Ask any student of the Mau Mau Rebellion of 1952–1960 and of the end of empire in Kenya for the name of a colonial chief and most likely they will respond with Chief Waruhiu. But they will usually know only two things about him: that he was shot dead with a pistol in broad daylight by Mau Mau, and that this shocked the British colonial administration so much that it hastened the Declaration of a State of Emergency on October 22, 1952. It seems extraordinary and disrespectful that he has crouched in the shadows for so long; just a passing reference in our lectures, at best accompanied by the gruesome black and white photos of the “murder in the best Chicago style” (143). However, this is no longer the case. We now have Evanson N. Wamagatta to thank for producing a fascinating history and forensic examination of an important and misunderstood figure. And Controversial Chiefs in Colonial Kenya: The Untold Story of Senior Chief Waruhiu Wa Kung’u, 1890–1952, is a welcome reminder of the powerhouse of home-grown scholarship within Kenya. (It was also nice to see a photo of him alive for a change; it was given to the author by one of the chief’s daughters.) Senior Chief Waruhiu Wa Kung’u of Kiambo was born into poverty and landlessness in 1890 in Kimathi, a sub-location within Kiambu District, a Kikuyu area north of Nairobi. His father was a tenant (muhoi) on the land of the sub-clan (mbari) of Mbari ya Gathirimu, which was part of the Anjiru clan. The future chief had good reason to hate the arrival of the British. His father died in the great famine of 1898–1899 which was linked to the arrival of Europeans, the disruption compounded by drought, locusts, and rinderpest. Kenya had become a part of the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895; settlers and land alienation hit the area from 1902. Soon after, the first chiefs were appointed in the British tradition of indirect rule. It mattered not that the Kikuyu did not have chiefs. (In fact, they had more egalitarian, consensual rule by a council of elders [ciama].) Colonial rule on the cheap did not just use poorly paid chiefs to gather taxes and manpower and to impose the latest thinking on so-called “progressive” and “scientific” measures, from animal husbandry to hygiene. It was also accompanied by missionaries, who offered basic education and welfare in return for conversion. Waruhiu experienced both positively. He converted to Christianity and excelled at the mission school, and, after he contracted elephantiasis, which crippled him, successful treatment at the local hospital inspired him to become a lifelong advocate of what he viewed as the benefits of white rule. Young, gifted, and aspirational, he rose up the ranks and quickly came to the attention of the authorities, getting appointed as a chief in 1922. He became the perfect chief, winning promotion to senior chief in 1951. But, as Wamagatta is at pains to point out, Waruhiu’s wealth was achieved legitimately; he campaigned against land alienation, he stood up for his people, and he was particularly vociferous in pushing for African education, including for girls. He was a staunch opponent of female genital mutilation. He had a reputation across all communities for fairness. What is so useful about this study is the wider history made accessible to readers through this sympathetic biography. There is much here that students will find riveting. Wamagatta tells the story of Waruhiu’s life and times through examining early colonial chiefs in Kiambu; his early life and bid for power; the chief’s relationship with the British and with the “colonized”; two compelling chapters (chaps. 6 and 7) cover his work serving on Kiambu’s Local Native Council (one of the structures that the British idealized as a training ground for democracy!) and “Life Behind the Scenes.” Wamagatta painstakingly shows why chiefs such as Waruhiu were cast as “colonial stooges” by the end of the Second World War, as he builds up to the assassination in the latter part of the book. Waruhiu was certainly vulnerable to accusations of being an apologist for imperialism. He did not believe east Africans were ready for independence. He preached against the Mau Mau movement to his death. One of the big problems the colonial state had was that it did not have enough Waruhius—loyal, dependable, invested in the status quo, focused on law and order. History dealt him a difficult hand; he was the right chief at the wrong time. Wamagatta gives us a fascinating insight into the fraught politics of the Kikuyu clan system and chiefs during the incredibly pressurizing postwar period in and around Kiambu, as landlessness, poverty, and thwarted aspirations began to produce growing demands for change, freedom from white-settler rule, and more violence. By the time Waruhiu was assassinated, he had dodged a number of attempts on his life within his community. Wamagatta delves into the murky waters surrounding the chief’s death and the trial of those blamed for assassinating him—allegedly because Mau Mau considered him, as a loyalist, to be a dangerous threat to their cause. This was all too convenient and the investigation was bungled, Wamagatta argues. It was more likely, he insists, that Waruhiu was murdered by whites who wanted Mau Mau blamed and the colonial state “asleep at the wheel” to take stern action. Wamagatta certainly makes the case that there seems likely to have been a terrible miscarriage of justice that resulted in two Kikuyu men receiving death by hanging for the murder. The beatings of suspects and witnesses underscore the brutal, vicarious, and crude network of policing and legal norms in colonial Kenya. Unfortunately, Wamagatta’s thesis that “some leaders of the white settlers, working secretly together with some government officials” (xii) is as yet not fleshed out with any detail and so sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the previous attempts on Waruhiu’s life that Wamagatta lays out. Another historiography to have brought in would have included work by John Lonsdale and Bruce Berman (Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, bk. 2, Violence and Ethnicity, 1992). A little more information on the structural positionality of Wamagatta’s thirty-plus interviewees would also have been useful. Overall, Wamagatta has done us all a great favor with this well-written, exciting history of colonial rule in Kenya, Kikuyu chieftancy and the tragic, sorry story of the buildup to the State of Emergency. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in decolonization in African history and how to write African socio-political biographical history. It should be on every reading list on the history of Mau Mau. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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