Rotting Among the Tsetse

The British government sought to hide the brutality of its conduct during the Kenya Emergency. Previously hidden files reveal an unpalatable truth.

Ben Jones

In the years before Britain’s former colonies – from Ghana to Malaysia – gained independence, thousands of documents were quietly removed from the record to safeguard the ‘honour’ of the British Empire. A decade has now passed since the British government was forced to admit that it had stolen and hidden these files. Now held in the National Archives, they were unearthed during a lengthy legal proceeding brought by former Mau Mau detainees claiming compensation from the British government for atrocities committed during the eight years of the Kenya Emergency. 

The Mau Mau uprising was an insurgency predominantly among the Gikuyu people of central Kenya, initiated in 1952 with the declaration of a State of Emergency by the British colonial government on the urging of a small white settler minority. Motivated by land seizures, intrusive administration and their educated nationalist leaders, thousands of men and women from central Kenya took to the forest and mountains to fight for ‘land and freedom’. There, they fought the British for several years in a gruelling guerrilla war that saw the deployment of both British and African forces. Alongside the active conflict, the colonial administration launched a repressive campaign to control the so called ‘passive wing’ of Mau Mau. Citizens in the villages of the ‘Native Reserve’ were herded en masse into ‘Emergency Villages’ and over 80,000 individuals were detained without trial. 

The files reveal the institutionalisation of violence in a series of detention camps erected by the colonial government to ‘rehabilitate’ former Mau Mau. In the words of the colonial attorney-general, they were where the ‘dregs of the Mau Mau barrel’ were left to ‘rot among the tsetse’. Beyond shocking incidents of brutality, including punitive beating, waterboarding and electric shocks, the files show the justifications used by the colonial officials who implemented them, as well as the detainees’ resistance and the government’s ever more desperate responses. These powerful African voices were suppressed during the war and, with the removal of the archive, silenced. Ten years on, historians have now begun seriously to consider their implications for the study of colonial violence. 


Stuck in the Pipeline

Colonial violence was never an end in itself, but a method of achieving stability and control. The ‘Pipeline’ – the system of detention in camps without trial employed by the colonial government to suppress Mau Mau – was no exception. ‘Rehabilitation’ was supposed to reconcile detainees to continued colonial subjugation. Through hard labour, confinement and, in multiple cases, physical brutality, detainees were induced to confess to their adherence to the Mau Mau cause and only thereafter were released. In order to be freed, detainees also required the endorsement of officials in their home districts, which meant that so-called ‘politicals’, avowed nationalists who vociferously opposed colonial rule, became stuck in the Pipeline. To solve this problem, the colonial state conceived a scheme of exile, whereby these ‘unacceptable’ detainees would start new lives far from their home communities. Through this process, colonial officers believed that Kenya would be pacified on their terms. It was hoped that, by giving the exiles ‘a hut and four acres’ and a quiet family life, rehabilitation might take place within a generation.

As early as 1954, two years into the Emergency, the War Council, Kenya’s highest executive body, proposed the creation of a settlement for exiles on the Red Sea island of Kamaran. The plans were initially rebuffed by the Colonial Office as not being in ‘the sphere of practical politics’. Nevertheless, a new location at Hola in Coast Province was agreed upon. This was to become a settlement for 7,000 ‘irreconcilables’ on 25,000 acres of freshly irrigated land, where the government would spend ‘large sums of money in turning an arid desert into green pastures and a land flowing with milk and honey in order to accommodate those Mau Mau detainees’. Irrigating the land required a huge amount of labour, however, and while a few dozen rehabilitated ‘unacceptables’ were found, the task also required the assistance of a group of un-rehabilitated ‘hardcore’ Mau Mau. They were transported to Hola and housed in a specially built closed camp. It was hoped that these workers would become settlers after they had been rehabilitated by forced labour. As such, Hola came to be seen as the solution for reconciling the irreconcilables and allowed other camps across Kenya to close. 


Hola hell

The grand ‘social experiment’ pursued at Hola, however, was marred from the start by difficulties and resistance from the men forced to live there. As petitions and letters from the few dozen exiles illustrate, life was harsh. They were there involuntarily; having confessed and thereby having made it to the last stage of the Pipeline, they had been hauled back to exile. Andrew Ng’ang’a Munya, for example, claimed he had been certified as never having supported Mau Mau, having been through the harshest camps in the Pipeline. Yet he had been plucked ‘from [his] motherland to [this] hellish place’ because local officials held a grudge against him. Munya claimed loyalists wanted to steal his land and had opposed his release for this reason. 

Land was central to the ambitions of both settlers and those detainees who had not been rehabilitated, the latter refusing to take up plots at Hola ‘so long as there was a good prospect that land in the “Highlands” would soon be available to them’. This refers to the so-called ‘White Highlands’, a fertile area where land was owned by a small group of European settlers, which the Gikuyu people claimed was stolen during the colonial conquest. Settlers on the scheme also complained bitterly about conditions on the Hola plots, ‘doing a daily drudgery’, the purpose of which was to ‘make them run short of blood by slave labour on land which Europeans [planned] to farm later’. Exile to Hola could not transform the desires and suspicions of the detainees, who remained fuelled by the desire for land and political independence. Even the land itself seemed to resist the scheme, with large subsidies needed per acre to allow farmers’ subsistence. Yet the scheme persisted because of its ‘political importance’.

Ben Jones
Ben Jones

Letters hidden in the ‘migrated archive’ reveal that, over the years at Hola – especially in late 1958 and early 1959 – violence became more prominent as efforts to rehabilitate the closed-camp detainees became increasingly desperate. Local officers believed that the failure to rehabilitate this last group was ‘one of the major political problems of [the] country today’. The settlement scheme required more rehabilitated detainees to dig irrigation trenches in an effort to make Hola economically feasible, while the coming end of the Emergency meant it was politically impossible to continue detaining large numbers involuntarily. By 1956 the active phase of the conflict with Mau Mau was effectively over, with only a few hundred Mau Mau stragglers remaining in the forest. However, the colonial administration was left with tens of thousands of detainees behind the wire. Opposition came from the Conservative government in Britain, who were facing ever more vociferous questioning from Labour MPs and tired of having to foot the costly bill of the Emergency. Yet, once the State of Emergency ended, the Kenya government would lose access to the panoply of legal powers that allowed mass detention without trial and would have to release all un-rehabilitated detainees. From 1956 until the end of the Emergency in February 1960, this palpably affected colonial administrators, who resorted to ever more desperate measures to rehabilitate detainees.

Forced to be free

Letters leaked from Hola to the Labour MP Barbara Castle told of the systematic beating of at least 13 detainees for refusing to work in the closed camp during August and September 1958. The confined detainees wrote that men would be taken away, brought back ‘weeping, crying and [at] last dying’. 

Officials, however, believed that officers had been too good-humoured and ‘postponed a definite trial of strength’ with the closed camp detainees. To break this apparent lethargy, the Cowan Plan was drawn up, predicated on the idea that detainees could be forced to work – for instance by having warders hold detainees’ hands and force them to pull weeds. This would supposedly ‘break the hold of the oath’ tying them to the Mau Mau cause and open the way to releasing them onto the settlement side of the scheme. In the Cowan Plan, the philosophy of rehabilitation reached a paradoxical conclusion: the ‘irreconcilables’ would be forced to be free. 

On 3 March 1959 the Plan was implemented with tragic consequences. Almost inevitably, the forced labour escalated to beatings and led to 11 deaths. Hola, the ‘land of milk and honey’, ranks alongside Amritsar as one of Britain’s darkest imperial atrocities. The killings were a natural product of the exile policy’s relentless logic: the transformation of people into ideal colonial subjects through coercion.

What the previously hidden files reveal is that the idealism of late colonial governance was itself directly to blame for the violence of the Emergency generally and at Hola specifically. Colonialism, especially in its final stages, was an ideology that presumptively claimed foreign rule was best for the subjects it governed. Authoritarian measures to perpetuate that rule, including exile and violence, followed logically. Moreover, colonial officials claimed to know ‘their subjects’ better than they knew themselves, a belief underpinned by a relentless racial hierarchy. At Hola this ideology met the immovable force of detainees’ resistance, resulting in bloody violence.

Return the files

Important lessons about empire are thus found in these files. However, their location in the National Archives themselves perpetuates another colonial injustice. Kenyans need to be able to tell these stories for themselves. As debates about artefact repatriation are increasingly prominent, archive repatriation should also be considered. The files were removed to edit the history of Britain’s rule in Kenya. This history should be restored.


Niels Boender is a PhD Student at the University of Warwick working with the Imperial War Museum on the legacies of the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya.