Boxes containing thousands of incriminating documents from the Kenyan colonial service show the barbarity with which the British Empire sought – vainly – to cling on to power in East Africa...
Sometimes the past returns in the form of nightmare to shock the present, as has happened with revelations this year from a host of “lost” official documents unearthed this year which confirm British imperialism’s violent suppression in the 1950s of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.
The British Empire’s connections with Kenya go back to the 19th century, when it developed trade with the East African coast in the 1840s. By 1887 the British East African Company secured a formal lease of land that ultimately developed in 1893 into a British government protectorate. Then in 1920, Kenya became a Crown Colony and its legislative councils were a privilege of the white settlers who had begun to farm there at the turn of the twentieth century.
There was a prolonged pattern of land expropriation by white farmers from Britain eager to acquire some of the richest agricultural soils in the world: for instance, the leading Kikuyu tribe lost 60,000 acres of land, whilst the Giricama tribe from the coastal regions were pushed to and fro.
By 1948, 1,250,000 Kikuyu people had ownership of a mere 2,000 square miles, while 30,000 white farmers had 12,000 square miles. This displacement also provided the white settlers with a ready supply of cheap labour. Meanwhile, the colonial authorities adopted a policy of near total neglect of African farming. But there was a history of resistance to British imperialism from the 1880s onwards notably the Nandi Revolt (1895 – 1905) and an uprising in 1913-14.
Though India won independence in 1948, the British government in the 1940s and the 1950s was split over granting self-government to all its colonies. It was more willing to go down that route in West Africa, but not elsewhere in Africa. The more diehard imperialist members of Macmillan’s Conservative government (1957 to 1963) combined with the white settler inhabitants of these countries to protect white minority colonial rule. Earlier, British ex-servicemen had received money from Attlee’s, Churchill’s and Eden’s governments to assist them to establish farms in Kenya.
This expanded colonisation generated heightened resistance from the Kikuyu tribe, which formed about 20 per cent of the population. Ultimately the Kikuyu and other tribes pursued a course of violence including killings to drive the white settlers out, beginning in the summer of 1952 and continuing until 1956 with sporadic actions beyond that date. The Kenyan Land and Freedom Army was formed. Effectively, a civil war broke out between the anti-colonial Mau Mau nationalists and the colonial authorities supported by the British military and collaborators.
The colonial authorities responded harshly, turning Kikuyu districts into police states. There were wholesale arrests and curfews. In 1954, 25,000 British security forces were deployed in Nairobi, leading to internment for tens of thousands. Scores of detention camps, often staffed by white settlers, were established for “screening” (as always with our rulers, language became a casualty too). As many as 150,000 Kikuyu were “screened”.
Sanitation was non-existent in the camps and epidemics of diseases such as typhoid spread through them. Collective punishments were imposed on populations suspected of supporting the rebellion: communal labour; collective fines; further confiscation of land and property, including tens of thousands of livestock.
By the end of the civil war the number of hangings by the colonial courts reached 1,090, a staggering scale of terror. In addition, a “villagisation programme” was set up for over a million rural Kikuyu; its aim was to break the Mau Mau by removing people from the stronghold of their land, establishing new villages with curfews and surrounding the new villages with deep, spike-bottomed trenches and barbed wire. (So that’s where the Americans in Vietnam pinched their ideas from!) The civil war was bloody and violent.
In March 1959 widespread indignation followed the deaths of 11 Mau Mau inmates of the Hola prison camp. Though they had been beaten to death by their warders, the authorities first claimed they had died from lack of water. Wholesale revulsion to this act revealed that white minority colonial rule was no longer possible and hastened a change in the British government’s Kenyan policy. Self-government was announced in June 1963 and Kenya became a republic in December 1964. Even then, many white settlers were richly compensated with British taxpayers’ money and returned to Britain.
In 2011, four elderly Kenyans, who allege they were tortured between 1952 and 1961 by British colonial administration officials during the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising, started legal proceedings against the British government and are seeking compensation at the High Court. They variously claim they were whipped, beaten, sexually abused or castrated while detained under colonial rule.
The British government, though not denying the claims, says it cannot be held liable for the alleged abuse and is fully defending the case, claiming that Kenya had its own legal colonial government that was responsible for the detention camps where Mau Mau supporters were taken. Does the tail wag the dog? No. The imperial government dictates policy in a colony. The attitude of the British government is no doubt determined by the fear of such litigation becoming contagious, spurring other victims of imperial adventures into coming forward.
Boxes containing 17,000 incriminating pages of previously undisclosed documents from the Kenyan colonial service have been “discovered” during research into the legal claims. They were removed from Nairobi at independence in 1963 because of the damning information they held and have been hidden away for almost 50 years to protect the guilty, stored in British government buildings.
These official colonial documents confirm the full extent of British brutality in the Mau Mau rebellion: systematic torture, starvation and even the burning alive of detainees; forced labour in camps; violent interrogation to extract confessions; and the British colonial governor present at beatings. Ripples from Kenya’s past still flow. ■