The year was 2005. Caroline Elkins, a Harvard Historian, had just come to prominence with a book titled Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. The book chronicled the atrocities that the British colonial empire had committed in pre-independence Kenya. It was a tale of systematic violence involving detention camps, heavily patrolled villages, and the confinement of some 1.5 million Kenyans to quell an anti-colonial uprising.
The whole book had all the blood and death you would see in a horror movie, the nastiest forms of torture and suppression, and the misdeeds of a colonial empire grasping at its end. Apparently, Caroline was outraged. But the story wasn’t about her.
Three years later, in 2008, Caroline received a request to help sue the British government for torture. A case was being assembled by human rights lawyers in London. It was a suit attempting to hold the British government accountable for crimes committed about 5 decades ago in pre-independence Kenya. But what happened 50 years ago?
Let’s go to Kenya.
Kenya: A Brief Colonial History
The East African country of Kenya is bordered by South Sudan to the northwest, Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the east, Uganda to the west, Tanzania to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the southwest. The capital city is Nairobi, and the entire country has a population of almost 48 million people.
The British colonial presence started to spread in the East African region by the late 19th century. This was after the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885, which sought to regulate European colonization and trade in Africa. Soon after the conference, a seizure of territories across the African continent by European nations became widespread. Britain gained control of most of the East African Coast. Many African tribal states were divided into colonial units by the Colonialists without regard for the locals.
The area now known as Kenya was under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar. However, with pressure from the British troops, the Sultan was forced to hand over the land to the British empire. From around 1890, Britain began to move into the Kenyan hinterlands. The British hoped that they could gain access to the Kenyan fertile lands and also secure Uganda, another British colony. The native population was divided upon the entry of the British empire. While some welcomed the British, others were outwardly against it. But the British army was sent to suppress any form of revolt or resistance among the locals. As the killings became more and more frequent, the resentment among the locals, predominantly Maasai, Kikuyu, and Kamba tribes, also grew.
With famine and diseases (that were previously unheard of) that swept across the Kenyan region at the time, there were more than enough reasons to hate the British. A rinderpest epidemic, a disease that affected livestock cultivation, severely affected the local population.
As the destruction of lives and properties persisted, European settlers began to come into the country. While the population of white immigrants was relatively small, they owned vast amounts of land, lands that were seized and stolen from Africans. Policies were introduced stripping Africans of their land and giving it to white farmers from South Africa or Britain. In 1915, the Crown Lands Ordinance was passed. This law removed land rights from indigenous Kenyans and vested it to the teeming population of white immigrants.
After the First World War, British soldiers began to settle in droves, continuing land seizures. Because of this, Africans began to organize, forming new organizations to fight for more rights for the indigenous people. These organizations included the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1921 but banned the following year, and the Kenyan African Union (KAU), formed in 1942.
The lack of progress among these organizations was saddening. After the Second World War, the dissatisfaction among Kenyans built. Many of the indigenous people lived in poverty while the British settlers owned vast amounts of land. The opposition to British imperialism gained widespread support. The atmosphere in Kenya was booming with revolting energy. Once the Kenyan nationalist movement couldn’t take the injustice and torture anymore, the Mau Mau began.
The Mau Mau Revolt
Though the etymology of the word “Mau Mau” is uncertain, the origin of the Mau Mau Uprising is well known.
The Mau Mau Uprising or Revolt began in 1952 and lasted through 1960. The uprising is considered one of the most important steps carried out by Kenyans to secure their independence from British rule.
By 1948, growing unrest on the farms had alerted the colonial government to the existence of the so-called Mau Mau movement, which it subsequently banned in 1950. By the start of the 1950s, the indigenous people were tired of British rule. The Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba, Meru, and Embu tribes formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). The KLFA was dominated by the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, many of whom had been pushed off their lands by European settlers.
However, the uprising officially began in 1952 when Kikuyu fighters, along with some Embu and Meru recruits, attacked political opponents and raided white settler farms and destroyed livestock.
By October 1952, the newly appointed governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, declared a state of emergency. So began eight years of unrest and a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.
British troops were sent into Kenyan lands. Massive round-ups of suspected Mau Mau and supporters ensued, with a large number of them hanged and others held in detention camps. Mau Mau rebels and armies based themselves in forested areas of Mt. Kenya and Aberdares. From these areas, they carried out attacks on the British troops and settlers.
Large-scale sweeps became commonplace. British troops carried out notorious operations like “Operation Anvil” in Nairobi in April 1954. The largest single massacre of the uprising took place in Lari on March 26, 1953, with attacks by Mau Mau on loyalist Home Guard families. Approximately 74 people were killed and about 50 wounded. The retaliatory attack resulted in the death of around 400 people.
The Lari attack was a turning point in the uprising for many Kikuyu. The British government used the incident to further demonize the Kikuyu as brutal savages. However, the government made no mention of Kikuyus who were machine-gunned to death by government troops in the Aberdare forest.
The British army used concentration camps similar to Auschwitz in Kenya. Any indigenous person suspected of being part of the Mau Mau was sent to these camps. About 800 “barbed wire villages” existed. Abuse and torture were popular in these camps, as British guards used beatings, sexual abuse, and executions to extract information from prisoners and to force them to renounce their allegiance to the anti-colonial cause. Roughly 1.5 million Kikuyu thought to have been sympathetic or had proclaimed their allegiance to the Mau Mau Campaign were sent into detention camps.
The number of Kenyans killed during the eight-year struggle is still unclear. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission said that about 90,000 were executed or tortured, and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions.
David Anderson, professor of African Politics at Oxford University, says he estimates the death toll in the conflict to have been as high as 25,000. He said:
“Everything that could happen did happen. Allegations about beatings and violence were widespread. Basically, you could get away with murder. It was systematic.”
The Story Didn’t End There
A London law firm, Leigh Day & Co., lodged a claim in mid-2009 on behalf of five elderly Kenyans who were victims of the British torture during the Uprising. Caroline Elkins, who was considered a scholar on the topic, was called upon to help with the case.
Elkins had been to Kenya to investigate the liberal reformation of the British colonial empire, and what she found was shocking. When her book was released, it destroyed the idea that the British had managed and retreated from their empire with more dignity and humanity than other colonial powers, such as the Belgians and the French.
By 2011, Elkins was in court alongside four elderly Kenyans who had come to Britain to seek justice. One of the five who initiated the proceeding had died. The stories of the plaintiffs were filled with unimaginable horror. One of the plaintiffs, Paulo Nzili, said he had been castrated with pliers at a detention camp. Another, Jane Muthoni Mara, reported being sexually assaulted with a heated glass bottle.
However, as the hearings started, a story broke into the headlines. An archive of papers detailing Britain’s torture and misdeeds during the Mau Mau Revolt came to light. British officials acknowledged that more than 1,500 files, encompassing over 100 linear feet of storage, had been flown from Kenya to London in 1963, almost before Kenya’s independence. The government admitted that the files were stashed in a secret high-security storage facility shared with the intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. The files also included papers and documents from 37 former colonies of Britain.
Though the cat was out of the bag, the British government insisted that they were not culpable. It was argued in court that too much time had passed for there to be a fair trial. It was also argued that the evidence was insufficient as there weren’t enough surviving witnesses. Justice Richard McCombe, who presided over the case, struck the arguments and allowed that the case go to trial.
Having been defeated in their own court, the British government decided to settle the case. On 6 June 2013, the foreign secretary, William Hague, read a statement in Parliament announcing an unprecedented agreement to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused during the insurrection. Each would receive about £3,800. “The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague said.