unearth Britainís dirty war against Mau Mau
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
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
"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
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
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
"You had to knock the evil
out of a person," said another interviewee, former detention camp officer
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
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
But the fresh evidence of British
conduct during Mau Mau may deepen anti-British sentiment and help the veteransí
"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
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.