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Niels Boender

Current Project

Supervised by Professors Daniel Branch and David Anderson, my AHRC-funded PhD Project titled ‘Legacies of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: Activism and Politics in Central Kenya, 1956-75’ examines the political and cultural afterlives of the brutal Mau Mau conflict within late-colonial and post-colonial Kenya.

This study hopes, by engaging a melange of official and unofficial sources in both Kenya and Britain, to go beyond the established historiography of the conflict by emphasising the continuing importance of former guerrillas and detainees in the process of decolonisation and the formation of the post-colonial Kenyan state. It also hopes to illustrate how the latter phases of the Kenya Emergency were guided by an abiding desire to shape the future of the Kenyan society and politics. This research will challenge forthrightly notions of decolonisation as a peaceful, consensual or planned process on the one hand, as well as nationalist teleologies that submerge every-day struggles and lived experiences on the other. I am also particularly interested in processes of reconciliation between different agents in the conflict, and how the long-term process of post-war transitions remained contentious and fractious.

Ex-detainees and ex-guerillas of the Emergency-era are the main focus of this study. I will explore the experience of ‘homecoming’, how this impacted political activism and thereby indelibly marked the future course of Kenyan history. Through a variety of institutions like Kiama Kia Mungi and the Kenya Land Freedom Army, as well as by capturing grassroots branches of moderate political parties, ex-Mau Mau consistently exerted an influence on the negotiations towards decolonisation by forcefully articulating an alternative conception of the postcolonial future. After independence was achieved, and the counterinsurgency project was grafted onto the postcolonial state, this study examines how a Mau Mau-inspired ideology in which ex-detainees could reap the ‘fruits of Uhuru’ formed the central political dispute that moulded Kenya’s institutions and political culture. To conduct this research I will be using recently released archival files in both Kenya and the UK, as well as conducting oral histories with survivors of the conflict in Kenya.

Building on my previous research examining the role of Cold War anticommunism in the decolonisation of Africa, this study hopes to marry new research into colonial violence with a groundswell of popular interest in the legacies of Empire, both in the former metropole and in the former colonies. By working closely with the Imperial War Museum through the Collaborative Doctoral Project, I will hope to play a small part in making British audiences aware of the realities of the late-Empire as a self-serving instrument of political domination willing to use exemplary force to achieve control, as well as the legacies of imperial rule within polities permanently disfigured by its violence.

Research Interests

Colonial emergencies; Kenyan history; legacies of empire; world history; settler colonialism; global Cold War; public history and museum studies.


2020-2024, PhD in History, University of Warwick

2019-2020, MPhil in World History, University of Cambridge (with Distinction)

2016-2019, BA in History, University of York (First Class Honours with Distinction)

Sample of Papers and Publications

  • ‘Mau Mau at the Museum: Reviewing the Imperial War Museum’s Kenya Collection’, (Culture, Empire, Things Seminar Series, March 2022)
  • ‘A plethora of potentially subversive activity: Wanjohi Mungau, “neo-Mau Mau” and the local politics of Uhuru in Nyeri, 1959-1965’, (University of Nairobi Department of History Muted Histories Research Seminar, March 2022)
  • ‘Twilight: Insurgent Nationalism between Emergency and Independence in Kenya, 1959-1960’ (University of Cambridge World History Graduate Workshop, November 2021).
  • ‘Swearing at the forest: Colonial encounters with the Mau Mau’ (Enemy Encounters Conference, Cardiff University/Imperial War Museum, July 2021).
  • ‘A land flowing with milk and honey’: Exile in late-colonial Kenya, 1956-1961’, (History Lab Seminar Series, The Institute of Historical Research, June 2021).
  • ‘The ghosts at the banquet: Kiama Kia Muingi and the legacies of colonial violence in Kenya, 1956-1959’, (History Department Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick, May 2021

Public Engagement

As part of my PhD I am working closely with the Imperial War Museum in the re-imagining and revitalising of their 1945-1989 exhibits, specifically by foregrounding the late-colonial conflicts at the End of Empire.

I will hope to help the IWM amplify under-represented voices within its collections by exploring the cultural and social changes in Britain and in Kenya wrought by the Mau Mau uprising and the brutal counterinsurgency campaign waged to suppress it by British forces. Specifically, this will involve expanding the IWM’s holdings through the collection of oral histories in Kenya, contributing to the discussion of imperial memory in contemporary Britain. To this end I will also be participating in a variety of public programme outputs of the IWM, including blog posts and other outreach activities.

Prizes and Awards

University of Warwick, Vice Chancellor’s International Scholarship, 2021-2024.

Imperial War Museum, Collaborative Doctoral Award, 2020-2024.

Cambridge European Scholarship, 2019-2020


Please see the following for samples of my writing: 

The International Far-Right and White Supremacy in UDI-era Zimbabwe, 1965-1979: 

‘The Trouble with The English’: Mau Mau’s Place in The Present Debate about Imperial Legacies: 

Between Mau Mau and Home Guard: Intertwining Voices from the Mau Mau in IWM’s Archive, 

Niels Boender