On this day at the break of dawn 62 years ago, Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi was led from the condemned cells to the execution shed inside Kamiti Maximum Prison, where he was hanged.
Kimathi had been on the run for almost four years, after the colonial government launched a manhunt for him in 1952 for engaging in “subversive activities”.
He had previously served as the secretary of Kenya African Union (Kau) in Nyahururu, a position that a 1953 Kenya Police report claimed he was handpicked for by “Jomo Kenyatta personally on one of his last visits in 1951.”
The Nation has obtained a confidential profile of him compiled by the Special Branch at the height of the Emergency, and which describes Kimathi as “councillor and coordinator”.
The document says Kimathi “possesse(d) a limited amount of political acumen, and is certainly more far-sighted than most gang leaders”.
He was also described as a “tireless walker normally believed to carry a 450 D/B sporting rifle. Alternates between being bearded and clean shaven.”
It was not until the early hours of October 21, 1956 that Kimathi was captured at Tetu after being shot by Corporal Wanjohi and Tribal Policeman Ndirangu.
He had tried to climb the bank on the forest side but it was too steep.
So he ran back and climbed up on the other side when a bullet hit him in the thigh.
But Kimathi himself later narrated in court, while being cross-examined by Solicitor-General D.W Conroy, that he was squatting under a castor tree when a man came up with a gun.
“I did not know if he was a Mau Mau or government,” he said.
“I raised my arms and said, 'it is I Dedan Kimathi, do not kill me,"' but the man took aim at him when he tried to run away.
However, according to statements by the two policemen, at first they thought it was a leopard because of the animal’s skin Kimathi was wearing.
But they realised it was a man when the figure started moving across a wide ditch separating a patch of forest from a Kikuyu reserve prompting them to open fire.
Kimathi soon became a war trophy, a symbol of British triumph over the Mau Mau.
His capture was announced over loudspeakers in many parts of Kenya.
Princess Margaret, who was asleep at the Stanley Hotel, was informed during the day by Gen Gerald Lathbury, British Army Commander for Africa, when she visited British Military Hospital Nairobi.
Outside Nyeri Hospital, a small crowd of Kikuyus gathered conversing in low tones.
Dr P.P. Turner, who conducted surgery on Kimathi’s thigh, would later inform the court that he believed Kimathi was epileptic since he suffered a series of prolonged seizures during the operation.
Two charges were subsequently brought against him, that of illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition, and of murder for killing a Kikuyu home guard.
He was tried by the Supreme Court at Nyeri on the former charge first, and since a conviction carrying the capital sentence was obtained, the latter charge was not proceeded with.
Chief Justice Kenneth O’Connor sentenced him to death for the unlawful possession of a firearm and to seven years hard labour on the second count of illegal possession of ammunition.
His appeal to the Court of Appeal for Eastern Africa was summarily dismissed on Dec 27, 1956, and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London refused his petition to appeal to the Council on February 14, 1957.
While the sentence was considered a win by the white settler community in Kenya, who had suffered the wrath of Mau Mau, in Britain there was a daily flow of telegrams and petitions to the Colonial Secretary from left-wing politicians, private citizens, human rights activists, and trade unionists who demanded a reprieve for Kimathi.
“This is yet another instance of the brutal oppression of the Colonial peoples by the Tory Government. His execution would be a further crime against the people of Kenya,” read one petition from members of the public.
Salisbury Constituency Labour Party, in calling for amnesty for Kimathi, was more direct in its criticism toward the British policies in Kenya pointing out.
“We feel very strongly that the British government and white settlers in Kenya are to a very large extent responsible for what has happened in the Colony. For years we have monopolised political power and controlled the best land.”
On his part, the Colonial Secretary refused to intervene and instead responded to the petitioners by stating: “...the prerogative of mercy has been delegated by Her Majesty The Queen to the Governor, who takes his decision in each case after consulting his Executive Council. The responsibility therefore rests with the Governor of Kenya.”
With all the avenues to save him from the hangman’s noose exhausted, Kimathi was executed in Nairobi’s Kamiti prison, just 48 hours after his leave of appeal had been rejected by the privy council.
At his request, a Roman Catholic Priest, Fr Joseph Whelan from Wexford in Ireland, spent the whole night with him.
Throughout the trial he had visited Kimathi three times a week.
On the day of execution he recalled their relationship, revealing: “We became good friends and talked a great deal. I found him intelligent, cultured and well-educated. He always seemed a little disappointed when I turned up with nothing new to tell him.”
Just five years after his execution, he was publicly hailed as a hero for the first time at an exhibition organised by an Asian book binder called Ambul Patel and opened by Tom Mboya in November 1962.
His portrait was accompanied by the caption: ‘‘Field Marshal Sir Dedan Kimathi, the great hero of the Forest Army.”
When confronted with criticism for enshrinement of Kimathi, Mboya snapped: "Whether or not some people like that part of Kenya’s history is immaterial.”
He added that those Europeans who took offence at Dedan Kimathi’s photograph being displayed “should go back to Europe where statues had been erected in memory of people more rotten than anyone I can think of in Kenya”.
Celebrated American author and syndicated columnist, Robert Ruark, took to his column to express his disgust of Mboya’s actions.
"It must be useful to remember that next time Mr Tom Mboya of Kenya comes begging for American money that he recently officially opened a weekend rally in Nairobi which was devoted entirely to the glorification of the bitter bloody days of Mau Mau.”
Solly Sochs, a South African trade unionist and anti-apartheid activist, said: "Dedan Kimathi was no criminal, and will always be remembered by Africans as a man who fought for the freedom of his people.”