British brutality against colonial resistance movement in Kenya revealed

Substantiating their claims with a cache of recently revealed British government documents, a group of veterans from the Kenyan Mau Mau movement recently gave graphic evidence before a British court of the extent of the brutality employed by the colonial authorities to suppress their struggle for independence.  Murithi Mutiga explains the background of this historic trial.

THE British justified their imperial adventures in Kenya by saying they set out to 'civilise' the natives.

The methods they used were among the most barbarous employed by any occupying power in the last century and included arbitrary detention of populations in whole regions and the torture and murder of thousands of individuals whose only crime was to defend their right to ancestral land.

This is some of the evidence contained in thousands of newly released documents about Britain's colonial policies in Kenya when the Mau Mau war of liberation was at its peak.

Compensation suit

The files, estimated to contain about 17,000 pages of material, were released on the orders of the High Court in London as part of a compensation suit filed by five former Mau Mau fighters who say they were among the thousands subjected to torture in detention camps.

Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Jane Muthoni Mara, Gitu wa Kahengeri and Wambugu wa Nyingi say they suffered sexual abuse, arbitrary incarceration and castration at the hands of British soldiers and their African collaborators.

It is thought that the new material, said to have been held in the basement of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the last 50 years, will have a bearing on the outcome of the case and may boost the claimants' appeal for compensation.

'The contents are dynamite,' says Paul Muite, one of the lawyers representing the five. 'The documents have verbatim records of conversations between the governor and the colonial office on many matters including Mau Mau and torture. Without doubt, the contents are extremely embarrassing to Her Majesty's Government. It is a boon to the Mau Mau.'

Not all the revelations are new. The extensive torture and killing of Mau Mau fighters and detainees was documented by two historians, Caroline Elkins from Harvard and Oxford University's David Lee Anderson, in their 2005 books, Britain's Gulag and Histories of the Hanged.

Prof Elkins' book in particular gives a vivid account of the shocking crimes committed by the British, which, ironically, came only seven years after the end of the Second World War in which the British and their allies set out to end the torture and mass killings in Nazi Germany and occupied countries.

The author showed the British used similar tactics in Kenya, including a 'pipeline' system of detention which involved the jailing of nearly the entire population of Central Kenya.

Her book was criticised by some in the West who said her allegations were based on shaky evidence because she relied heavily on the statements of survivors compiled over a period of nearly 10 years.

The official record, which had been held under lock and key for half a century, will be seen as vindication of many of the assertions in her book describing the methods employed in the State of Emergency declared between 1952 and 1961, a period described as one of the most inglorious chapters in British imperial history.

Prof Elkins told the Sunday Nation: 'The documents validate what many critics have tried to deny in my work. That is, that the detention camps of Kenya were sites of systematised brutality that only worsened as the Emergency dragged on, and that officials at the highest level knew of these abuses. Second, they provide us with additional details of the events of the Emergency that we otherwise would never have known. And, finally, they reflect the extent to which the British government went to cover up the abuses in Kenya.'

First revealed

The release of the files to the law firm Leigh Day & Co, which is handling the case on behalf of the claimants, was first revealed by The Times of London on 5 April.

The paper said the files contained in 300 boxes were taken out of Kenya because, according to a memo by a Foreign Office official, they contained material that 'might embarrass Her Majesty's Government, might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others'.

The memo quoted in The Times and marked 'Most Secret' stated that the 'vast majority' of the files concern the Emergency. Dr Anderson has been helping the Mau Mau claimants' lawyers evaluate the newly released material.

In a statement filed in court, he told the judge that civil servants at the Foreign Office were slow to release the remaining material and were selectively releasing the files rather than handing them out in sequential order.

Dr Anderson told the Sunday Nation: 'We have long known about British torture and brutality in Kenya, but these newly discovered documents do shed fresh light on the story as well as providing fuller details of the abuses, especially by screening teams and in the notorious detention camps. The documents show how British officials debated their actions, changing the laws and prison regulations in order to cover what they were doing.'

Colonial governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency on 20 October 1952 following a spate of attacks by Mau Mau insurgents fighting to reclaim land in the 'White Highlands' from which they had been uprooted by settlers.

The British sent in several battalions from colonies in the Middle East and Africa, a navy cruiser and dozens of aircraft to fight the Mau Mau.

They teamed up with Kenyans who had opted to work for the colonialists in an eight-year effort to crush the insurgency.

The methods they used were brutal. Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua told the London court he was a 24-year-old herdsman when he was arrested by British officials in 1957.

After refusing to confess to being a member of the Mau Mau, he was castrated and held until the Emergency ended.

Killings and torture

Many others did not live to tell the tale. At least 12,000 were killed either fighting in the forest or after arrest by the British forces or the indigenous Home Guard.

Hundreds of thousands were detained in squalid camps fenced off with barbed wire and subjected to horrific torture. One colonial settler quoted in Britain's Gulag boasted about not knowing an African 'had so many brains until we cracked open a few heads'.

In another detention camp, a man who refused to confess to being a member of the Mau Mau was smeared with a weed known to attract mosquitoes, stripped naked and left in a pit to die from the feasting insects.

Others had their skin burnt while many more suffered indescribable sexual assault.

The torture of some was as much psychological as it was physical. In one passage, Prof Elkins quotes a witness recalling the result of a colonial soldiers' sweep through their village.

'At one point the villagers were ordered to remove every article of clothing and remain stark naked. You cannot start to imagine the shame and embarrassment we felt when ... we were told to arrange ourselves in two rows, one for the men and the other for the women, old and young alike. To everyone's horror we were ordered at gunpoint to embrace each other, man with a woman, regardless of whether the man happened to be your father, father-in-law or brother. It was all so humiliating that one woman hanged herself later, as she felt that she could not continue to live with the humiliating experience of having been forced to embrace her son-in-law while both of them were naked. In (Kikuyu) custom that is a curse.'

Until the new documents were released, most of these records remained gruesome yet unsubstantiated reports of the brutality of the last days of the British empire in Africa.

The latest documents offer evidence of what was one of the worst periods in colonial African history, although the disclosure of the files may have come too late for some of the survivors.

'The release of these documents can only help the legal case for compensation insofar as they reveal the extent to which the British government went to hide evidence,' says Prof Elkins.

'However, it will take many months if not years to go through these documents properly, and the case is one that has urgency to it, as the claimants are quite old. So, by withholding these documents for so long, the British government has been complicit in its own defence in the case. In other words, they have said that there is not enough evidence to try the case, yet at the same time they have been withholding thousands of files of evidence from public view.'u

This article is reproduced from the Sunday Nation (Kenya) (10 April 2011).

*Third World Resurgence No. 248, April 2011, pp 36-37