They conclude that the defeat of the Mau Mau in that battle “was heralded as a notable success for the security forces.”

The writers also reveal the kind of weapons the Mau Mau used to fight the British.

“Some Mau Mau stood their ground and died with their weapons in their hands: several shot-guns, homemade pipe-guns, pistols, bottle-bombs, and pangas.”

Many fighters were arrested while others were shot dead. Those arrested included women and children, revealing active participation of women in the liberation war.

Part of the Mau Mau fighters slipped through the cordon and escaped into other parts of Nairobi. When the government mopped the area later, about 16 bodies of fighters were recorded. Over 50 members of the Mau Mau were arrested. Some were wearing military and police uniforms.  Among those arrested was the Mau Mau camp leader identified as Nyaga, a married man in his 20s from Meru.

Those atrrested were moved to Thika Police Station where Superintendent Dracup of the CID unit led massive and torturous interrogation exercises for over three weeks.

On 21 November 1954, the first batch of trials begun. The court process took over a month. All suspects were charged with capital offenses and tried in special Emergency assize courts that were introduced in 1953 to speed up a backlog of Mu Mau related cases.

In total, the government charged 41 suspects in court. The court then ordered the hanging of 17 people arrested during the Dandora Swamp Battle.

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2 comments

Njoroge September 16, 2021 - 10:19 am

Why don’t we teach our history to our children??
Liberation war in Africa is really ignored by our education system because our leaders don’t want to offend the colonialist

Reply
Fred Barasa October 7, 2021 - 5:10 pm

True Njoroge,am a teacher of History but when i teach i feel some pieces are missing. These are the stories not included in our history syllabus. We need such realities. Let’s do justice to our #OWNHISTORY

Reply

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