Ian Henderson and the Hunt for Dedan Kimathi

During the course of 1956 an extraordinary drama played out in the forests of the Kenyan Aberdare Range, as two men, Dedan Kimathi, a Kikuyu Mau Mau forest leader, feared in equal measure by friends and enemies alike, and Ian Henderson, a local Special Branch member and guerrilla hunter extraordinaire, enacted a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that marked the final death throe of one of Africa’s first authentic liberation struggles.

The Mau Mau is one of those historic events that has the capacity to be all things to all people

To the white settler community of the time, anguished by a sudden and catastrophic rebellion against their very existence, the Mau Mau represented a reversionist, primal and unspeakably savage baring of the African soul. However, in contemporary Kenya, the Mau Mau has been reinvented as an inherently noble expression of native resistance, similar to many others that followed elsewhere in Africa, and sullied only in moments of extreme necessity by non-military violence.

In fact The Mau Mau Uprising was built of all of those elements and more. A large part of it was genuinely revolutionary, but a large part also consisted of misdirected, gangster style violence under a very heavy layer of ritual and atavism peculiar to Africa, and in fact peculiar in many ways to the Kikuyu. Dedan Kimathi was the high priest of Mau Mau. He was not the only gang leader operating in the forests of the central highlands, and nor was he consistently the most powerful, but he was the only one sufficiently imbued with the cultural and esoteric mystique necessary to project his image – like that of Che Guevara in the context of Cuba – as the defining iconography of the revolution.

The fact that Kimathi was quite clearly a sociopath has never intruded upon this myth

Despite Kimathi’s status as arguably the most potent symbol of Kenyan liberation, even sympathetic contemporary accounts of his life tend to paint him as a brooding megalomaniac whose destructive paranoia fed a lethal and murderous sadism.

He presented himself, and was accepted as, a prophet of the Kikuyu God Ngai. This was made somewhat easier by the fact that Ngai, who resided on mount Kenya, was, in keeping with African monotheistic deities, unfriendly to mankind and rather remote from the day to day administrations of faith. This is a role customarily reserved for local ancestral spirits and temporal mediums such as Kimathi.

This self-awarded status was backed up my an almost mystic perception that proved Kimathi right time and again in matters of predicting when and where attacks would take place. His apparent sixth sense struck a chord with a deeply superstitious following which in turn allowed him to retain widespread support despite his propensity for dealing death among his own in his uniquely creative way. In the words of a captured follower that was recorded by our next protagonist, Ian Henderson:

Nobody has helped the government as much as Kimathi, and for that reason he should be given a salary. He has killed more Mau Mau than any member of the Security Forces.

Ian Henderson was born in Scotland but grew up in Kenya as the son of a coffee farmer

Henderson’s formative years coincided with the interwar period of the 1930s, which was arguably the absolute optimum time to be white and British in Africa. The status of the white settler seemed secure, the ubiquitous Kikuyu of the surrounding countryside were passive if not content, and the wild features of the region were as intact as they had ever been, and yet reasonably accessible and safe.

Ian Henderson grew up, as many other white boys in Africa did at that time, with a rifle in his hand, with unrestricted liberty of movement and the fealty of any number of black youth who would have been his childhood playmates. From them he gained fluency in both the famously difficult and abstruse Kikuyu language as well as Kikuyu lifestyles and culture. Beyond that he was gifted with a third eye, some would say a hunters sixth sense, that was comparable in some ways to Kimathi’s God-given mysticism, but which Henderson would hardly describe as such.

Henderson achieved fame amongst his peers during the Emergency as a policeman, and then as a member of the local British internal intelligence organization, Special Branch. He was recognized, and rewarded, by the Crown for exemplary service during the Kenya Emergency, with outgoing Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, conceding that Henderson did more to suppress the Mau Mau Rebellion than any other white person in the territory.

Certainly Henderson killed, or accounted for the deaths of a large number of high profile blacks during the course of the crisis, and he was largely responsible for compiling the evidence in the famously skewed trial of Jomo Kenyatta, the honorary if not practical leader of African resistance in Kenya. As a consequence Henderson was no particular friend of the black man and was deported soon after Kenyan independence and never invited back.

He then went on to serve as intelligence supremo in Bahrain where he gained a reputation over three decades, not very different from that which he had departed from in Kenya, as a sadistic, torture prone functionary of a coercive and unrepresentative regime. The Butcher of Bahrain became his nomenclature  upon his retirement, and many have been the calls for an inquiry into the conduct of this highly secretive, almost subterranean man.

The Hunt for Dedan Kithathi

The tale of the hunt for Kimathi, mounted by the Kenya Police, and spearheaded by Henderson, tells the story of one man’s utter determination to account for another against a backdrop of the generally bizarre and violent Mau Mau Rebellion. By 1956 the offensive spirit of the Mau Mau had been lost. The imperial response had been so overwhelming and so accurately applied that the movement by then amounted to nothing more than a handful of remnant gangs roaming the vast forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares with no greater purpose than their own survival. The British – Ian Henderson in this case, among others – had by then began to deploy pseudo gangs to root out and run to ground these remnant units still remaining. The pseudos, contrary to popular mythology, very rarely included blacked-up white men, but were in fact almost entirely made up of captured and turned guerrillas who returned to the forest to track down and capture or kill their former comrades.

The operation to capture or kill Kimathi was undertaken on the understanding that only by his removal from the active theater could the matter of the Rebellion be finally laid to rest. Mau Mau no longer presented any particular threat to outside society, and in any case been superseded by the mainstream political process which was heading slowly but surely in the direction of majority rule, as it was throughout most of Africa, but so long as Kimathi remained at large the rebellion was active.

Henderson, for his part, was quite obviously obsessed with bringing the famed guerrilla leader in, either dead or alive, quite as Kimathi was obsessed by his own survival. For this the guerrilla leader began to rely increasingly on his higher spiritual direction and the violent cleansing of his immediate corps of followers who needed only the most minor transgression of daily protocol to find themselves under suspicion of collaboration.

The process began with the capture of a pair of middle ranking fighters in the Aberdare forest in December 1955, in the broad vicinity of where Kimathi was known to be hiding. At that time it was estimated that there were fewer than 1500 active fighters remaining in the forest aligned to a handful of key leaders. Kimathi himself commanded a large following of extremely committed and ‘hard core’ fighters, with an inner circle of bodyguards whose loyalty was unimpeachable.

‘Turning’ these two captures was not difficult. The development of pseudo gangs had shown from the onset that it was surprisingly easy to realign captured guerrillas, arm them and then send them back into the forest to operate against their former comrades. Part of the reason for this was that by the time pseudo ops came into concentrated use the balance had shifted and the Mau Mau were manifestly on the run. Survival in the forests had become extremely difficult once access to the Kikuyu Reserve had been cut by an airtight cordon, at which point continued existence became dependent on theft from white commercial farms or directly off the land within the forest. Internecine fighting had also become common as guerrilla units began to suspect one another, and as a consequence tended to keep as far away from one another as possible. The sheer difficulty of life, and the threat upon capture of a swift trial and the gallows, meant that when a reprieve was offered in exchange for cooperation it was rarely declined.

This small corps of able and knowledgeable men was added to over the course of 1956 as the loyal elements of the Mau Mau gradually diminished and more captures fell into the hands of Henderson and his force. Henderson himself played only a very limited active role, but it was he at the center of command who plotted the sequence of events the irrevocably tightened the noose around Kimathi’s neck. As more and more men were captured, and as Kimathi’s personal force diminished, his survival became dependent on his own reserves of personal cunning and incisive intelligence, along with what was universally recognized as extraordinary good luck – the luck that many around him attributed to his status of Ngai’s favored son.

In October 1956 the drama ended with an isolated and surrounded Kimathi forced by hunger to leave the embrace of the forest and venture into the open country of the Kikuyu Reserve. There his luck finally deserted him and he was wounded by a Home Guard patrol and later arrested by elements of Henderson’s force. His subsequent trial in Nyeri and his execution were both events of intense international media interest, which in no small way helped to project a rather unpleasant and dangerous cult leader to the status of revolutionary and martyr to the cause of black liberation.

It also served to enhance the reputation of another rather unpleasant character in the person of Henderson, who perhaps thanks to the shift of imperial fortune received more of his just deserts than did Kimathi.

Neither man had much to recommend him, however, other than furnishing a fascinating tale that has been well written by Henderson  in his book Hunt For Dedan Kimathi, or Manhunt in Africa as it was later published. This is a book well worth reading for its own merits as an adventure narrative, but also as a window into the real facts of the Mau Mau now that so much myth and fantasy has been applied to the event by practical history.


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  • Rodenthead

    Excellent commentary on a very difficult and unfocused situation.

  • Strapnjump

    Still living in denial as you try to denigrate what you understand not. A pathetic attempt at re-writing history.

  • Tim Symonds

    This is an excellent summary of events as I myself lived them in 1955-56 during my time as a Tracker Team leader against the Mau Mau. I encountered Ian Henderson several times during my 18 months in the Mt Kenya Crown Forest. My own recollections have been recorded by the Imperial War Museum in London.
    Tim Symonds