Nationalist Agitation and Cold War Phantoms in British Africa 1945–1957

In September 1947 about sixty Africans and West Indians gathered for a rally in Trafalgar Square to air the hopes and discontents of Britain’s colonies. Beyond them was a city of blitzed buildings inhabited by people enduring the rigours of austerity which, the Labour government repeatedly told them, was the only way to achieve post-war recovery and regeneration. The speakers were also looking ahead to a better future in a new world without empires. Their mood was optimistic: the forces of history seemed to be mustering behind them since in the last month India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon had achieved independence.

All the speakers hoped that the African colonies would follow. One declared that ‘democracy’ and ‘empire’ were incompatible, and the far-Left Labour MP Fenner Brockway called for his party to make the choice between ‘aristocratic government in Africa or independence’. Kwame Nkrumah, then a research graduate at the London School of Economics and soon to become leader of the newly formed Gold Coast Convention People’s Party (CPP), warned the government that ‘Africans were getting desperate’ and, if their freedom was delayed, they would take it by force.

This impatience was understandable. African nationalism, incubated during the interwar years and strengthened by the anticipation of dividends earned by wartime loyalty, was more optimistic than ever. The educated and politicised classes had become more assertive, assumed the role of tribunes and busied themselves enlisting popular support for disciplined parties that justified their claims that they were the true voice of the people. It was becoming louder and more strident: independence was no longer decades away, but years.

Dr Nkrumah was right about the restlessness of his people. Five months later, the Gold Coast erupted: a mass meeting, held in an Accra cinema, to protest about high prices and a stagnant labour market triggered a fortnight of riots and looting. The authorities there and in London were dazed and full of foreboding. As public order dissolved, jittery officials summoned up two frigates, HMS Actaeon and HMS Nereide, from Simon’s Town ‘to show the flag’, and troops were flown in from Nigeria. The police opened fire on several occasions, and twenty-nine rioters were killed and 237 wounded. Nkrumah and a handful of leading nationalists were arrested and locked up.

Order was restored within a fortnight and the authorities cast about to find someone to blame. Had there been a conspiracy, and, if so, who had hatched it? One intelligence officer detected the hand of hitherto invisible local Communists, who had urged the rioters to provoke the police into opening fire so that ‘some on their side would be killed’ to create ‘martyrs’. This conjecture was supported by the discovery of a sinister document with references to ‘a revolutionary vanguard’ ready to undergo ‘service, sacrifice [and] suffering’ to secure independence. As the tumults gained momentum, Joseph Danquah, a barrister and colleague of Nkrumah’s, had declared: ‘The hour of liberation had struck.’ Fearful speculation mutated into fact: the Spectator alleged that the mobs had been seeking a ‘Soviet state’.

The Gold Coast riots had a twofold significance. They marked the debut of the Communist bogey in Africa and jeopardised Britain’s plans for the political and economic future of its colonies, which had been outlined during the 1945 general election campaign. The future Labour Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, promised that henceforward ‘colonial peoples must ultimately determine their own associations and destiny’ under Britain’s benign and generous guidance. The Conservative spokesman on colonial affairs pledged that Africans would be trained in the ‘ethics and honesty of local government’ so that ‘backward races’ could eventually achieve ‘the management of their own affairs’.

No precise timetable was ever set for this programme, but the prevailing view in London was that it might take forty to fifty years. Both Labour and the Conservatives agreed that the end result would be independent democracies with all the checks and balances of the British parliamentary system and an independent judiciary. It was also assumed that the process would be peaceful, gradual and firmly supervised from above. When independence was achieved, it was hoped that the former colonies would follow the path that had been taken by the white dominions in the last century, and would join the existing Commonwealth. Always an abstraction rather than a formal alliance, this association was held together by a shared past, a common language and, above all, emotional ties to the monarchy. Royal visits to old and new members of this ‘family’ of nations became regular events and were puffed in the media as evidence of unity and goodwill. Sentimental bonds reflected hard economic realities: in 1955, 53 per cent of Britain’s exports went to the Commonwealth and the colonies, which provided 43 per cent of the country’s imports.


Unemployed Gold Coast ex-servicemen (who had been prominent in the disturbances) plundering shops were not part of the official blueprint for decolonisation. Neither was the possibility that this process might be hijacked by local Communists under orders from Moscow, although as early as 1946 the Foreign Office had been nervous about an impending Russian assault on British interests by propaganda and sedition.7 Subsequent events suggested such a campaign was under way, but in fact it was confined to the Middle East, where British power was decaying fast.

Hitherto, Russia had shown little interest in Africa for ideological reasons. This was to be expected, since after Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin dropped the promotion of worldwide revolution in favour of consolidating the revolution within Russia. The continent lacked a politically aware industrial working class, which was vital for a revolution according to conventional Marxist dogma. In regions where there was a growing African working class and racial tension, Communism had made some tentative progress: the Algerian Communist Party had 12,000 members by 1945 and the South African 2,000.

A trickle of Africans continued to make their way to Moscow to study and be immersed in Marxist-Leninism, but not all succumbed to indoctrination. During his stay in 1933, Kenyatta was rebuked for being ‘a petty bourgeois’ by a South African Communist. He angrily riposted: ‘I don’t like this “petty”, why don’t you say I am a big bourgeois.’ Such remarks were dangerous, as Kenyatta knew, for he had seen another African student suddenly arrested by the secret police. He vanished and was probably liquidated in a forerunner of Stalin’s purges, whose victims included other African students.

Rather than waste effort and energy on a continent with little potential for revolution, Stalin used the immediate post-war years to tighten his grip on Russia’s new puppet states in Eastern Europe. Large Communist parties in France and Italy offered opportunities for further advances through subversion, but they were frustrated by the Marshall Aid programme which, between 1947 and 1951, funded the successful resuscitation of the economies of Western Europe. At a cost of $3 billion, America had preserved capitalist democracy and provided the wherewithal for the growth and prosperity that were so obviously lacking in Stalin’s satrapies. Among the beneficiaries were Britain, France and Belgium, whom the State Department was then relying upon to detect and parry Communist infiltration of their African empires.

The need to resist Communist activities everywhere became more urgent during 1948. While mobs were emptying shops in Accra, a coup in Prague established Stalin as master of Czechoslovakia and showed the world the KGB’s mastery of intrigue and the manipulation of local Communists. In June, Malaya’s leisurely progress towards independence was disrupted by a Communist guerrilla uprising that would after 1949 receive covert assistance from Mao Zedong’s China. As in the Gold Coast, the Malayan authorities were caught on the hop, and for a short time were all but overwhelmed by a guerrilla insurgency that would take twelve years to defeat. It was against this background that, in 1949, the capitalist West and the Communist East formally squared up, with the former signing the NATO alliance, and in 1955 the latter the Warsaw Pact. In 1950 and with Stalin’s approval, North Korea invaded South Korea.

Vigilance became the order of the day in a world in which the Soviet Union appeared to be in a swashbuckling mood, eager to probe and exploit its adversaries’ weaknesses. MI5 hurriedly extended its surveillance throughout British Africa, with an eye to exposing Communist infiltration of local nationalist parties. Special attention was given to Nkrumah and Kenyatta, who had had past connections with Russia and its lackey, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Equally suspect were African nationalist parties with socialist economic programmes such as the Northern Rhodesia branch of the African National Congress, whose constitution promised an end to ‘capitalist exploitation’ and ‘a democratic socialist society’.


Communism was blamed for the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya in October 1952, but the intelligence evidence was laughably thin. The alleged running of pistols paid for by Italian Communists and smuggled from Somalia, the machinations of Soviet diplomats across the border in Ethiopia, and the clandestine intrigues of an Indian diplomat based in Nairobi might have been the scenario for a Buchanesque thriller, but they did not constitute a Soviet plot to overturn Kenya’s government. Nor did a secret report of a political meeting held in the Nandi district in 1955 in which international affairs were discussed. One questioner asked ‘Can Russians speak Swahili?’, while another wanted to know ‘What does a Russian look like?’ The KGB was clearly making little headway in Kenya. Nevertheless, the colony’s Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, persistently claimed that the war against the Mau Mau was part of the global struggle against Communism, an assumption that satisfied the Americans, who would have been very unhappy about an ally waging an old-style colonial war of repression.

Communist propaganda took this view and it was close to the truth. In November 1952 the Polish newspaper Zycie Warszawy published a photograph of Mau Mau prisoners who had been captured in a war ‘to liberate Kenya from the imperialist yoke’ and were now ‘manacled like slaves’. More, often lurid, stuff followed, with allegations of massacres and Nazi-style atrocities which drew on reports in the Daily Worker and questions in the House of Commons. American newspapers labelled the Mau Mau as ‘gangsters’, and there were undertones of the Wild West in one story of a Kenyan housewife, armed with a revolver, who defended her isolated farm against ‘a gang of Mau Mau thugs led by the ranch’s male cook’.

Ideology played no part in the Mau Mau uprising; rather, it was a land war between haves and have-nots. The dispossessed were the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, who wanted to recover the tribal lands that had been acquired by white settlers over the past fifty years. They were the ‘haves’, who numbered 30,000 in 1952 and farmed 12,000 square miles of prime land, while over a million Kikuyu got their living from 2,000 square miles of less fertile soil. Land hunger did not, however, dictate loyalties in what became a civil war in which Kikuyu killed Kikuyu. Seventy thousand Africans, three-quarters of them Kikuyu, volunteered for the Home Guard, which accounted for a high proportion of the 20,000 Mau Mau dead.

Taking its cue from Malaya, the Kenyan government adopted the euphemism ‘Emergency’ to describe the war and provide cover for draconian decrees that suspended all personal freedoms, imposed tight press censorship and gave sweeping powers to the police. A proposal to make the possession of ‘incendiary materials’ a capital offence prompted the Prime Minister, Churchill, to remark that hanging a man for having a box of matches seemed excessive. Oliver Lyttelton, the Colonial Secretary from 1951 to 1954, disagreed, and strenuously defended such measures and those who enforced them. This was his Christian duty, for he believed that he was at grips with forces of darkness: once, when reading a report of Mau Mau sorcery, he imagined that he saw the horns of the devil on the pages. It was a view prevalent in Kenya and the British press, where grisly details of Mau Mau oaths and atrocities such as the Lari massacre of over a hundred Kikuyu men, women and children were treated as evidence of a collective recidivism. Africans had repudiated civilisation and were reverting to a barbaric and superstitious past.

Hideous, oath-swearing rituals, assassinations and massacres were the key elements of the Mau Mau terror. Desperate measures were necessary to offset the inherent weaknesses of a movement that lacked modern weapons, was outnumbered by the government’s forces and soon found itself isolated from the mass of Kikuyu. One answer was to recruit through fear, hence the killings. Military operations were confined to hit-and-run raids by small bands on European farms and uncooperative villages, and the extortion of the food needed for survival in the bush.

An equally ruthless counter-terror was the government’s response. Under the Emergency regulations, over a million Kikuyu were uprooted from their homes and herded into fenced and overcrowded villages where they endured a regime of forced labour under the supervision of the Home Guard. Mau Mau suspects were interned in camps, interrogated and made to undergo a form of exorcism to release them from their diabolic oaths. Official mumbo-jumbo proved superior to unofficial, and many were released over the next six years. Flogging and torture were common and officially tolerated, and many of their victims died or were crippled by their injuries.

Among the dead was Elijah Gideon, an elderly, infirm Kikuyu Christian who was clubbed to death by askaris under the orders of two white volunteers from the Police Reserve and the Kenya Regiment, both units with sinister reputations. Details of his murder were revealed in the Commons and Lyttelton promised Members that the culprits would be tried for manslaughter. They appeared before Justice Geoffrey Rudd, who fined them £100 and £50 respectively and expressed the view that their conduct had been justified by the desperate times. Hysteria and dereliction of duty were contagious: soon after taking command of operations, General Sir George Erskine was shocked by the indiscipline of the security forces, who, among other things, in seven months had shot dead 430 suspects attempting to escape. Lyttelton reassured Members that all had died resisting arrest; strangely, no suspect was ever just wounded.

Bad men did many bad things in Kenya, and in Britain individuals on the Left of politics protested. Yet on the whole the public was willing to overlook them simply because of what it had heard about the malevolence and cruelty of the Mau Mau. ‘The menace of the Mau Mau’ was the subject of a frightening 1952 Pathe newsreel. It opened with frightening, discordant music and showed footage of bush patrols, policemen rounding up and interrogating suspects and the funeral of a ‘wise and peaceful chieftain’. His murder was one of what the commentary called the ‘bloody deeds’ of the Mau Mau, who were referred to as ‘terrorists’, ‘fanatics’ and ‘bandits’ determined to ‘drive all the whites out of Kenya’. Horrific details of Mau Man initiation rites were hinted at in the press and the Commons.

According to one version of the Mau Mau oath, initiates were required to submit to and revere Kenyatta as ‘our great leader’. He had returned from England with his English wife in 1946 and become head of the Kenya African Union. Within weeks of the declaration of the Emergency, the Kenyan government arrested him and several other political activists and tried them on charges of instigating and encouraging the Mau Mau conspiracy. This was done in the knowledge of Kenyatta’s earlier Communist connections, the implication being that he was a Soviet agent. This canard and his arrest appeased the distraught settler community, which was screaming for blood. The truth was that Kenyatta had no links with Mau Mau, as MI5 knew, but was a conventional nationalist. Nairobi paid no attention: a rigged trial with bribed witnesses and a partial judge found Kenyatta guilty and he was sentenced to six years’ hard labour.

By 1956 the Mau Mau were defeated and the Emergency was terminated, although ‘hard-core’ suspects were detained for a further three years. In 1959 eleven of them were beaten to death by African guards at the Hola detention camp. The moral implications of this outrage were dissected by a Conservative MP, Enoch Powell, who reminded MPs of the traditional ideals to which the Empire aspired. ‘We cannot say’, he argued, that ‘we will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards at home.’ Public opinion would not tolerate such distinctions and rightly so, for it expected British values to be absolute. ‘We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own standards in the acceptance of responsibility.’ Questions of responsibility were raised in 2013, when four Kenyans appeared in London to claim civil damages for injuries they had suffered during the Emergency. The often grisly forensic details of official torture and coercion had been exhaustively and calmly revealed by David Anderson’s History of the Hanged and, less calmly, by Caroline Elkins, an American historian. The lawsuit was settled out of court, with the British government allocating £20 million for compensation to claimants who could prove injuries suffered during the Emergency.


In 1959 Powell had restated the traditional ideals of liberal imperialism. Its latest objective had been confirmed by Churchill’s Conservative government, which came to power in 1951. In November, Lyttelton told the Commons that he would continue the policy by which the colonies would achieve independence within the Commonwealth. He added that there would be no self-determination for colonies unable to support themselves, although every effort would be made to encourage and fund economic and social development. Of the 956 appointments made by the Colonial Office in 1953, over two-thirds were engineers, town planners, education officers, geologists, foresters and vets.

Just when the African colonies would be ready for independence still remained unclear. The Gold Coast upheavals had been followed by official inquiries which concluded, hesitantly, that the pace of the colony’s progress towards self-government should be quickened. Nkrumah was released from gaol in 1949, and 60,000 members of his CPP held a mass rally in Accra to celebrate. There were prayers for him and his supporters sang ‘Lead Kindly Light’. The Christian tone of the meeting inspired confidence, although the intelligence agencies suspected that a flamboyant leader who enjoyed the accolades Africa’s Man of Destiny’ and ‘Star of Ghana’ was a covert Communist. There were also suspicions that Nkrumah had links with a shady diamond smuggler.

The charismatic cult of Nkrumah provided Britain with what it needed: a popular leader with whom they could do business, and one whose ambition and vanity were far stronger than his attachment to Marxist dogma. Moreover, in 1954 he had declared that he had no plans to nationalise foreign companies. Most important of all, Nkrumah had a cordial working relationship with the Gold Coast’s Governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, a steady pragmatist who followed the principle that delaying independence would incur greater risks than procrastination. In 1950 arrangements were made for voter registration – 40 per cent of those qualified did so – and there were official reassurances that the ballot would be secret and warnings against intimidation. The CPP won the election and Nkrumah became interim Prime Minister at the head of a Cabinet which advised the Governor in the final phase of the transition to independence. Given the prevalence of illiteracy, ballot papers showed party symbols. His CPP chose a red crowing cockerel, the appropriate symbol for the breaking of a new dawn.

As that dawn approached, the colony’s three political parties remained under close surveillance. One spy penetrated the CPP and helped construct profiles of its leading figures. They included sincere nationalists and men who saw independence as an opportunity to advancement in a country where all the top jobs in government and business had previously gone to Europeans. There were also eccentrics, including the son of a fetish priest who imagined that his inherited supernatural powers might help him influence voters. He was a small man who had spent time in the Accra lunatic asylum, called himself ‘The Great Lion of Judah’ and was polite towards Europeans, who were intrigued by his mannerisms and ‘exaggerated Oxford accent’.

New nightmares blended with old, for in October 1950 the Daily Telegraph alleged that not only was Nkrumah Moscow’s poodle, but that his party was ‘using juju of Darkest Africa’. With or without supernatural help, the CPP won 104 out of 175 seats in the Gold Coast’s parliament, and in March 1957 Ghana became an independent republic within the Commonwealth. Despite misgivings, Ghana appeared to be a safe bet in terms of economic viability, for it had reserves of £200 million and debts of £20 million. The new state did, however, have one problem: Nkrumah’s ego. He considered independence to be a personal triumph which uniquely qualified him for a new career on the world stage as a Pan-African leader and a scourge of what was already being called ‘colonialism’. As for Ghana, he promised Vice-President Richard Nixon (then touring Africa) that he would give ‘vigorous’ support for free speech and ‘democratic traditions’. This was very gratifying for Britain, which had taken a gamble in hastening the transfer of power, and seen from the perspective of 1957, the result appeared to set an example of how decolonisation would be managed smoothly and to Britain’s advantage. The terror in Kenya was, however, a warning that Britain would not be coerced in surrendering power.


The countdown to Ghana’s independence coincided with a spasm of imperial bravado within the Conservative Party, whose stiffer backbenchers were unhappy with decolonisation, however protracted. Their apprehension was regularly expressed in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express. Right-wing foreboding about the future of the Empire coincided with an optimistic spirit that followed the accession of Queen Elizabeth II early in 1952. A ‘new’ and glorious Elizabethan age seemed imminent, as full of genius and achievement as its predecessor. Later in the year, Harold Macmillan, then Minister of Housing, expressed the new mood when he asked whether Britain should ‘choose to slide into a shoddy Socialism’ or ‘march to a third British Empire?’ Churchill also looked forward to a period of imperial consolidation and was delighted by plans for a grandiose development of Parliament Square that would be a ‘truly noble setting for the heart of the British Empire’.

Such presumptions appeared to contradict the idea of future decolonisation, but it should be remembered that Ghana had been an exception. Rough projections agreed by the Cabinet in October 1954 set the independence dates for the proposed Central African Federation (Nyasaland and Northern and South Rhodesia), Sierra Leone, Uganda and Tanganyika in the mid-1970s at the earliest. Still-unpacified Kenya might have to wait longer. In the meantime, Britain’s African colonies remained an economic and strategic asset that would help Britain withstand the twin threats of global Communist subversion and the aggressive nationalism in the Middle East. A demoted superpower needed all the resources it could muster to fend off its enemies and fulfil its political and military obligations to the United States at a time when the Cold War was intensifying.

Cold War anxieties prompted President Eisenhower to persuade Churchill to accelerate decolonisation. ‘We are’, he wrote in 1954, ‘falsely pictured as exploiters of people, the Soviets as their champions’, and it would be politically reckless to ignore the ‘fierce and growing spirit of nationalism’ that was spreading across Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, he sympathised with British caution and reckoned that the end of colonial rule would take at the least twenty-five years. Churchill was unconvinced. He was a child of the Victorian Empire, proud of what Britain had achieved with ‘backward races’. Their recent maltreatment in Kenya had caused him much private distress. Churchill also confessed to Ike that ‘I am a bit sceptical about universal suffrage for the Hottentots even if refined by proportional representation.’

Events in Ghana did not dispel the fears of pessimists that the transfer of power in Africa was a leap in the dark that could easily end disastrously. There were plenty of Jeremiahs who feared the worst and said so, often. Herbert Morrison, the Labour Foreign Secretary, had famously compared allowing self-government to the colonies with giving a front door key, a chequebook and a shotgun to a twelve-year-old. In 1951 The Times had called the government’s Gold Coast policy ‘a bold, perhaps hazardous experiment’. In the following year one Tory MP drew a parallel between the Roman and British empires, and reminded the Commons that when the former dissolved, it ‘was followed by something much worse – the Dark Ages’.

Others were disturbed by the potential for trouble of tribal and religious differences and the immaturity and political apathy of people who would soon be asked to decide their own future. For the past fifty years, Britain’s African colonies had progressed at different rates, and undesirable customs and behaviour that the authorities had striven to suppress had often proved resilient. In 1954 a Basuto headman, three witch doctors and eleven accomplices were charged with the rape and murder of a woman whose body parts were removed for medicines. Traditional customs flourished alongside ‘modern’ politics. In 1950 there was a revival of intertribal rustling of livestock along Somaliland’s frontier with Ethiopia, while nationalists of the Somali Youth League clashed with police on the streets of Burao. There were also tensions between these young bloods and traditionalist, itinerant mullahs, whose power they challenged.

Nationalist parties that represented themselves as expressions of the popular will inevitably clashed with established sources of authority, secular as well as religious. The wayward King Rukidi III of Toro complained in 1956 that the growing Ugandan Congress Party was making the chiefs feel ‘insecure’ and that its leaders were self-serving. Elsewhere, Britain’s willingness to cut cards with local politicians dismayed and worried princes and chiefs who had hitherto collaborated with colonial governments. There was also that easily overlooked but hard to calculate body of Africans who preferred the status quo, or who were indifferent to nationalist agitation. After the outbreak of the Korean War, an African member of the Nyasaland legislative council assured the Governor that ‘African people have always rallied to the Empire’, while in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia a district officer reported that only one in every 5,000 Africans in his area was interested in politics. In Whitehall it was assumed that the conservative and the neutral would somehow fall into line with the new dispensation by which power was slowly transferred to native governments-in-waiting.

An empire in transition maintained the old racial hierarchies, which was one reason why nationalists found it easy to make converts. In Swaziland the film censors awarded four types of certificate: A for general showing; B for Europeans only; C for non-Europeans, but excluding natives; and D for everyone over the age of twelve. Male passengers at Mombasa airport were confronted by two types of lavatory, one labelled ‘European-Type Gentlemen’ and the other ‘Non-European-Type Gentlemen’.