HISTORY SHORTS: FIELD MARSHAL MBARIA KANIU

It was after our Facebook posts on Mau Mau movement leaders Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima and Field Marshal Musa Mwariama, that a member of Field Marshal Mbaria Kaniu’s family contacted us and brought him to our attention.

Indeed, due to the devolved nature and fluidity of the Mau Mau movement (not to mention divisions within the ranks), it is easy to leave out high-ranking members as one delves into reconstructing the movement’s leadership structure. Furthermore, many freedom fighters involved in the armed struggle for freedom were unable to learn how to read and write, leading many of these valiant heroes to leave it to historians and others to tell their story.

This is especially true in the case of Field Marshal Mbaria Kaniu (1920-2003).

As we dug up the history books and archives, certainly it was indisputable Field Marshal Kaniu, who originated from the Fort Hall region (modern Murang’a), was in the upper echelons of the movement. [1,2,3,4] A 1956 Chicago Tribune article reporting of his capture placed him as the Mau Mau movement third-in-command. In many books and articles he is mentioned in the same breath with Mau Mau heroes such as Dedan Kimathi, Muthoni wa Kirima, Stanley Mathenge wa Mirugi, Waruhiu Itote, Mwangi Kariuki aka General Matenjagwo. 

All of them were also members of the “40 group” War Council convened in response to the State of Emergency declared in 1952 by the colonial government. The “40 group” is what morphed into the the Kenya Land Freedom Army (KLFA) which then came later to be popularly known as the Mau Mau. According to some historians, the War Council at some point conferred Kimathi with the title of Supreme Commander of the army and Mbaria Kaniu as his deputy.

Although Field Marshal Kaniu was born in Njumbi, Murang’a, it is in Naivasha where he made his name as a respected Mau Mau military commander. Among his many accomplishments was the successful attack of the Naivasha Police Base on March 26 1953 that freed detained freedom fighters and led to the capture of much needed guns, rifles and ammunition from British forces.[2] It was also in Naivasha that he was famously captured in January 1956 at a papyrus swamp during a British military exercise known as Operation Bullrush whose sole purpose was to flush out Mau Mau fighters from this swampIn an act of love he chose to stay back and nurse his injured companion instead of making his escape. [3, 4]

Photo of Field Marshal Kaniu and his injured companion after their capture in Naivasha.

Probably the most famous of all soldiers under his command is the Late Kariuki Chotara,  a powerful politician during President Daniel Arap Moi’s rule.

After independence, Field Marshal Kaniu became a well-respected community leader especially in Rift Valley. Marshall S. Clough, in his book on the Mau Mau, describes Field Marshal Kaniu as follows [3]:

“…Mbaria wa Kaniu, on the other hand, was admired for refusing to place himself above the ordinary gitungati (rear guard), for his commitment to justice, and for his skill as a mediator of  disputes…”

Field Marshal Kaniu was certainly the epitome of integrity and loyalty. At the time of his passing, he left four widows and thirty-six children who have continued to perpetuate his enduring legacy and keep his name alive as a bona-fide Kenyan hero. This is despite the many financial hardships the family continues to face even to this day.


Caption: Mbaria Kaniu Road in Naivasha

We would like to thank the family of Field Marshal Mbaria Kaniu for the cover picture and invaluable information on his life which was certainly corroborated by the history books and archives.


References and Good Reads:
A History of Pan-African Revolt (The Charles H. Kerr Library). Oct 1, 2012 by C. L. R. James and Robin D. G. Kelley
Mau Mau: The Peak of African Political Organization and Struggle for Liberation in Colonial Kenya. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 12(3) by Maina-Wa-Kinyatti, 1983
Kenya Cowboy: A Police Officer’s Account of the Mau Mau Emergency. Apr 1, 2008 by Peter Hewitt
Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory, and Politics. Nov 1997 by Marshall S. Clough
Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya. 2007 By S. Alam.