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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Mau Mau and masculinity : race, gender, and the body in colonial Kenya Wilkinson, Conor Joseph Ward


This thesis interrogates the role of British conceptions of race, gender, and the body in the detention camps that Britain established in Kenya during the Mau Mau Emergency (1952-1960). It aims to reframe the ways we consider the violence that occurred in these camps. To date, scholars have been largely uncritical about the ways in which masculinity operated during the Emergency. They have not reflected on the way British masculinity affected—and was affected by—the colonial sphere. Those that have considered gender have generally assumed that static, timeless notions of manhood were imported to Kenya, and that tropes about manliness were utilized unidirectionally by colonizers against colonized. In contrast, this thesis argues that Mau Mau detention camps amplified the hierarchy of racialized masculinity in Kenya to new extremes, resulting in physical and mental torture of tens of thousands of detained Africans. Importantly, British men’s attempts to define and control African detainees’ minds and bodies according to their preconceptions of race, gender, and the body ran jointly with colonial administrators’ efforts to police their own officer corps. Understanding how British men conceived the masculine body—particularly as it related to its racialization (or lack thereof)—is imperative if we are to make sense of the violence done against African men in the Mau Mau camps. This study accordingly begins by sketching the role of masculinity in the British Empire— particularly as it pertained to the surveillance of the Empire’s colonial troops—and then proceeds to examine the implications of masculinity in Kenya before and during the Emergency. Ultimately it argues that the British did not possess the cultural scripts necessary to sufficiently make sense of what they called Kenyan “primitivism.” In the Mau Mau oathing rituals the colonizers saw African behaviors that flouted the gender norms the British understood as necessary to their colonial endeavour. Many of these norms were informed by codes of racial and sexual purity. As a result, the British widely viewed Kenyan oath takers as culturally unintelligible, as “unreal” bodies governed by illegitimate expression. During the Emergency, violence became the overwhelming British response to this conundrum.

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