Britain’s gulag in Kenya

October 2, 2013

The British government has apologized for torture when it was the colonial power in Kenya. But we should never forget the crimes of empire, writes Shaun Harkin.

IN JUNE of this year, British Defense Secretary William Hague expressed "sincere regret" to survivors of Britain's vicious political and military campaign against Kenya's independence struggle during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Hague said, "The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration." The apology came after the London High Court ruled torture victims had the right to sue. The British government waged a four-year legal battle to deny any liability, fearing other cases will follow.

Hague announced 5,228 claimants would receive compensation of around $22 million. That's less than $4,500 per victim. The vindication of survivors against tyrants is a triumph but this squalid financial sum will never constitute justice.

Drunk on their Great Power status, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Belgium carved up the African continent like a slab of meat at a Berlin conference in 1884. The arbitrary lines they drew led directly to unimaginable atrocities that continue to disfigure Kenya and African society today.

Thompson Falls prison camp, where hundreds suspected of being Mau Mau resistance fighters were interned
Thompson Falls prison camp, where hundreds suspected of being Mau Mau resistance fighters were interned

Caroline Elkins, author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya writes:

The drive to amass African colonies at the end of the nineteenth century represented a change in Britain's overseas strategy, reflecting a shift in geopolitical tactics that had its roots in the onset of Britain's economic decline. For decades, the British were able to dominate their European competitors, keeping open the doors of international commerce through what has been called the "imperialism of free trade."

Arriving in the 1880's British violence killed thousands to prepare the ground for formal occupation and the creation of a colony. Elkins continues:

Across Africa and Asia entire populations were dispossessed of their land through suspect but useful alliances with illegitimate rulers, deceitful treaties, and the barrels of guns. Resistance campaigns like those in East Africa were played out to their grim end all over the world. But bravery was no match for the British and their Maxim guns, and imperial warfare more resembled big-game hunting than it did combat.


THOUSANDS OF white settlers migrated to the British possession to build a piece of England in Africa. By the 1920s, Kenya was established as the colony for the British officer class. Frustrated with industrialization, growing working-class militancy and aristocratic decay, sections of the British elite sought refuge in the racist hierarchical order of the British East African Protectorate, as Kenya was then known. Twenty-nine thousand European settlers maintained control of 5 million Africans through indiscriminate violence, repressive laws and terror. Settler "justice" included public floggings, beating deaths and summary executions.

Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, was thrown into crisis. Driven off their land and into reserves, they were forced into low-wage labor on settler estates and urban centers like Nairobi. By the 1930s the main issues for the Kikuyu were the desperately low wages, lack of access to land and the hated identity card, the kipande, that they were forced to produce everywhere they went.

The aftermath of the Second World War produced a new global order. Old European empires were dying out and new ones were rising. The British ruling class hoped their colonies could be utilized for post-war reconstruction but Britain had already been forced to retreat from India, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Retreat, however, did not automatically equal self-determination, rights and justice for Africans. In 1948, the racist South African National Party came to power with a program to institute minority white supremacy and control. Minority white settler populations, whose entire existence depended on empire-building, attempted to uphold their privilege against liberation struggles through apartheid laws girded by force. Kenyan white settlers, aided by the British government, campaigned violently against equality for Africans.

Some 75,000 Kenyans fought for Britain in the Second World War. Many of the soldiers were radicalized by their experience and came back with fundamental change on their minds. They had played a role in destroying fascism and were inspired by global struggles for self-determination.

Conscription onto settler farms produced a militant peasant movement. Trade unionism expanded in the cities and produced a general strike in Nairobi in 1950. Repression against the strikers and other forms of resistance was severe. Militant nationalists had by the late 1930s begun to increasingly dominate indigenous political struggles over more moderate and constitutional challenges to British rule. By the late 1940s they came to their numbers and support had continued to grow.


A NEW, emboldened leadership, many of them veterans, emerged to lead the struggle against British and settler exploitation, oppression and violence. Tens of thousands--even hundreds of thousands--took oaths committing themselves to the struggle against British injustice. They pledged their lives to the Mau Mau and the demand for land and freedom.

Militants destroyed settler property, brutally murdered some settler families and killed Kikuyu who were loyal to the colonial regime. The white elite was terrified of their servants and whipped themselves into a frenzy.

Successful rebel attacks embarrassed the British military. In response, settler vigilante groups became increasingly violent and called for the extermination of the Kikuyu. Security forces organized kill competitions between them, with scoreboards and bounties.

The colonial government declared a state of emergency in 1952. Twenty thousand Mau Mau rebels fled to Kenya's dense forest terrain where British troops would be hard pressed to find them. The Mau Mau were completely dehumanized by the British and settler government. They were viewed as indistinguishable from animals in the colony. The rebellion was reported as primitive, barbaric, anti-European and anti-Christian.

As David Anderson writes in Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, "The battle to suppress the revolt in Kenya was presented as a war between savagery and civilization, a rebellion made by men who could not cope with modernity, who reached back into a depraved, tribal past in an effort to stop the wheel of progress from turning."

The British military, security forces and vigilante groups murdered tens of thousands of Mau Mau to contain the rebellion and the maintain the ugly grip of white supremacy. Hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu were held in a vast network of detention camps where they were tortured and brutalized. The colonial government claimed their barbed wire gulag was geared towards educating Kenyans for future self-government. This was a continuation of the British civilizing mission dating back to the establishment of the colony.

Elkins writes:

According to a number of former detainees I interviewed, electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire. Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin and hot eggs were thrust up men's rectums and women's vaginas. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned and mutilated Mau Mau suspects, ostensibly to gather intelligence for military operations, and as court evidence.

All Kikuyu were viewed as the enemy. Interrogation or screening centers existed across the country where suspected Mau Mau supporters were often randomly selected, tortured, beaten and disappeared. Slaughter was condoned. Shoot-to-kill was policy.

A former settler and member of the Kenya Regiment describes how prisoners were tortured and murdered at the Special Branch Mau Mau Investigation Center:

Special Branch there had a way of slowly electrocuting a Kuke--they'd rough up one for days. Once I went personally to drop off one gang member who needed special treatment. I stayed a few hours to help the boys out, softening him up. 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.

Eight hundred villages across the Kikuyuland countryside were surrounded by spiked trenches, barbed wire, and watchtowers and patrolled by heavily armed guards. Almost the entire Kikuyu population was detained to break the rebellion and reimpose colonial control.

Such was the actual savagery of the British empire. In comparison, around 1,800 colonial government loyalists and 100 Europeans, including both settler and British military personnel, had been killed during the conflict.


THE RUTHLESS extraction of wealth in Kenya by a tiny powerful elite had turned home for the Black majority into a nightmare. The memory of suppression is so strong many continue not to talk about the period of open rebellion.

But not for everyone. In Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, establishment author and imperial apologist Niall Ferguson explains why as a student he voted against a motion in the Oxford Union to declare regret for colonization:

Thus, thanks to the British Empire, my earliest childhood memories are of colonial Africa; for although Kenya had been independent for three years, and the radio constantly played Jomo Kenyatta's signature tune "Harambe, Harambe," scarely anything had changed since the days of White Mischief. We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili--and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time.

The Union Jack was finally lowered in 1963 and 20,000 settlers left along with the flag. Colonial government officials burnt meticulously created files documenting their crimes in massive bonfires. The British left but independent Kenya would be marked by the crimes and savagery of empire for generations.

In recent years, British governments have made a habit of apologizing for past atrocities. In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the cover-up, lies and murder of civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972. Last year, Cameron apologized for the role of the police and other institutions in the death of 96 Liverpool football club supporters at Hillsborough stadium in 1989. Liverpool's working-class supporters were demonized as drunk hooligans who were responsible for the death of their own.

Nevertheless, the apologies to the people of Derry, Liverpool and Nairobi would never have occurred without decades of relentless campaigning by victims themselves, their families and their supporters. Their dedication to justice should is an powerful example for all of us and will hopefully inspire many more campaigns aiming to expose the lies of the mighty.

In apologizing, today's leaders of imperial Britain and apologists for contemporary empire want us to move on and forget the past. So they can rush to justify modern war, modern torture and modern detention.

We should never "move on." Our bitterness at past injustice should continue to seethe. When the historic barbarism of the powerful is brought into the light it should give us more confidence to bring the cruelties they inflict today into sharper relief.

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