Petals of Blood Analysis
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

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In Petals of Blood, Ngugi comments on the effects of colonial and post-colonial rule on the lives of the Kenyan people. The narrative begins with events in the early 1970s, twelve years after Kenya gained independence, or Uhuru, from the British colonial government, but the legacy of colonialism is still felt as a strong presence by the villagers in Ilmorog. In the novel key periods and events in Kenyan history are recalled, from the early days of British colonists to the Mau Mau Uprising to the social struggles following independence.

Beginnings of Colonialism
In 1887 a private British company attempted to start a trading business near the Kenyan coast, modeling itself after the British East India Company which had for years monopolized highly profitable European trade in India. While the Imperial British East Africa Company, as it was known, soon went bankrupt, the British government itself took over the territory in 1895, and over the next decade gradually gained administrative control of most of modern Kenya. The British government encouraged English "settlers" to move to the fertile highland regions, where they created gigantic plantations while displacing hundreds of thousands of native Kenyans, mostly ethnic Gikuyus, from their traditional lands.

The Years Leading to Independence
For the next sixty years the economic, political, and social disparities between European settlers and native Kenyans gave rise to growing antagonism and conflict. It is estimated that by 1945 nearly twenty percent of Kenyan land (and clearly the most fertile) was owned by no more than 3,000 Europeans. Native Kenyans were used as laborers on these gigantic European plantations, or they were left to eke out a living on the remaining land that the Europeans found worthless. To make matters worse, the native peoples were treated by the ruling British as second-class citizens in their own land, forced to carry passports to travel from one section of the country to another, often restricted to certain areas of the land, barred from political office, and prohibited from voting and enjoying equal judicial rights.

The Gikuyu began organized protests against the British annexation of their traditional lands in 1924 with the formation of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Throughout the 1920s the KCA organized peasants to demand that the discriminatory passport laws be dropped, and by the late 1930s led increasingly militant protests against the forced sale of their farm animals to the British government. The colonial government tried to squash these protests by banning the KCA in 1940, but by 1944 growing resentment among a broader spectrum of disenfranchised Kenyan ethnic groups came together to form the Kenya Africa Union (KAU). In 1947 Jomo Kenyatta was named the leader of the new KAU, and he soon came under the watchful eye of the British government for his demands that Kenyans gain greater political representation.

Revolution and Independence
By the early 1950s a growing segment within the KAU began to espouse violent revolt as the only means of freeing themselves from the tyranny of British colonialism. At the same time, the British government began to hear rumors of a covert association known as the Mau Mau. The group, they learned, was rapidly gaining converts who gave oaths of their determination to wipe out the British settlers and government from Kenya. At first the British banned the secret Mau Mau organization, but this seemed only to add fuel to the revolutionary fire. British settlers became more concerned when in 1951 a white farmer was murdered, followed in 1952 by the assassination of Senior Chief Waruhiu.

The settlers then demanded that the government take quick and decisive action to put down the revolt. In October 1952, a state of emergency was declared, and leaders of the KAU were rounded up and put on trial. Kenyatta himself was given seven years hard labor, although there was little evidence to support the colonial government's...

(The entire section is 3,431 words.)