The sleepy Rwathia village in Murang’a County was rather unknown until March 1954 when it left a mark in the struggle for Kenya’s freedom.
While many people today, including the youth, remain oblivious of historical value in Rwathia – the March 1954 massacre on the banks of River Mathioya has largely been forgotten.
It all started when the Mau Mau killed Captain James Hardie Candler, a long-serving decorated British administrator.
On that day, the Mau Mau had beheaded Capt Candler, pronounced Kandara in local Kikuyu language, inside a police post in Rwathia in a daring raid that shocked the British administration.
Mau Mau’s General Kago, one of the most revered Mau Mau fighters in Murang’a, had led this attack. It is said that Gen Kago had had left his base at the Aberdares Forest to fulfill a vengeful mission against Captain Candler for killing a woman for her alleged association with Mau Mau.
Candler, who was serving as a District Officer, was a brutal colonial ruler and had established an elaborate system to kill all Mau Mau members in the area. But he had no idea what the freedom fighters had planned for him.
General Kago, with a single mission to stop Captain Candler, left the forest with a clear assignment; to behead the British officer. While this was an onerous task – General Kago’s ability to conduct raids was not in doubt. What we know is that General Kago hatched a plan that baffled many.
First, General Kago knew that the colonial government had installed an intelligence gathering system in Rwathia. It is therefore not surprising that General Kago’s first tactic was camouflage before moving to Rwathia village.
While dreadlocks hair had become a signature look of the Mau Mau fighters, General Kago and his troops shaved their hair. That way, they had erased any chances of easy identification in the village. He knew that nobody could easily identify him or his troops as members of Mau Mau.
After shaving, the Mau Mau fighters moved to Rwathia, attacked a loyalist police post, and killed all police. By then, Candler was out on assignment.
After killing the police officers, General Kago and his troop dressed in police uniform and patiently stayed at the camp waiting for the D.O. to arrive. They also took all the guns from the police post.
And just like the Mau Mau fighters anticipated, the DO arrived in a police Land Rover. The Mau Mau, disguised as police officers, happily received him at the post. The fighters are said to have formed a parade as a mark of respect for the administrator.
The moves were executed with precision, with Candler remaining unsuspicious of all the happenings in the camp.
It is said that Candler happily begun inspecting the guard of honour mounted for him to inspect. He did not know that the curtain was about to be drawn over his long administrative career in Murang’a.
As he inspected the guard of honour, the D.O was living on borrowed time. The Mau Mau fighters pounced on him and beheaded him.
General Kago had Candler’s torso taken to an administrative camp in Kangema. The British administrators went into panic mode. They knew General Kago – a man who had escaped the government police radar for a long time – was behind it.
The local community, largely supportive of Mau Mau, went abuzz. They were happy with the death of an administrator who had violated their rights with impunity.
As the government wondered how to dispose Candler’s torso, the fighters returned to the forest carrying the head of the D.O.
This raid appeased Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi who sent a congratulatory note to General Kago. But the government needed to save face – and the only one way to change the narrative was retaliation.
In what had become a classic government response, the British conducted a massacre in the village – or what is now known as the Rwathia Massacre. The Kikuyu call it Muito wa Rwathia. By definition, a massacre is an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of many people or deliberate and brutal killing of many people.
The police rounded up people at Mathioya River and killed everyone suspected of belonging to Mau Mau. Some descriptions of the massacre reveal that almost an entire village was cleared in the massacre.
This massacre was planned to ‘discipline’ and instill fear among locals as a counter Mau Mau strategy. Further, the government imposed a levy of Sh15 per adult in the area to pay for the D.O’s blood.