Kenyans seek reparations from Britain for atrocities in the ’50s


“One of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. He went down in a heap but when he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped, I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys were standing there looking blank. I shot them both. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleaned up’.”

From Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson (published in 2005).

“Mouth open, story jump out” was an expression Guyanese used when there was the exposure of an alarming, scandalous often salacious secret. Two books published in the 21st century have exposed the brutal, barbaric, viciously systematic campaign of the British government against the African freedom fighters of Kenya during the 1950s struggle for independence. In its bid to retain control of the land it had stolen from the Africans, the British government committed atrocities reminiscent of the Nazis of WWII infamy. Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson and Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins (both published in 2005) bring to light some of the atrocities committed by the British.

Both books are written by White authors. Anderson, who teaches African studies at Oxford University and has been described as a “Kenya expert” in the British press, used the documented material of the British colonial government. In this case it is more than “mouth open, story jump out;” formerly secret documents have been exposed that detail some of the sadistic practices of the British government.

Not surprisingly, Anderson tries to make the case that both sides (Africans and Europeans) were to blame for the slaughter of Africans during the dreadful British clampdown on the rightful owners of Kenya fighting to regain their land. Hundreds of thousands of African men, women and children were killed (many tortured) during the decade long (1951-1961) struggle; in contrast, 32 White settlers were killed.

The British were not kind even to the Africans who collaborated with them. The records show that on 24 April 1954 more than 40,000 Africans were arrested by British forces, including 5,000 Imperial troops and 1,000 policemen, during widespread, coordinated dawn raids. The members of the Imperial troops and the policemen worked for the British.

Even though the British slaughtered their people and occupied their land these Africans collaborated with them. This is not surprising because wherever people are oppressed, without fail, there are always those who will collaborate with the oppressor. It is human nature. Ironically, in the midst of the British government’s brutal crackdown on the Africans’ bid for independence, their Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and her husband arrived in Kenya (February 1952) on a royal visit. In 1953 when Elizabeth was crowned queen of the British Empire her government imposed the death penalty on anyone who was identified as a member of the African resistance movement.

Caroline Elkins, history professor at Harvard University, author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya has been roundly criticized by several White professors and journalists. This criticism is not surprising because, for decades, White people have perpetuated the myth of colonization being an attempt to civilize racialized people. They blithely characterize the oppressed people who resisted as “savage” instead of recognizing that the White settlers were beyond barbaric and savage in their treatment of the indigenous people of whichever land they happened to covet and occupy. This brutality of indigenous people happened whether the settlers were British, French, German or any other European tribe. This brutality was a fact of life for the victims whether they were in Africa, Asia or the Americas. As long as the Europeans coveted the property or bodies of racialized people they were brutally single-minded in pursuing their goal of occupation.

Some of the quarrel with Elkins is her documentation of first hand accounts of those Africans who survived the barbarity of the British even though she has also used (extensively) records the British have kept secret for decades. In an article published (April 14, 2011) in the British newspaper, The Guardian, Elkins wrote: “I used archival evidence collected in Kenya and Britain, along with witness testimony that I collected from hundreds of detention survivors. A number of former detainees told me that electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire.”

For decades the British maintained the myth of a civilizing mission even though Africans recognized the truth. Elkins addresses this in her book when she writes: “In the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary – for instance, the castration of a Mau Mau suspect – the British and their loyalist supporters maintained the illusion that their actions were the epitome of civilized behavior. It was as if by insisting loudly enough, and long enough, they could somehow revise the reality of their campaign of terror, dehumanizing torture, and genocide.”

All this happened after the Africans in Kenya answered the call of Empire and took active part in the second European tribal conflict (WWII 1939-1945) on the side of the British and their allies.

After decades of brutally resisting the Africans’ right to self-rule, Britain was forced to give Kenyans their independence on December 12, 1963. On Thursday, April 7, 2011 four elderly Kenyans, Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, now in their 70s and 80s, brought their case for reparations to Britain’s High Court. Elkins was called as an expert witness. The trial continues amidst the preparation for the royal wedding.

In a dreadful feeling of déjà vu the following gushing article appeared in the Toronto Star on April 22, 2011: Where will Kate Middleton and Prince William spend their honeymoon? Royal watchers, who speculate on anything Buckingham or Windsor, have an active pool on likely destinations. Bets on Africa were hot earlier this week. There’s logic at work, too – Wills proposed to Kate in Kenya, a place he has said “will hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.”

The then British heir to the throne (Elizabeth) was on a visit to Kenya during the time her government was terrorizing Africans in Kenya. Her coronation, with all the pomp and splendour, took place in London while this was happening. Her grandson and eventual heir is getting married while four elderly Kenyans seek reparations for the devastation the British wrought more than 50 years ago and there is speculation that the site of his honeymoon will be Kenya.

Several newspapers articles have stated that: Britain‘s Foreign Office has admitted that some Kenyans were tortured and killed during an anti-colonial rebellion in the 1950s, but denies the current government has any responsibility for the survivors.

That is not good enough after decades of the British government keeping secret Britain’s gulag in Kenya. The British government needs to admit their responsibility for the horror visited upon the Kenyans and as one Kenyan women is quoted at the end of Elkins’ book: “Maybe then there will be some peace once our people are able to mourn in public and our children and our grandchildren will know how hard we fought and how much we lost to make Kenya free for them.”

  • Kamau Njuguna said:

    I am a Kikuyu from whence came the Mau Mau but must protest at Caroline Elkins sensationalism all in the interest of her academic ambitions. Yes individuals were brutal and committed atrocities, but most Kenyans killed (more than 10,000 possible 20,000) were at the hands of other Kenyans, there were also atrocities by the East African Rifles (People like Idi Amin) so the colonial administration rounded them up and put them in camps as well. My people can be a brutal lot as witnessed in the 2007/8 election. When a Kenyan can boil another Kenyans child because of tribe a British soldier doing his two years national service is at a loss as to what the rules are. What is past is past. Kenyatta never shared the land so our parents who fought for land die in poverty. Lets move on without the sensationalism and lies.

    Friday June 22 at 11:58 am

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