Kikuyu - Feature Articles

The Death of Dedan Kimathi

The following is un unedited version of Peter Swan's first-hand account of the last days of Mau Mau 'General', Dedan Kimathi, who was executed by the British in 1956. Swan was serving as an officer in the Kenya Police, and here presents his own view of Mau Mau and the events that led to independence. The article was originally published by Peter Swan at

The Death of Dedan Kimathi, by Peter Swan

For a person who never bought into a pension scheme or insurance, because I never reckoned to get old enough to enjoy the benefits, reaching the age of 65 came as a bit of a shock. Escaping from life as a Civil Service clerk in the Crown Agents for the Colonies, my life stumbled through five years in the Regular Army, four years in the Kenya Police and four years in the London Fire Brigade, from there into the oil industry which has taken me to some remote spots around the world as well as in the United Kingdom.

I am now working in darkest Essex, and courting a lass encountered in Sarawak. Looking back, what alarms me is the way history is being twisted to suit the 'Politically Correct' manner of thinking.

Nothing can be said to justify Colonial domination but my Kenyan experience showed that while individual traders/settlers/speculators and the like may well have exploited and profited from the country, the U.K. provided Agricultural, Veterinary, Hospital, Education, Police and Public Works Departments largely at the expense of the poor old British taxpayer.

The Mau Mau 'Freedom Fighters' were no more than thugs whose terrorist activities were directed mainly at their own tribesman than at the 'whites'.
   Having come across Meru women, gutted with an unborn child torn from them; children whose heads had been cracked open; an old couple that where burnt alive after being ham-strung to make sure that they couldn't get away, it was difficult for me and the twenty African policeman to have any sympathy for those Mau Mau that we encountered. We took no prisoners. To hear them classed as heroes' of the day goes against the grain. My only friends in those days were fellow police officers, all members of the Kenyan tribes.
   We fought together, played football, a form of cricket and competed together in running, wrestling, spear (not javelin) throwing and drank together.
   I have no colour or religious bias, but I am most definitely anti Mau Mau.

Jomo Kenyatta after his releaseJomo Kenyatta (pictured) never accepted responsibility for the terrorist acts of the Mau Mau during my stay in Kenya, and his leadership following Uhuru was highly commendable. His incarceration, together with the hundreds of other suspects at the time of the emergency is impossible to justify in today's political climate. Much blame must be laid at the feet (or maybe the desks) of the bureaucrats that try to run the colonies from Whitehall.

The following tale of mal-administration that took place after I had been moved out of the Meru Reserve (after two years) and into the Nyeri Settled Area where my task was again to run a police post with an all African staff. Nyeri was the Headquarters of the Central Province which included the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru Native Reserves.

Peter SwanMy initial role in Kenya had been to establish a police post in the Meru Reserve to the north-east of Mount Kenya. After two years of actively engaging Mau Mau gangs I was shifted down to the Nyeri Settled area to the southwest of the mountain. Generally accepted as being a good 'bush' man with a reluctance to pay too much heed to mundane matters such as monthly returns, accident reports or even the number of prisoners held in the cells at any one time, I was put on another remote Police Post. This time it was at an abandoned farm known as Tozers. Dedan Kimathi's role was to lead the gangs under his control in a fight against the British Raj, the local settlers, but mainly against those elders of his tribe who continued to prefer the status quo underneath the Colonial Government. It was while visiting Nyeri township from Tozer's Police Post that I was instructed to get prepared for special duties, together with Eric Bridges an ex Marine, also with a 'bush' reputation.
   My hopes that we were being lined up for an active service operation were dashed when I discovered that our special duties were to stand guard on the recently captured Dedan Kimathi. He was being brought in from the reserve where he had been wounded and captured by Tribal Police and the local Home Guard. The arrangements for the guard were for a twelve hours on, twelve hours off tour of duty. A Police Inspector Eric,) or (me would remain at all times, with Dedan Kimathi. He had been allocated a private room in Nyeri General Hospital. We were both armed with a 9mm Sten sub machine gun and a fairly innocuous .38 pistol, a mere peashooter. A Police Corporal and two Askaris were stationed outside of the ground floor window. There were believed to be three potential threats to holding on to the prisoner.
   Remnants of his gang trying to rescue him local Kikuyu wanting to kill him, or white settlers setting out to do the same. "Whatever happens, make sure that bastard cops his lot," was the comment from the office bound Superintendent who gave me, my instructions.

Concentration camp, 1952-60I had met Eric Bridges previously but did not meet him before the special duties began. Using the Police Post Land Rover I drove down to Nyeri Municipal Hospital to share the single room unit with the infamous Dedan Kimathi.
   Our first hours together were almost silent. My command of Kikuyu language was reduced to the long drawn out greetings 'Moogerrrh' which should have elicited the reply 'Moogerrhni'. His command of Kiswahili and mine were similar, in that we were both well versed in what was loosely termed Kaffir Swahili. He was, I discovered, soon after joining him in the hospital, well versed in English and we later spent time swapping tales of our bush activities in that language. His wound was in the thigh and he had to be stretchered everywhere. Up to then he had received rudimentary first aid and he was still dressed in the leopard skins that had been his trade mark during his Mau Mau operations. More to the point, Kimathi, in common with the Kikuyu in those days, did not wash but slapped a bit of animal fat over his body from time to time. Smell had played an important part in trying to locate gangs in the bush. It was fortunately pointed out to me by one of my Askaris that we no chance of making contact with the Mau Mau gang all the time I persisted in using soap or toothpaste. A good solution of mud slapped around the crotch and armpits; a piece of chewed wood to clean the teeth; was usually sufficient to kill the 'White Man' smell.
   After that we began to get occasional contact with the local Mau Mau gang led by a Brigadier Martin. Inside the small room allocated to us, Dedan Kimathi's odour assiduously assailed my nostrils. I could only hope that my soapy odour caused him just the as much discomfort. Altogether, we spent quite a while together. After the initial restraint, the discovery that he had visited the Police Post area I had controlled in the Meru Reserve helped to build up a rapport of sorts. The stream of visitors that tried to gain access to see the Mau Mau leader strengthened the rapport. We both resented the gawping would be spectators who wanted to get a glimpse of this forest legend. Initially the visitors were mainly local people, black and white alike, who were casually interested. Later came more senior people who were quite clearly offended by my refusal to allow them in for the peep show and were probably instrumental in blocking my progress to becoming the Commissioner of Police. Superintendent Ian Henderson, who had led Special Branch Pseudo Gangs, paid a rueful visit. His efforts had been largely instrumental in eliminating Dedan Kimathi's body-guard and forcing him to keep on the move until he eventually fell foul of members of his own tribe. He would, quite obviously, have preferred to make capture himself.
   A royal visit, (Phillip or Margaret I forget which) was taking place at the time of the capture and as a result there were quite a large number of journalists Dedan Kimathi after his captureromping about. Experience with the so-called Press Corps in the Malayan campaign had not made much of an impression. There, they had juggled about outside of the NAAFI to get a photo shot of themselves and a bush; later to be described as jungle; to send back their authentic picture of life on patrol with 'our lads in the hunt for communists'. In Nyeri, Dedan Kimathi was place outside of the Hospital on his stretcher while the howling pack of reporters, (with the nearest means of transmitting their stories and photos a hundred miles away,) shouted and screamed at one another. "Move your head, I can't get my shot", "I was here first! You've got to wait!"

"I say, Mister Policeman. Would you point your gun at him so we can get you both in the picture?"

The 'Ducky' voice ensured that there would be no co-operation with that particular request.

"Did you help capture him?"



"Can you speak to him? Can you ask him to turn his head so I can get a side shot?"

I asked Dedan in Swahili and he complied. His face held a look of cold anger and I regretted making the request.

"Can you get him to look the other way?"

"He speaks good English. Ask him yourself."

No C.V. of mine has made any creditable mention of qualities in the PR line. The bleating of the press, who want wars and disputes to stop while they write stories and take pictures, then throw their hands up, aghast when one of their numbers gets killed, never fail to fill me with contempt. My sympathies were entirely with the prisoner during this press session, and our failure to co-operate ensured a quick finish to their efforts.

The subsequent days of my duties, (I had got the day shift through being the most available at the time,) saw an easing of some of the tension between us, and I discovered that Dedan Kimathi had been unable to urinate since being shot. As a result of this he was in considerable pain. When I informed the doctor who was to remove the bullet still embedded in his thigh, it was decided to attend to the matter of relieving him of that problem straight away. A simple matter. A rubber tube inserted into the bladder and away ran the accumulated urine. In a small room! The stench was worse than the most stagnant of stagnant water. Dedan Kimathis' relief was immediate and obvious. My condition deteriorated as his improved.

In the afternoon of the same day, came the operation. The prisoner got his jab and was given a full anaesthetic. I accompanied him into the operating theatre and took my place against the wall away from the immediate activity.
   My thoughts were that there still might be some sort of threat from the outside that needed to be countered. The anaesthetist setting up equipment was a Kikuyu. The Mau Mau for recruitment or elimination had targeted educated Kikuyu. Was there a problem? When the bellows controlling the breathing developed an irregularity, I thought there might have been. What is known these days as body language, more explicit when a firearm is involved may have conveyed my thoughts? The breathing resumed at a regular rate. The problem that may have been was no more. We returned to our private room.

By this time, officialdom had become involved and the guard of my corporal and two men outside the window, had become a corporal and five. Not contents with that, a platoon of the police's red berreted general service unit were now camped in, and patrolling the hospital grounds.

Dedan and I swapped yarns about my old Police Station at Kionyo and the local leader, Brigadier Martin; a man I had never met on a conversational basis although it seems we had exchanged shots. The Kionyo area was remarkable for the occasional sound, very much like a train hurtling a tunnel, when the nearest train was over two hundred miles away. It also had a somewhat strange natural formation known as Rotundu jutting out of the side of mount Kenya at roughly twelve thousand feet level. This feature was circular in shape from the base, rising almost perpendicularly to a flat plain nearly five hundred feet above. The plain appeared to be covered with forestation at a height where only the smallest of mountainous plants would normally grow. Our curiosity about these two phenomena gave us a common base and we mused on the possible life forms that might exist on top of Rotundu.

The reputation of Dedan Kimathi had been enhanced by reported sightings at villages located many miles apart to those that followed the meandering dirt covered roads. The distances covered had a somewhat ineffective special branch believing that Indian traders or sympathetic members of government departments were giving him assistance with motorised transport. Either that, or there was an orchestrated system of false reporting. The truth of the matter was that a fit and healthy Dedan Kimathi would follow game tracks from the reserve to the forest covered Kirinyaga, better known as Mount Kenya. Sometimes he would have to run bent doubled to make sure that he could get along the tracks of smaller game. Once at the height where only the scrubby mountainous plants grew, somewhere around twelve thousand feet he could travel swiftly along the occasional paths used by the honey hunters. The honey hunters were individuals that set up hollowed out logs spiced with something to attract the bees. They would locate the logs in hidden spots and later collect the honey for sale in the villages. The tracks they left were sparse but easily followed to one adjusted to bush life. Dedan Kimathi would then move swiftly along to other game tracks that would take him back down again into the reserve. It was very much like going up and down the spokes of a wheel. So it was that a reputation was developed.

Further official interest felt that an inspector inside, a Corporal and five immediately outside and a platoon of G.S.U. hovering around the hospital grounds was not sufficient to guard Dedan Kimathi. We were moved to what was then still known locally as the King Georgey hotel but what was in fact Her Majesty's Prison just north of Nyeri township. Here I was once again locked inside the cell with the prisoner, but this time another police inspector was outside and he handed me the key. Again, my instructions were to ensure the prisoner did not survive should the worst come to the worst. The cell we were in was within a special prison compound within a modern high walled prison. The prison itself had its full complement of an armed and quite efficient prison staff. Outside the walls there were now two platoons of the police red berets. At this time [1956] the Mau Mau gangs had been decimated, were scattered and leaderless. The precautions smacked of a panicking chairborn leadership. Dean Kimathi and I sat and read the books that I brought in to pass the time. Our conversations were occasional and without animosity or conflict on either side. He knew the penalty for his activity was death, and he expected that sentence. He believed that the sentence would not be executed and that he would survive. There was a quiet and distant confidence in his belief. He could give no reason for such a feeling. My belief was that the man deserved to die for his crimes. I wondered if he would.

After about three weeks, my duties came to an end, and my companions' trial began. I was again called into the police HQ at Nyeri. My instructions were given me by a rather short, fresh complexioned senior police officer, one of the many dynamic paper shufflers that were indigenous to the warren of offices.

"You'll take your station Land rover, a corporal and two men and patrol road to the north of the township. Have you got that?"

Words of one syllable I understand. I nodded.

"If there is any movement at all of Kikuyu into town, you will inform Nyeri control by radio. Any questions?"

"If there's any movement, it'll be along the tracks from Mweiga, Karatina, Fort Hall. Possibly the Kinancop. There's no way the Kukes would use the road."

"Why can't you ever do what you're told without comment?"

"I've never seen any Kikuyu yet with any sort of transport other than shank's pony!"

"You've got your orders. Just carry them out!"

"Give me Sergeant Kibitok, Corporal Chebi and half a dozen Askaris and you'll get all the information you want on the movement of the Kikuyu."

"These instructions come direct from the Colonial Office!"

A commuter from suburbia to the city of London dressed in his pin stripes, complete with bowler hat and brolley seriously concerned about completing the daily Telegraph crossword had made his decision. Ever wonder how we lost the colonies?

Dedan Kimathi was found guilty of terrorist offences and sentenced to death. A prison officer told me that right up to the time he was taken from his cell, he did not believe the sentence would be carried out. He was hung and the body displayed to the public to prevent any stories of his invincibility being generated.

A main street in Nairobi is named after Dedan Kimathi. There is a back alley named Peter's Walk by Wells Park in Sydenham where the house I lived in once stood. It is not named after me. It is also unlikely that the decision-makers, paper shufflers, the Colonial career men of those days in Kenya will be remembered by anyone other than their next of kin. It seems that Kimathi was right. He has survived.


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