How did they get away with it?

Bernard Porter

  • Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson
    Weidenfeld, 406 pp, £20.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 297 84719 8
  • Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
    Cape, 475 pp, £20.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 224 07363 X

In Niall Ferguson’s panegyric to British colonialism, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), Kenya gets just one significant mention. It comes in the introduction, and is a description of his time there as a boy. It was three years after independence, but, happily, ‘scarcely anything had changed’ since colonial days. ‘We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango. I suspect my mother was never happier.’ Glasgow, where the family returned after just two years, was a comedown. ‘To the Scots, the empire stood for bright sunshine.’ You can see that in the book. Yet less than a decade before Ferguson’s idyllic stay there, Kenya had been wracked by war, with much bloodshed and unspeakable atrocities on all sides. It was wrong to say that ‘scarcely anything had changed.’ Not that the young Ferguson would have been aware of that in the 1960s; but by the time he came to write his book, some knowledge of it should have percolated through. The Kenya ‘Emergency’ is a major incident in the history of the end of the empire: it makes a difference to the whole story. But he doesn’t mention it. Perhaps we should not be too hard on Ferguson. I can’t offhand think of another modern general history of British imperialism or decolonisation that leaves 1950s Kenya out of the picture entirely, but none of them (including my own) makes as much of it as we shall clearly need to now, after the publication of these two brilliant, meticulously researched and shocking books.

The British declared the Kenya Emergency in 1952, when seven years of restless dissatisfaction with British rule culminated in the full-scale rebellion known as Mau Mau. It was very largely the struggle of the Kikuyu, the country’s majority ethnic group – about 1.5 million in a native population of five million – who had lost much of their land to white settlers and had moved into reservations or continued farming as tenants. The Emergency saw out two prime ministers – Churchill and Eden – and ended in January 1960. In that time, Mau Mau supporters killed at least 2000 African civilians and inflicted some 200 casualties on the army and police. In all, 32 white settlers died in the rebellion. For their part, the British hanged more than 1000 Kikuyu, detained at least 150,000 and, according to official figures, killed around 12,000 in combat, though the real figure, in David Anderson’s view, is ‘likely to have been more than 20,000’. In addition, Caroline Elkins claims, up to 100,000 died in the detention camps.

It is the scale of the British atrocities in Kenya that is the most startling revelation of these books. We always knew about the Mau Mau atrocities, of course: assiduously retailed to the British public by the authorities in Kenya through the Colonial Office, and right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail. (Elkins calls the Daily Mail a ‘tabloid’, which isn’t strictly true for this period, but seems to fit in other ways.) But for years the equally savage abuses by British officers and their African collaborators in the detention camps, controlled villages and courtrooms of Kenya were mostly hidden from people at home. They knew some of it – indeed, did what they could to put an end to it after the scandalous British beatings of detainees at Hola camp in 1959, which left 11 dead and 60 seriously wounded – but nothing like the whole. Alan Lennox-Boyd, colonial secretary for much of this period, and one of the villains of both these books, can take much of the credit. First he denied abuses, then when that was no longer possible he dismissed them as exceptional (‘bad apples’), and appealed to his critics to remember what they were up against in Kenya: not an ordinary policing problem, but an outbreak of atavistic ‘evil’ – a useful word when you are confronting something you don’t understand. ‘Duplicity at its finest’, Elkins calls this. He also had a nice line in discrediting whistle-blowers. Then, when the British eventually left Kenya, they made bonfires of most of the incriminating material about the detention camps. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, connived in this, anxious in the interests of national unity to ‘erase’ the past, and not to encourage the ‘hooligans’ of Mau Mau. (It was a bit like South Africa’s ‘truth and reconciliation’, but without the truth.) Elkins tells us that she was taken in by Colonial Office propaganda at the beginning of her research, as she leafed through the files at the Public Record Office, and realised the extent of their mendacity only when she went out to Kenya to see and hear for herself. This may be part of the reason for the anger that suffuses her narrative, in contrast to Anderson’s more clinical, dispassionate tone. No one likes to be duped; on the other hand, there is much here to be angry about.

Anderson focuses mainly on the trials of Mau Mau suspects. He has read the trial transcripts and pieced together a picture of systematic injustice. Defendants were poorly represented, convicted on highly dubious evidence, often from dodgy informers, or after having confessions beaten out of them, by judges who were usually highly prejudiced. One judge was (effectively) bribed to reach a guilty verdict: he was paid £20,000 to come out from Britain to put Kenyatta behind barbed wire in 1953. Many defendants were hanged for much lesser offences than murder; often they were innocent. The number hanged, 1090, was a record for any British colony of the time, and more even than were executed by the French in Algeria. The reprieved and acquitted did not go free. Most were sent to camps for interrogation or ‘re-education’ – or just to rot away out of sight of nervous Europeans. Most of the rest of the Kikuyu population (including thousands from Nairobi) were herded into ‘emergency villages’ enclosed in barbed wire. All this turned Kenya into what Anderson calls ‘a police state in the very fullest sense of that term’.

The camps and emergency villages are where Elkins takes up the story. Some of her evidence comes from rare surviving documentation, but the most vivid is from the recollections of Kikuyu themselves. There are problems with this kind of testimony, of course. ‘Virtually all Kikuyus claim to have belonged to the Mau Mau,’ Kwamchetsi Makokha writes in his review of these books in the New Statesman, ‘regardless of whether they were even alive in the 1950s. Africans love stories; they tell them and retell them over and over again. Tales are communally owned, and it is not considered an abominable act of plagiarism to present another person’s story as your own. All this makes Elkins’s reliance on oral testimonies problematic.’ There may be something in this. But Elkins is aware of these pitfalls, and tells us she has done what she can to avoid them. She is convinced that her sources opened up to her because she is an American. Many of her accounts corroborate one another, and are corroborated in their turn by the surviving written evidence. More telling, perhaps, they are often confirmed by the white settlers she has interviewed, who ‘still seemed to take delight in their handiwork during Mau Mau. They spoke of heinous tortures as if they were describing yesterday’s weather; for them the brutality they perpetrated during the Emergency is as banal today as it was some fifty years ago.’ In case we think that they are merely winding her up in some perverse macho way because she is a woman, Anderson found exactly the same thing. As well as confirming many of the victims’ accounts, this seems to indicate that the brutality was endemic in what Anderson calls the ‘culture of impunity’ of the period; which in itself gives the lie to Lennox-Boyd’s ‘bad apples’ defence.

It was a culture of routine beatings, starvation, killings (the hanged represent only a small fraction of those who died in British custody during the Emergency) and torture of the most grotesque kinds. Alsatian dogs were used to terrify prisoners and then ‘maul’ them. There are other similarities with Abu Ghraib: various indignities were devised using human faeces; men were forced to sodomise one another. They also had sand, pepper and water stuffed in their anuses. One apparently had his testicles cut off, and was then made to eat them. ‘Things got a little out of hand,’ one (macho European) witness told Elkins, referring to another incident. ‘By the time we 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.’ Women were gang-raped, had their nipples squeezed with pliers, and vermin and hot eggs thrust into their vaginas. Children were butchered and their body parts paraded around on spears. Then there were the pettier deprivations: women forbidden to sing hymns in Komiti camp, for example, because they were putting ‘subversive’ words to them. All this while anti-Mau Mau and pro-British propaganda blared out at detainees from loudspeakers. Anderson quotes the testimony of a European officer in 1962, recalling an attempt to interrogate some ‘Mickeys’ – a slang name for the Mau Mau.

They wouldn’t say a thing, of course, and one of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept right 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 said something, I don’t remember what, 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 said to them that if they didn’t tell me where to find the rest of the gang I’d kill them too. They didn’t say a word so I shot them both. One wasn’t dead so I shot him in the ear. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him that the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleared up.’

The significant thing here (apart from the refusal of the three prisoners to co-operate) is that the officer had no qualms about describing all this.

Elkins has been criticised in some reviews for using the analogy with Nazism too freely. But nearly all the references in her book to ‘concentration camps’, the ‘Gestapo’ and so on come from contemporary accounts. Most were by critics, including some inside the system, but not all. In March 1953 a British policeman wrote a letter to his buddies back at Streatham police station bragging about the ‘Gestapo stuff’ that was going on in his new posting in Nyeri. All this happened a few years after the war, so such analogies came quickly to mind. The critics – many of whom had fought against Nazi Germany – knew what they were talking about. One relatively liberal police chief in Kenya claimed that conditions in the detention camps were far worse than those he had suffered as a Japanese POW. Comparisons were also made with the Soviet gulags, and, later on, by a former defence lawyer for the Mau Mau, with ‘ethnic cleansing’. The accepted view of Britain’s decolonisation hitherto has been that it was done in a more dignified, enlightened and consensual way than by other countries – meaning, of course, France. It will be difficult now to argue this so glibly. Kenya was Britain’s Algeria.

Was it typical? Possibly not. Anderson makes a big point of Kenya’s ‘exceptionality in the use of judicial execution’ compared with other British colonies, as well as in other ways. Elkins doesn’t entirely agree – ‘it was there,’ she says, ‘that Britain finally revealed the true nature of its civilising mission’ – but even she acknowledges that Kenya ‘stands apart’ from Britain’s other colonies in many respects. This had partly to do with the nature of the Mau Mau phenomenon, misunderstood at the time by those who refused to acknowledge the Kikuyus’ huge grievance about the land expropriated from them, which both these authors agree was at the root of the revolt. Mau Mau was described instead in terms of a disease (even by Kenyatta), or seen as an example of a peculiarly African, ‘primitive’ psychopathology. Elkins points out that this was the view in the United States. Perhaps there was a racist element to this kind of analysis, though many of the early manifestations of Mau Mau genuinely were savage: Mau Mau had many of the characteristics of a secret society – members had to swear a ritual oath and the punishment for breaking ranks, or even refusing to take the oath, was death. The Daily Mail did not make it all up.

Anderson gives more detailed attention than Elkins to all this: to the much publicised killings of white men, women and children around the turn of 1952-53; to the original massacre of Kikuyu ‘loyalists’ by Mau Mau at Lari in March 1953 (even more brutal loyalist reprisals followed); or to the practice of clitoridectomy among the Kikuyu, which was one of the main issues between them and the Christian churches early on. Mau Mau violence, as he points out, was more often directed against other Kikuyu – ‘traitors’ – than against the British authorities or the Kenyan settlers. To this extent the rebellion was also a civil war. Although Elkins denies none of this – ‘we should not romanticise the anti-colonial struggle,’ she says at one point – she doesn’t elaborate on it, which makes it difficult when reading her book to understand the panic that took hold of the settlers, the colonial administration and the African loyalists. The impact of Mau Mau terrorism can perhaps be compared with the effect of Hamas suicide bombings on Israelis today. It did not make a calm and considered response to the rebellion very likely.

Not that the white population of Kenya was likely to respond calmly and with consideration in any case. It is well known that settlers are generally the most problematic of colonists. (Again, look at Israel.) In Kenya this was exacerbated by their class origins. Most were upper middle class or even aristocratic; on their uppers before they left Britain, possibly, but social status in Britain has never been measured by wealth. A surprising proportion had been educated at public schools, including Eton. This is unusual in the history of British emigration. In Kenya, settled on fertile land taken from Africans, and with a huge pool of cheap African labour to work on their farms and as domestic servants, these odd characters could live the sort of life that their better-off chums in ‘socialist’ Britain were increasingly struggling to afford. The hedonistic, decadent lifestyle of many of them remains notorious today – ‘Happy Valley’ and all that. This may have been overplayed. More important, however, is the fact that they were cut off culturally from the majority of society in Britain, ‘strangely out of step’, as Anderson puts it, ‘with everywhere else’, with the exception perhaps of the white-dominated countries to the south of them. They were very often arrogant and brutal, and long before the Mau Mau revolt were accustomed to treating their ‘natives’ like dirt. It was they who started the violence. Their upper-class kin in Britain, on whom the settlers relied to defend them in Kenya (Elkins calls them the ‘Old Pals Protection Society’), ultimately lost patience with them. Churchill thought they were as much ‘the problem’ in Kenya as Mau Mau. (Churchill had a surprisingly favourable view of the Kikuyu: ‘not the primitive cowardly people which many imagined them to be’, he told one of the settler leaders, ‘but people of considerable fibre, ability and steel’.) The man he sent to sort the settlers out in 1953, General ‘Bobby’ Erskine, soon got the measure of them: ‘I hate the guts of them all,’ he wrote to his wife just a few months later. ‘They are all middle-class sluts.’ (How they would have hated that ‘middle-class’.) Kenya was ‘a sunny land for shady people’. By 1960 even the most reactionary of the upper classes back in Britain were ‘too embarrassed’ by their ‘excesses’ to defend the settlers any longer. The final nail in their coffin – though it turned out to be a pretty comfortable coffin, with Kenyatta letting them stay and hold on to their farms if they wanted – came when Lord Lambton, about as kosher an aristocrat as you could find in Britain, turned against them over Hola.

The puzzle is why they were allowed to get away with it for so long. It was not as if there were no protests in Britain. The British people have never been terribly interested in their empire, so a huge surge of feeling on the Kenya issue was unlikely. But the colony had more than its fair share of coverage in this period, both in Parliament (spearheaded by Barbara Castle, ‘that castellated bitch’, as a Kenyan attorney-general called her) and in the left-wing press. Castle and the others were helped by a stream of testimony from whistle-blowers in Kenya itself, which suggests a real unease there, among people who were decent (they would have said ‘British’) enough to object to what was going on. These included missionaries, as one would expect, although Elkins is critical of their unwillingness to speak publicly, mainly, she feels, because they needed government co-operation for their work of saving Mau Mau souls, and she accuses the Catholics of backing the colonial authorities. A number of judges, especially appeal court judges, spoke up. So did several soldiers and senior policemen, mainly those who had been sent in from Britain. Administrators like the Quaker Eileen Fletcher and even a few liberal settlers also raised their voices. They were not in time to save tens of thousands of African (and a few European) lives, though it was not for want of trying.

The critics lacked leverage over the Colonial Office, especially when the duplicitous Lennox-Boyd was in charge – a state of affairs compounded by the Colonial Office’s own lack of leverage over what was happening on the ground. This is an important and often underestimated factor in British imperial history. One thinks of an ‘empire’ as a system of control before anything else, but in Britain’s case, running its empire on a shoestring, the reality of control was very often compromised by the need to rule through – or at least with the passive connivance of – people on the ground. In Kenya, neither major group – the shady settlers or the aggrieved Africans – was an ideal vehicle for ‘indirect’ rule. The result was, as district officer Terence Gavaghan (nicknamed ‘Big Troublemaker’ by the Africans) put it, that ‘the gap between the supreme policy-makers with their grave political concerns, and the actions of local functionaries in a small remote place, was too wide for mutual comprehension or proper control.’ In other words, London would have found it difficult to change things even if it had wanted to.

At the same time, it seems clear that many in the Conservative government didn’t want to change things very much. Elkins has two, slightly contradictory explanations for this. The first is the conventional anti-imperialist one, that they simply wanted ‘to maintain colonial rule’. But Britain had already begun the process of decolonisation elsewhere, including in Africa. Lennox-Boyd certainly wanted to slow this down, and there seems to have been a ‘flicker of hope’ among some settlers that self-government, when it came, might give them disproportionate power, as in South Africa and (effectively) Southern Rhodesia, but that just shows how out of touch they were. (There were simply not enough of them.) The main consideration in Whitehall – Elkins alludes to this, too – was the place of the British Empire in the annals of history. That depended not only on what it could be claimed to have achieved while it was still living, but on the manner of its dying and the impression this made.

It had always been the proud boast of British imperialists (rather like American imperialists today) that their empire was uniquely beneficent; that its effect, if not its original purpose, was to spread ‘civilisation’ and even ‘freedom’ in the world. The upper classes believed they were specially fitted for this task. Anderson and Elkins both quote Barbara Castle’s observation that Lennox-Boyd was ‘imbued with the conviction that the British ruling class, both at home and overseas, could do no wrong.’ Many of those who witnessed the Kenyan atrocities, and deplored them, clung to this conviction. ‘I knew, I knew,’ an anguished Thomas Askwith confided to Elkins in 1997. ‘But how can I say it? . . . I just believed in our higher purpose . . . we had so much better to offer them. I thought our own bad hats would come around.’ They didn’t. Reporting from Kenya for the Daily Mirror, James Cameron saw among the settler community ‘the death of colonial liberalism, and the loss of the moral order that gave empire its only possible justification’. It seemed a terrible way to go. The Economist put it directly and succinctly in February 1959: ‘The one overriding consideration in treating any present-day colonial question must be what last memories of the British way of doing things are to be left behind before connections with Westminster are severed.’ It certainly ruled out any idea of upping and leaving – ‘scuttling’, it would have been called.

Britain’s broader colonial aim at this time was to transfer power to ‘moderate’ local leaders, which in Kenya meant defeating Mau Mau, an objective achieved, for the most part, by 1956, though no thanks to the repression, which was probably counter-productive. The revelation of the beatings at Hola finally tore away the government’s earlier papering over of its repressive behaviour – the evidence in the Hola case was just too glaring – and Iain McLeod, a new broom at the Colonial Office, made sure that there would be no more delays over African independence. There remained the haunting recollection of those dreadful Emergency years, but that was solved by Kenyatta’s reconciliation policy. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole affair is that the beleaguered British then opened their eyes, and the sunshine, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mangoes came suddenly flooding back. Not only the horrors, but all memory of the horrors, were gone. It was like waking up from a nightmare. The stain on Britain’s imperial character was hidden from view – for the time being, at any rate. The myth of a ‘dignified’ decolonisation was able to endure. It was, Elkins writes, ‘a scenario that the British colonial government had fantasised about for years’. The Mau Mau did not get the recognition due to them (there is still no official memorial to them in Nairobi) and Britain never got the comeuppance it deserved. Half a century later, a ‘revisionist’ historian like Ferguson, seeking to rehabilitate the empire after a decent interval, could still blithely ignore the whole affair. This is no longer an option. Anderson and Elkins have seen to that.