18 February 2002

Kenya: How the Mau Mau Burnt Treetops to the Ground

Princess Elizabeth's visit to Treetops came at a time of rising insecurity as the Mau Mau rebellion challenged colonial rule. Special Correspondent JOSEPH KARIMI reports.

This plaque to commemorate the overnight stay by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Treetops was all that remained after the hotel was burned down.

In May 1954, a group of Mau Mau fighters led by 'General' Ndung'u Gicheru raided the Treetops hotel, in the heart of the Ruthaithi indigenous forest, and set the world-famous resort ablaze.

The queen's authority was being challenged by a Kikuyu rebellion from 1952, and chaos had spread throughout the colony as demands intensified for the return of alienated lands, the "White Highlands," that had been set aside exclusively for white settlers. In addition, the fighters demanded equality and self-rule. When the war was launched, Mau Mau were intent on destroying the colonial authority together with anything to do with the white man.

When the princess visited the Treetops, security had to be beefed up to ensure that there was no attempt by "terrorists" to disrupt her programme. As the internal situation worsened in early 1953, Treetops was growing in popularity worldwide. Sherbrooke Walker had to increase security by arming two escorts with machine-guns, in addition to his hunter Jim Corbett's and his own double-barrelled rifles.

Gen Ndung'u recalls: "Treetops was a thorn in our flesh. It was a symbol of colonial rule, and it was one of the places the white settlers were having a good time. We were at war with this colonial government. We did not have any love for anything colonial and we did not want to know whether Treetops was of historical value because the princess became the queen up there. We did not have any interest in the queen and her relationship with the resort. Our enmity to the British ran deep."

He recalled that his fighters were at the time operating in the Nyandarua forest. Ruthaithi, in which Treetops is situated, was part of their domain. "We decided to move to Ruthaithi from Nyandarua and spend time in the area as it was warmer and did not have bamboo thickets."

Asked how he planned the destruction of Treetops, Gen Ndungu said: "There was no plan as such. It was an impromptu decision. I had a group of between 50 and 100 fighters who had come down from Nyandarua, and we decided: 'We're going to burn the house up the tree.' Our plans were excuted within two days to ensure they did not leak. We hit Treetops at around 4 pm."

The man who was in charge of 'Operation Burn Treetops,' Mau Mau 'General' Ndung'u Gicheru

Contrary to written accounts, Gen Ndungu says that, instead of using petrol or kerosene to burn the hotel, his men used hand grenades.

Were there people up there? "We didn't know, and we didn't care. If you were up there, that was your business. We wanted to put a stop to their enjoyment" Gen Ndungu said.

As the freedom fighters watched, the little house in the huge Mugumo (fig) tree was engulfed in a ball of fire and disintegrated.

"When the hotel was on fire, and we were satisfied that our mission was accomplished, we left. We went through the white settlers' ranches, taking some cattle for food, and returned to our base in the Aberdares.

"When you are at war, you fight your enemy from all angles: his property, his person, you don't spare him," said General Ndung'u.

Asked how they co-existed with the numerous wild animals in the area, General Ndungu said the animals were used to them. "They were our friends. We did not smell of soap... We washed with plain water and herbs... anyway, where would you get time to wash with soap even if you had it?

"We were on the alert and always ready to confront the colonial forces. We were as wild as the animals themselves. We all shared the forest, and even when some animals would threaten to charge, we used to avoid the confrontation. We never shot animals; we enjoyed a natural intimacy."

Asked whether he had any message for the queen, Gen Ndungu said: "Please convey my congratulations to Her Majesty. Tell her pole (sorry), what we did was out of anger with her government then, as it had occupied our land... At that time, we were at war with her government. We now consider her our friend. Tell her to celebrate her golden jubilee in peace."

A retired forester, T.M. Kimathi, vividly remembers the day Treetops was set on fire. "The white farmers around the Mweiga area telephoned the forest office at Muringato at around 7.30 pm to inform us about the fire. It had spread to the forest around the hotel.

"It was a Sunday evening and I was newly married. A vehicle was sent for me all the way from Muringato to Ihururu, arriving there at 9 pm.

"We drove to Treetops, where we spent the night fighting the fire. We finally got it under control on the afternoon of Monday." The fire had by then destroyed an extensive portion of the forest around the hotel.

The Mweiga police had earlier telephoned the Outspan Hotel to tell them that they could see a column of smoke rising from the forest at the point they assumed Treetops to be. R.J. Prickett says in his book, Treetops: Story of a World Famous Hotel, "A member of the first army patrol to reach the place has described to me how he found an empty petrol tin among the still-smoking debris. It has gone down in history that Sherbrooke Walker, standing in the ruins of his dream house, with pencil and paper in hand, sketched his plan for a new Treetops. It was not to be, however , for at that point the army forbade him to go near the place again. Walker carried back to the Outspan the brass plaque which had so proudly proclaimed to the world that on the tree, a princess had become queen."

Treetops was enlarged for the royal visit of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip to accommodate six guests in three double bedrooms and a room for the hunter-escort. During its 794th night (February 5th, 1952) of game viewing, for which "artificial moons" of floodlights were introduced, the royal couple were accompanied by Lady Pamela Mountbatten, Commander Michael Parker, Sherbrooke Walker, Lady Bettie Walker, their daughter Honor Walker, and the world famous hunter Jim Corbett, author of the bestselling Maneaters of Kumaon.

Within a year of the queen's visit to Treetops, the resort had become a popular tourist attraction, necessitating expansion of the little house, which had room for a maximum of 10 people. On the night of January 31,1953, Treetops accommodated 20 people. The last group to stay there on the night of July 4, 1953, the 1,225th night, was a group of 10 people. The government thereafter banned all further visits because of the Mau Mau war.

It was not until October, 1956, that the army handed back that area of the forest to the police, who told Sherbrooke Walker he could reopen Treetops on one condition: that he must have police protection. It was then that construction of the new Treetops started.

The general uprising among the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru had been foretold half a century earlier by Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, the soldier who led a punitive "pacification" expedition following the massacre of nearly 30 men in a caravan led by two Goans at Ithanji, Muhoya location, and subsequently arrested Chief Gakere wa Ngunju and his son to force the Kikuyu to submit to British colonial authority. Col Meinertzhagen and Dr Sidney Hinde founded Nyeri town in October 1902.

In his book, The Kenya Diary, Meinertzhagen recorded his prediction of August 13, 1902, when he told the High Commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, that the latter's idea of Kenya becoming a "White Man's Country" would come to grief one day.

Eliot's vision was of a "thriving colony of thousands of Europeans with their families, the whole of the country from the Aberdares and Mount Kenya to the German border (Tanganyika) divided up into farms, the whole of the Rift Valley cultivated or grazed and the whole country of Lumbwa and Nandi to Elgon and almost to Baringo under white settlement."

Col Meinertzhagen told Eliot point blank: "...One day, Africans will be educated and then there will be trouble, especially among the Kikuyu. When medicinemen are replaced by political agitators, there will be a general uprising." Eliot thought that that day was so far distant as not to matter.

When Princess Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the uprising of the Kikuyu was gaining momentum. Meinertzhagen's prediction was unfolding 50 years down the road. A public rally at Ruring'u Showground on Sunday, July 26, 1952, formally launched the armed struggle against colonial rule.

Copyright 2002, Nation Media Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

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