The Mau Mau Detention Camps: Rehabilitation and Propaganda

The Mau Mau Detention Camps: Rehabilitation and Propaganda.

Lauren Brown

Showcasing some of our students work at the University of Dundee, this week, in the first of two blogs, Lauren Brown discusses the Mau Mau detention camps in colonial Kenya, and the issues of ‘rehabilitation’ and propaganda around the uprising.

The Mau Mau rebellion which occurred in Kenya in the 1950s and 60s instigated the creation of a system of detention camps to incarcerate members of the colonised black population. The events which unfolded in these camps have been hidden away from the popular and public narratives of this period of British and African history. Only now are the repercussions of these actions begin to effect the British government.

During my research on these detention camps, I used the available sources on the Mau Mau rebellion in the British National Archives, where I came across a document which exposed the categorization of Kenyan detention camp prisoners into different degrees of ‘Very Black’ to ‘White’. Detainees categorized as ‘Very black’ were seen as degenerative, most devoutly against British imperial rule, and perceived as desperately in need of rehabilitation. Prisoners who were perceived as such would be subjected to torture and abuse all in the name of safe-guarding British imperial interests. After spending hours studying boxes of British imperial documents like this, it proved incredibly difficult to comprehend the outcomes of a YouGov poll conducted in July 2014.[1] This poll indicated that by a ratio of three to one, British people believed that the British Empire was ‘something to be proud of’. How can the degradation, abuse, and indefinite incarceration of thousands of Kenyans be something to be proud of?

The Mau Mau Rebellion of the 1950s remains a harrowing part of both Kenyan and British history; this a period in which 80,000 of the Kikuyu ethnic group were subjected to immense cruelty and even death, all under the blanket of ‘rehabilitation’ in order to consolidate British colonial rule.[2] My undergraduate research dissertation provided a close investigation into the infrastructure of these camps set up by the British colonial government. It explored how the ingrained racism located in the very foundations of the camps ‘pipeline’ – as it was coined by historian Caroline Elkins – allowed racist ideology regarding the Kikuyu people to become commonplace in the British historical narrative and therefore justify the existence of such camps.[3]

The justification for the so-called rehabilitation of Mau Mau detainees was extremely poignant to me, and it reeked of imperialist brainwashing and a strategy of direct rule. Those who rejected British occupation were to be imprisoned and only released when they were perceived to be cured of their “regressive” behaviours. This highlighted the mentality of the British colonial government which labelled opponents to continued British rule as degenerative and inferior. Furthermore, the camps removed those who threatened British rule from society and therefore, regardless of the existence of the rehabilitation programme, these camps were institutions of punishment to protect British colonial territory.

However, the British government could not be seen to be detaining huge proportions of the Kikuyu people without just cause. Consequently, they began their aptly named ‘Psychological Warfare’ campaign. As a direct result propaganda, implemented through multiple media outlets, was used to demonize Mau Mau. For example, Kenyan radio broadcasts dehumanised them and labelled them as ‘hyenas in the dark’.[4] Advertisements for films showed ‘frenzied terrorist killers in savage blood drinking rituals’ and Government Assigned mobile cinema vans which screened footage of Mau Mau violence were stationed and showcased across Kenya. A core aim was to depict Mau Mau as a blood-thirsty and barbarous movement to the masses.[5]  The unrelenting circulation of images of Mau Mau violence justified the use of the camps as part of the colonial governments’ plan to protect the colony from Mau Mau. Crucially, the propaganda material made its way into the global press and allowed the British to justify the creation of these camps. The propaganda campaign allowed British officials to continue the detention of the Mau Mau population without mass public criticism either at home or in Kenya. British local and national newspapers such as The Sunday Post, The Dundee Courier, and the Manchester Guardian all described the Mau Mau as ‘terrorists’, which demonstrate how the press reiterated the British colonial government’s perception of them as a ‘terrorist’ organisation determined to attack the British establishment.[6]

One archival document detailed a ‘brain-storming’ session amongst the colonial government’s ‘Psychological Warfare Staff’. In this meeting they designed ways to manipulate the general Kenyan public into an irrational fear of Mau Mau, and to entice the Kikuyu population in to revealing the whereabouts of Mau Mau fugitives.

Thinking back to my high school and primary school experiences, little education was given about the ‘guile and trickery’ of the British colonial government.[7] The focus was instead on how Britain had modernised and ‘Westernised’ far-away lands. Little information was provided of the government’s manipulation and violent oppression of the Empire’s subjects. The British government has had a significant hand in ensuring that that the true history of its Empire has remained hidden from popular history and taken a back-seat to the preferred British historical narrative. However, due to the emergence of the 2013 Mau Mau court cases against the Foreign Commonwealth Office, the British narrative regarding the Mau Mau rebellion has begun to fall apart.


Lauren Brown is a history graduate from the University of Dundee who achieved a First Class Honours degree. Lauren has a keen interest in African history with a focus on colonial and the early post-colonial period. She is currently about to start a Post-Graduate degree in History at the University of Dundee.


[1] Will Dahlgreen, ‘The British Empire is Something to be Proud of’,, 26/6/2014,, Accessed: 31/08/18.

[2] James Meredith, Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour (Jonathan Ball Publishers: South Africa, 2014) Chapter 61, page 4.

[3] Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2005)

[4] British National Archives, FCO141/6227, ‘The World of Today, Oct 11 1958: Broadcast from West Kenya Radio’, Radio Broadcast, 11/10/58.

[5]Boston University,  ‘Mau Mau Framed in Flaming colour’, ‘The Mau Mau Rebellion, Pardee School of Global Studies, African Studies Central, Accessed: 20/2/18; Myles Osborne, ‘The Rooting out of Mau Mau from the Minds of the Kikuyu is a Formidable Task’: Propaganda and the Mau Mau War, Journal of African Studies, Vol 56. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015.) p.82.

[6] From the Office of the Director of Intelligence and Security, Nairobi, 16/3/56, To the Secretary of Defence, Nairobi, ‘Sunday Post’ FCO141/5670 Kenya Mau Mau Activities in Prisons and Detention Camps 1955-56; Manchester Guardian, 25/07/53, ‘Templer Rehabilitation in Use in Kenya.’ ‘Reforming Mau Mau Terrorists’.; Dundee Courier, 24/5/1954, British Newspaper Archives,, Accessed: 19/03/18. Nairobi, CO822: ‘Rehabilitation of Mau Mau adherents in Kenya’, 1953

[7] British National Archives, FCO141/6227, ‘War Council Directive Number 8: Establishment of Psychological Warfare Staff’ Directive from the Cabinet Office to the Psychological Warfare Staff, 25/10/55.