An illustration of Dedan Kimathi.

| File | Nation Media Group

Dedan Kimathi was shot as he rested under a tree

What you need to know:

  • It is a history that the British wanted to destroy, migrate or conceal.
  • In Dedan Kimathi on Trial, Prof Julie MacArthur captures her desperate search for Kimathi's file in Kenya and the United Kingdom.

A lot has been written about how Prof David Anderson managed to trace archival reference to Mau Mau papers that had been hidden in boxes at a warehouse in Hanslope Park, Milton Keynes in the UK. Had that not happened, we would not have known much about the atrocities that took place, and which had only been stored in the collective memories of survivors, as captured in Prof David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Prof Caroline Elkin’s Britain's Gulag.

But little has been written about the spirited search for the Kimathi trial papers, which had also been missing from the Kenya National Archives and at the British Archives at Kew Gardens. Why the trial file of one of colonial Kenya’s most wanted “freedom fighters” could not be found echoes the British silence on the whereabouts of Kimathi’s grave.

It is a history that the British wanted to destroy, migrate or conceal, perhaps for good because it marked the tail end of resistance to their occupation.

That is why Prof Julie MacArthur’s search for the Kimathi trial papers is important. In her book, Dedan Kimathi on Trial, the University of Toronto researcher captures her desperate search for this file in both Kenya and UK.

This file is important since, for the first time, we now have a proper record and a reference point on which historians can draw conclusions about the trial of Kimathi.

The file was remarkable.

For years, and she says as much, this piece of colonial archive was thought to have been “lost, hidden, or destroyed”.

Kimathi has been seen by diverse scholars and writers differently: Prof Ali Mazrui thought of him as akin to Mahatma Gandhi while the likes of William Ochieng saw Mau Mau as a Kikuyu “civil war between the haves and have-nots”.

For decades, Kenyans have yearned to find Kimathi’s grave and the British government has all along maintained it kept no records. But when this whole saga is looked at in the context of hidden records and destroyed archives, one begins to see a deliberate masking of the truth.

Thus, in 2008, Prof MacArthur arrived at the High Court archives to look for the file. “I had heard from colleagues David Anderson and Stacey Hynd that the trial was housed there and that a few had caught glimpses of various versions of the document,” she says in her book. “But that no one had as yet been able to secure a complete, certified copy.”

What Prof MacArthur found, a day later, at the basement of the High Court, where the judicial archives is located, is not what she was looking for.

“The file was remarkable, containing a fuller picture of the trial than had ever been revealed before. I copied the entirety of the file and excitedly began research into this fascinating historical document. As I began to consult fellow scholars and legal experts, however, doubt was cast on the authenticity of this file,” she says.

A file

The first thing that caught her eye was that the “Dedan Kimathi file” that she was given was emblazoned Republic of Kenya. That was an anomaly.

“The paper and typescript also did not match those in use at the times,” she recalls in her book. “The file was also riddled with typos, omissions, and inconsistencies. At best, it seemed, this copy of the trial was a poor transcription of the original; at worst, it was a fabrication.”

Why somebody tried to falsify records of the trial of Dedan Kimathi is not clear, and when Prof MacArthur tried to retrace that file once again, it went missing.

There is nothing as frustrating as a missing link in archival records. But then there are those aha moments, when splashes of wisdom dawn on researchers. She recalled that British lawyer, Dingle Foot, had taken Kimathi’s appeal in London and, thus, the undisturbed certified file must be in his archives. Foot had worked in several commonwealth countries and was one of Jomo Kenyatta’s lawyers during his trial, on the invitation of Tom Mboya.

But Prof MacArthur was told that Foot’s papers at Cambridge University will not be accessed until 2050. He had apparently left a 100-year closure on his papers.

“Next, I went in search of Foot’s associate, a lawyer named Ralph Millner... housed at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at Senate House Library in London,” she recalled.

Got trophy

And it was here, in Milner’s papers, that she got a trophy: “A complete, original, and certified transcript of the trial of Dedan Kimathi. The file’s cover contained the proper citing of the trial’s case number and was embossed with the seal of Her Majesty’s Supreme Court of Kenya. The paper was the thin, semi-translucent sheets that were used at the time to allow for multiple copies to be produced at once.”

This was an authentic copy — and now scholars will be able to interrogate Kimathi’s file and perhaps look at the entire script of evidence and decide whether he was taken through a fair trial.

Also located in Kenya were two folders containing Kimathi’s handwritten letters, which had been tabled as evidence during the trial. But Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Prof Micere Mugo dismissed some of the statements as “fabricated” .

“The statement is so systematically organised and logically presented with dates, locations, and all, that it reads more like a polished report crafted from carefully researched information than a statement put together from verbal information by the prisoner. Since we hear from Kimathi’s interrogators that he was uncooperative, when and to whom was this statement made, we ask? In our view, it is most likely yet another colonial fabrication,” the two write.

To surrender

Of interest, and this was Kimathi’s defence, was that at the time he was shot, he was leaving the forest to surrender, in line with an amnesty.

“I had no intention of returning to the forest,” Kimathi told the court. But should we believe him?

What also emerges from the trial papers was that Kimathi was not shot at the trench as widely said. He claimed that he was shot at dawn while under a castor oil tree. “The man came from in front of me slightly to the left. I had been sitting down under the tree for about 20 minutes. After seeing him and noticing that he had a gun I raised my arms. I did not know who he was. I dropped my staff and raised my arms and said: ‘It is I, Dedan Kimathi. I have come to surrender. Don’t kill me. I have a pistol.’ When he heard me saying that I was Dedan Kimathi he ‘lowered his knee’ — got on to one knee. He hit me almost in the groin. It came out above the hip bone.”

There were suggestions during the trial that the homeguard named Ndirangu who shot Kimathi did so in order to get the promised reward of £500. He actually received the money.

Asked why he had a weapon, Kimathi said in the statement on his charge sheet: “ I would like to say that I never knew that there was such a law.” He told the court that the reason he carried the pistol was to defend himself in the forest after he fell out with some of the freedom fighters.

For capturing Kimathi, the colonial administration paid Ndirangu £500, which he used to buy this truck.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Another question that might emerge was whether Kimathi was fit to stand trial at the time he did. In less that 24 hours, he had undergone surgery and was still in pain. He was also epileptic.

It will also be important to interrogate his defence to see what kind of picture emerges of the freedom fighter. In one of his letters, he asks the government to “allow us to meet and speak the words of peace”.

Of all freedom fighters, Kimathi was a prolific letter writer and it is now possible to reconstruct his thinking by using the various letters, and also by looking at the evidence assembled by the trial court.

The Special Branch in Nyeri had already formed an opinion of Kimathi even before the trial started: “The subject is a man of tremendous personality, with a well-developed sense of humour, and punctuated his obvious lies with a large grin,” wrote AD Dunn, the Superintendent of Police who interrogated Kimathi after his capture.

But the interrogators were frustrated by the fact that Kimathi did not reveal the structure of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. “I have interviewed the accused in custody about other security matters not connected with this offence. He may have had useful information but gave none,” wrote John Vidler, the CID in charge of Nyeri.

Found guilty

At the end of the eight-day trial, Chief Justice Kenneth Kennedy O’Connor found Kimathi guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition and sentenced him to be “hanged by the neck until he is dead”.

As he awaited his appeals, Kimathi is reported to have been “manacled by one hand to the wall” and lived in a “cramped and stench-ridden” cell. On the morning of February 18, 1957, he was hanged to death and buried in an unmarked grave at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

The court found that Kimathi was not truthful when he said he was about to surrender, and we can only paint a possible scenario of what could have happened had he returned to the forest.

This book has other papers by Mau Mau scholars, among them Prof John Lonsdale, Dr Nicholas Githuku, literary figures such as Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Prof Simon Gikandi, and scholars such Dr Lotte Hughes and Dr Willy Mutunga.

Quite remarkable that a young peasant...could have taken such a militant stance.

In future scholarship about Kimathi, we might discover that we have yet to grasp the full story about the man and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army that he led.

“It is quite remarkable that a young peasant of Kimathi’s humble background could have taken such a militant stance against the British, becoming such a formidable imperial headache,” writes Dr Githuku. “He knew about and sought to exploit the deep, fertile soil of brewing African dissent and real grievances, and naturally, the latently explosive transcript of indignation hidden beneath it.”

Prof Gikandi thinks of Kimathi as a “floating signifier... with a value, but what this value represents is variable and open to multiple interpretations.”

In history, and perhaps we shall later find out, Kimathi has been imagined in many ways. There is the figure that comes from the archives, from oral history, and also from literary writers. But nobody doubts that he is the most important symbol of the liberation, and that the Kenya Land and Freedom Army marked the turning point to this country’s independence.


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.