NEWS 2005


Scholars unearth Britainís dirty war against Mau Mau

Saturday February 26, 2005

By William Maclean

Kenyan colonial police guard detainees in Kiambu in this March 26, 1953 file photo, showing a typical scene during the Mau Mau uprising against British rule.

Studies by two Western historians show colonial Britain used mass detention without trial, sadistic violence and bent justice far more than previously believed to suppress the revolt.

"Things got a little out of hand.

"By the time I cut his balls off he had no ears and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him."

This white settlerís confession of his role in torture in Kenya is one of many atrocities uncovered by new research into Britainís dirty war against the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency.

Half a century on, research by Oxford historian David Anderson and Caroline Elkins of Harvard University is helping underpin demands by former rebels for reparations from Britain for torture and killings.

The Mau Mau, drawn largely from Kenyaís biggest tribe, the Kikuyu, launched their rebellion against colonial rule in 1952, especially in the "white" highlands favoured by settlers, waging war from the Aberdare and Mount Kenya forests.

According to official figures more than 11,000 rebels were killed, along with up to 100 Europeans and up to 2,000 African loyalists, many from the Kikuyu Home Guard.

Elkins suspects the figure for rebel deaths is a considerable under estimate, resulting from a British cover-up that destroyed or classified much of the official record.

"I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands dead," she writes.

She believes the British over the years detained almost the entire Kikuyu population, then estimated at 1.5 million, among them thousands of men who fought for Britain in World War Two.

In his book "Histories of the Hanged" Anderson shows that Britain resorted more swiftly to capital punishment and brutal acts than it did in Palestine, Malaya or Cyprus, hanging more than 1,000 Kenyans between 1952 and 1959.

Mau Mau freedom fighters wearing animal skins and armed with long knives in a file picture taken in Kiambu.

From 1952, when a state of emergency was declared, until the end of the war in 1960, tens of thousands of detainees died from exhaustion, disease, hunger and systematic physical brutality, says Elkinsís in her book "Britainís Gulag".

"Never knew a Kuke had so many brains until we cracked open a few heads," a white settler confided to her in return for anonymity, using a slang word for a member of the Kikuyu tribe.

"You had to knock the evil out of a person," said another interviewee, former detention camp officer John Cowan.

This is not the usual image of Britainís conduct during the uprising which was taught to British schoolchildren in the 1960s -- that Britain took tough but fair measures to defeat ungrateful African rebels and defend its historic "civilising mission".

The two books provide fresh detail on the abuses Mau Mau veterans want remembered as they prepare to launch a lawsuit against the British government in London later this year.

The veterans, now old or ailing, complain they have been ignored by post-independence Kenyan governments and say recent precedent gives them hope that a suit against Britain may succeed.

Britain has paid £5 million ($9.47 million) in compensation to 1,300 Kenyans since 2002 for injuries caused by munitions said to have been left by its soldiers training in Kenya.

Some Kenyans say many of those claims were bogus and Britain was panicked into making the awards by publicity-savvy lawyers.

But the fresh evidence of British conduct during Mau Mau may deepen anti-British sentiment and help the veteransí case.

"The veterans are dying out very quickly, so retribution must be as fast as possible," said Kangíethe Mungai of Kenyaís Release Political Prisoners human rights group.

The British embassy in Kenya says there will be no British comment on the matter until the suit is filed.

Neither independence leader Jomo Kenyatta nor his successor Daniel arap Moi lifted the colonial-era ban on Mau Mau, arguing that venerating them would only stir enmity among non-Kikuyus.

Kenyaís President Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe elected head of state in 2002, rescinded the ban in 2003. But the issue remains divisive in Kenya where some fought for Britain as "loyalists" and others for Mau Mau.

A settler-promoted stereotype of Mau Mau as bloodthirsty savages helps explain the public apathy in 1950s Britain about British atrocities in the period, and the lack of anything approaching a national soul-searching in the decades since.

Despite reporting of the brutalities on both sides of the war by Fleet Street, few leaders in Britainís then opposition Labour Party took up the Mau Mau cause, historians say.

Human rights concerns ran up against the popular understanding of empire, particularly in Africa, "where in the 1950s any discussion of race and social development still inspired 19th century reactions," Elkins said.

The silence at home about Britainís actions sent a dangerous signal back to the authorities in Kenya, who assumed their policies of torture and detention were endorsed, she said.

SOURCE: Reuters