Sometime in late 1952, a series of mysterious deaths occurred at a mission station in Kikuyu, Kenya. First, the victims, a herd of cows, developed large swellings near the forelegs. The swelling then spread over the course of several days, across the chest and abdomen. Then one after the other, the steeds fell and died.
Six animals died within five days, and two followed, bringing the total number to eight. Later investigations would show that a total of 33 animals had been poisoned with a yet unknown toxin. The attack, as that is what it was, would go down in history as one of the known cases of agricultural?bio-terrorism?launched by the freedom fighters.
The Mau Mau war was an unequal war. On the one hand, the British armed its armies and gangs with the newest weapons and ordinances. On the other, the Mau Mau fought with whatever they could transform into a weapon. Dedan Kimathi had a stolen gun, the reason why he was eventually hanged, and other leaders such as General Kahiu Itina (Knife on Butt) were famous for how they sheathed their long machetes. Hounded, the Mau Mau sought to get creative in their attacks.
The real reason why they chose the mission station is unknown. It is likely that it was in retaliation to the campaign of confiscation launched by the British. The colonial police would raid villages and confiscate animals from villages for refusing to cooperate in battling the Mau Mau. Animals, caught between a war they had nothing to do with, became one of the primary commodities and plunders of war. To make sure the colonial police and collaborators wouldn’t benefit from the stolen animals, the Mau Mau would sneak up in the night and hamstring the animals. The crude attack featured cutting the Achilles tendon of one hind limb, crippling the animal. The animal would have to be slaughtered.?
In 1952, the insurgents launched their most lethal attack of agricultural and economic sabotage. All that was left were the bodies of 33 cows, most of the herd the mission station had at the time.
With nothing else to go on, the Veterinary Research Laboratory in Kabete got the work of investigating the strange deaths. This was a massacre, and deliberate one nonetheless, so common infections and disease were both out of the question. So what, or who, was killing these animals?
The researchers promptly turned their focus on toxins, specifically plant toxins. The culprit was finally identified as the latex of the African milk bush [Synadenium grantii]. The toxicity of the plants sap was well known long before the British ever set foot in the country.?
Working in the dead of the night, a small group of Mau Mau insurgents had sneaked up on the sleeping animals. Using small sharp knives, they made incisions on the animals skins and poured the milky sap of the toxin into the fresh wounds. Then they made away, leaving no evidence of their presence other than the bodies that promptly began falling. It is plausible, of course, that this attack was carried out by disgruntled employees or a small unit of the militia that was not sanctioned from the top. But its crude ingenuity is still impressive.
In Edgertons book Mau Mau: An African Crucible, he quotes General China saying that the Mau Mau had produced poison to launch a proper chemical warfare. The use of the weapon was, however, cancelled because of the fear that the British would launch similar, if not worse, attacks. The milk bush attack remains the only conclusively researched use of biological warfare by the Mau Mau. There are numerous suggestions that they also used arsenic to poison animals. Arsenic was readily available at the time because it was used as an insecticide.
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Last modified: April 19, 2016