The Maruka Patrol: The Central Highlands of British East Africa September to October 1902


In 1901 the colonial authorities in British East Africa (now named Kenya) had completed a railway line from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria.  Ferries then transported passengers and goods across the lake to and from Port Bell in Uganda.  Having thus spent nearly 500 million pounds sterling (nearly US$800 million) in today’s money, the authorities wanted to make the railway pay its running costs.  To help towards this goal prime areas of land in the Central Highlands were selected to house white settlers.

However the Central Highlands were populated by indigenous people living in tribal societies, and they had no wish to see white settlers possess the best of their traditional lands.  The colonial authorities at the time had no real concern for the tribes people, expecting them to live on special reservations and to provide pools of labour for the settlers.  Some tribesmen  physically opposed the presence of white settlers on their land, as other tribes had opposed the construction of the railway.  The British response was to use force and to physically punish insurgent tribes until resistance to colonial authority ceased.  The story of the Maruka Patrol is one of extreme savagery practised by both sides in the conflict.

British officers observe the burning of villages

The Maruka Patrol

As tribal areas were opened up to white intrusion the tribes people came into contact with many unscrupulous traders and dealers who cheated the Africans or stole from them.  Tribal custom and propriety was also affected by intruders who debauched young girls under various pretexts such as entry to the Christian religion.  These experiences led to the conservative elements in the tribes rallying behind medecine men and other influential personalities who wanted to drive the white men away.

As the British presence moved into the Mount Kenya region the post at Mbirri was re-named Fort Hall, after the first District Officer to be stationed there.  In early July 1902 a party of government-employed Africans escorting mail bags from Fort Hall to Nairobi was attacked, and three porters were killed and eleven others in the party were wounded.  The attackers were from within the Wakikuyu tribal grouping, and they had used spears, swords, clubs and bows and arrows as weapons.  This incident was followed by the killing of five Indian traders.  The government ordered that the tribesmen concerned should present themselves and submit to colonial administrative control.  The Wakikuyu concerned ignored this demand.

Captain Frederick William Orby Maycock, the Sussex Regiment and the 3rd King’s African Rifles (3 KAR), was despatched on a punitive expedition to locate and deal with the recalcitrant tribes in the Maruka district.  The ground in the area was hilly with dense bush or forest, cleared in patches for cultivation.  Maycock had under his command 5 British officers, 115 Askari from 3 KAR, 60 local policemen, 300 levies and most importantly a Maxim machine gun (the actual numbers of men under Maycock’s command vary depending on the source referred to).  Maycock’s men were swiftly in action, burning villages and rounding up stock.

In the area was another British party led by Captain Richard Meinertzhagen, Royal Fusiliers and 3rd King’s African Rifles. This party, consisting of 2 other British officers, 20 Askari and 50 policemen, was tasked with surveying duties and not equipped for combat.  However Meinertzhagen had been in action on 20th July against a village where an African policeman had been killed and the body mutilated.  Around 20 tribesmen were killed for the loss of three Askari and policemen, several villages were burned and flocks of sheep and goats were seized.  The murderers of the policeman, and the medecine men who had inspired them, were seized and sentenced to gaol terms.

On 7th September Maycock contacted Meinertzhagen by runner and heliograph and stated that a white settler who was trying to buy sheep had been seized by tribesmen and dragged to a village nearby.  The man had apparently been pegged to the ground, had his mouth braced open, and then the village had urinated into him until he drowned.  Meinertzhagen was given a free hand to deal with the village.

Meinertzhagen’s men only had 40 rounds per rifle remaining in their pouches, and were without a machine gun.  Whilst listening to the continuous sound of war drums the survey party made a night march to the village and surrounded it.  Orders were given that every living thing except children should be killed without mercy.  Meinertzhagen states that he discussed these orders with the Political Officer who was with him, A.J. MacLean.  Maclean did not consent to the orders but also did not interfere with them.  The British attack went in at dawn and every person in the village was shot or bayoneted to death.  There were no children present as they had been removed into the forest in the custody of the young women.  Meinertzhagen’s reasoning for killing the mature women in the village was that they had been the instigators of the atrocities on the settler.

The settler’s body, which Meinertzhagen stated had been disembowelled and used as a latrine, was washed and buried.  All huts were burned and all banana plantations razed.  As the British withdrew a flock of sheep was seized and part of it was used as rations.  The survey party went to Fort Hall whilst Maycock’s men, as the London Gazette despatch put it, ‘thoroughly worked over’ the Maruka district, capturing 300 cattle and 2,000 sheep and goats whilst losing 2 men killed and 13 wounded in the process.  Wakikuyu casualties were not recorded.  Hostilites ended on 25th October, the Maruka people having been ‘sufficiently punished, and order restored in their district’.  However this brief skirmish was not the last military effort that the British would have to make against the Wakikuyu people.


Service on the Maruka Patrol qualified for the award of a bar inscribed EAST AFRICA 1902 to the African General Service Medal.  As the medal roll (National Archives reference: WO 100/394) only lists 78 names and does not include Meinertzhagen but does include Maclean, the roll is very probably incomplete.


The King’s African Rifles by Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.

3rd Battalion King’s African Rifles Historical Records 1895-1928 (National Archives file WO 106/270).

The Clasp EAST AFRICA 1902 to the African General Service Medal article by Peter Liversidge in the June 2009 edition of the Journal of the Orders and Medals Research Society.

African General Service Medals by R.B. Magor.

The London Gazette dated Friday, March 13, 1908.

Kenya Diary by Colonel R. Meinertzhagen (note that this author, an excellent diarist, has been shown to be a dubious source in other areas of his writing, but he appears to have had genuine doubts and remorse about the actions he took in conjunction with the Maruka Patrol, which lends credence to his account of events).

The Central Highlands of British East Africa