'Sorry' is a Hard Word

The desire of western governments, most notably those of Britain, to apologise for the actions of their predecessors threatens to simplify the complexities of history, argues Tim Stanley.

When is it right for nations to say sorry for things they did in the past? Britain has again been confronted with the legacy of her colonial period and opinions differ on whether or not she owes her former subjects an apology. Visiting Pakistan in April, the prime minister David Cameron cried mea culpa for the ongoing crisis in Kashmir. Referring to the botched partitioning of British India in 1947, he said: ‘As with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.’ A few days later a case opened in the UK High Court on behalf of four elderly Kenyans demanding compensation for mistreatment by the British government during the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-60. Their claims of torture were well-substantiated and the Foreign Office declined to issue a denial.

Saying sorry is generally a good thing; it is humbling and cathartic. But the conditions for doing so must be precise otherwise it has no meaning. Post-imperial powers certainly owe an apology for any behaviour that might be labelled ‘sadistic’ or ‘unnecessary’. But saying sorry for something that was inevitable or beyond the control of the colonial power involved seems empty. Apologising for anything that was tragic but helped to prevent something worse is altogether wrong.

There were many decisions taken at the end of empire that were regrettable, but if an apology is to be offered then it ought to be rooted in a sophisticated understanding of what really happened. The Mau Mau uprising was not a genocidal war by imperialists against their terrified subjects. It was a civil war begun by radical Kikuyu Africans against the British authorities and, crucially, the vast majority of moderate African Kenyans. The Mau Mau terrorist organisation murdered at least 1,800 fellow Kikuyus and Africans from other tribes, compared with just 200 British soldiers and 32 European settlers. Their targets included women and children; they broke into settlers’ homes and murdered whole families as they slept. On March 25-26th, 1953 Mau Mau soldiers marched 120 Africans into huts and set fire to them.

It is true that the British authorities responded with a contemptible disdain for human rights. Over 100,000 Kenyans were interrogated for sympathies with the Mau Mau and ‘processed’ through labour camps. At the worst camp, Hola, recently revealed documents show that torture was common and ignored by the colonial administration. Upon receiving a report of prisoners being burnt alive and castrated, British Attorney General Eric-Griffiths Jones concluded: ‘If … we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.’

An apology is owed for individual breaches of human rights and the suffering that the innocent endured. But it should be remembered that Britain was not as savage or superior as the French were in Algeria or the Portuguese were in Angola. During the uprising the British carried out land reform and set a timetable for independence that went well beyond nationalist demands. Money was poured into education and union activism was encouraged to create a new class of professional democrats. Parliamentary inquiries were held into conditions at Hola and the camp was closed down. Moreover, if Britain had immediately evacuated then the bloodshed would have continued and Kenya might have descended into anarchy or dictatorship (as happened in the Belgian Congo). The new government of independent Kenya acknowledged the Mau Mau’s violent nihilism by suppressing the movement and ignoring its claims over ancestral lands.

An unconditional apology for the policy of crushing the Mau Mau would ignore the context of bloody ethnic conflict and the risks involved in withdrawal. It is also falsely implies that the British enjoyed victimising locals when – as in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and elsewhere – its actions were tempered by domestic protest and a weary sense of responsibility towards subject peoples. Even if a qualified sorry is offered whoever gives it must consider the political implications. Regimes in Zimbabwe, North Korea or Iran have manipulated popular memories of past misdeeds to whip up domestic support and silence foreign critics. One would not like to justify their fantasies by apologising for the West’s past without some airing of the facts first.

Tim Stanley is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.