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History is Never Black and White

While it is right to seek justice for those tortured and mistreated during the Kenyan Emergency of the 1950s, attempts to portray the conflict as a Manichean one are far too simplistic, argues Tim Stanley.

The body of Kikuyu senior chief Waruhiu, assassinated by Mau Mau gunmen in Kiambu, October 7th, 1952. Three Kenyans have won the right to sue the British government for their horrific mistreatment while under detainment during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. For many of their compatriots this is an opportunity to expose the injustices of British colonialism. For British liberals it is a chance to bury any lingering nostalgia about their country’s imperial past. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian of October 9th, 2012:

The purpose of empire was loot, land and labour. When people resisted … the response everywhere was the same: extreme and indiscriminate brutality, hidden from public view by distance and official lies.

It is indisputable that the 80,000 suspected Mau Mau insurgents detained during the Emergency period were subjected to appalling horrors, including beatings, castration and rape. They are owed an apology and some form of legal redress, but there’s a risk that in the rush to make amends we rewrite history to suit contemporary political needs. Britain did not act entirely out of malice and the Mau Mau was guilty of many crimes, too. Although the uprising was primarily a war of independence, it was also a civil war. Both sides were as bloody as each other.

When the Emergency was initiated in October 1952 it was in response to a guerrilla campaign launched by Africans against Africans. The Mau Mau was forcing fellow members of Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe to swear an oath of allegiance against the imperial power. Those who refused could have their houses burned, their cattle slaughtered or their families killed. Assaults on the white community were ferocious but relatively rare. The most dramatic occurred on January 24th, 1953 when the bodies of the Ruck family, including their six-year-old son, were found hacked to death: nearly all of the approximately 1,800 known civilian victims of the Mau Mau were Africans. The common view that the Mau Mau was ‘inhuman’ and that it only understood brutality was determined by its grisly behaviour. On March 26th, 1953 the Mau Mau forced villagers at Lari, north of Nairobi, into huts, barred the doors, poured petrol over the roofs and set fire to them; 74 Kenyans burned to death.

Of course none of these atrocities would have occurred had the British not colonised Kenya in the first place. But, having claimed the country as a protectorate in 1895, future generations of colonial administrator inherited a socially and ethnically stratified settlement that had to be managed carefully. Arguably the biggest losers of colonialism were the Kikuyu (roughly 22 per cent of the population), because white immigration had cost them access to fertile land. For the 20,000 Africans estimated to have joined the Mau Mau, an equal number joined the Kikuyu Home Guard or the prison service. British loyalists included Christians, non-Kikuyu, and Kikuyu who regarded the revolt as criminal and brutal.

Their suspicions were shared by those pursuing a democratic path towards independence. The nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta was accused of being a Mau Mau leader and detained by the British, yet all of his actions as the first president of an independent Kenya illustrated his scant regard for a movement that he once described as ‘a disease’. He ignored Mau Mau claims over land held by white settlers and many of his allies were former political collaborators of the British. The Mau Mau remained officially banned in Kenya until 2003, which is one of the reasons why it has taken so long for claims of human rights abuse to be pursued. The Kenyan government, which assumed legal responsibility for the Emergency when it gained independence, was often just as keen as the British to suppress memories of the terrible things that happened.

George Monbiot has compared the British treatment of the Kenyans with the Nazi treatment of the Jews in the Second World War. But while the Nazi regime tried to exterminate an ethnic group, British colonial policy was concerned with reducing ethnic violence. One dimension of its policy was the brutal suppression of dissent, but it also engaged in education and land redistribution projects. Like the policies carried out in Northern Ireland, this was a complex story of the poorly managed decline of an imperial power. Comparisons to the Holocaust are unreasonable and offensive.

Tim Stanley is associate fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University.


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