Socialist Worker

British government admits colonial brutality in Kenya

by Ken Olende
Issue No. 2247

Mau Mau veterans outside the High Court in London before their hearing last week (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Mau Mau veterans outside the High Court in London before their hearing last week (Pic: Socialist Worker)

The British government is finally being forced to reveal the true horror of atrocities committed during the Mau Mau war in Kenya in the 1950s.

Previously hidden documents show that the British consciously followed a cover-up plan.

As Kenya’s Attorney General at the time wrote in a letter, “If, therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”

But the Foreign Office has finally admitted that it is holding 1,500 colonial files on Kenya that it previously claimed were lost.

The British “sinned”, then denied their war crimes, which included “the burning alive of detainees”, by hiding records of what had happened.

Even now many papers are redacted—a form of military censorship that blacks information out of documents—or refused to the legal team representing victims of British torture.

In a continuing test case which began in 2009, four victims of British torture were back in London’s High Court as their compensation case resumed last week. Martin Day, head of their legal team, spoke outside the court.

He said, “The paper trail went all the way up to the colonial secretary here in the UK.”

The government has consistently tried to brush responsibility onto the Kenyan government.

Day added, “To seek to pin the liability for British torture onto the Kenyan government is an appalling stance, one which we hope and trust that the judge will reject.”


The hidden papers were removed from Kenya’s national archive in the run-up to independence. A colonial office memo at the time said their contents “might embarrass HMG, might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others.”

The release of the documents already has implications beyond Kenya. Lord Howell admitted to the House of Lords that the files on Kenya were part of “some 2,000 boxes of files”, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, relating to 37 former colonies.

George Morara of the Kenya Human Rights Commission spoke to Socialist Worker about what has changed since 2009.

“The Kenyan government has come in behind us, which has allowed us to get help from the historian David Anderson who is looking at the new documents,” he said.

“We have been able to consolidate our evidence. We’ve got additional information from witnesses and more detailed doctors’ statements on the claimants. But most important is the recent discovery of new evidence.

“On a sad note, one of the five original claimants, Susan Ngondi, has passed on.”

George said that historians knew the British had admitted to holding the documents in 1967.

When asked why the government has chosen to come clean now, he speculated, “Perhaps it was the court case. If they say in court these documents are not there, and they turn up later on, that would be very serious perjury.”

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