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Britain’s brutal rule in Kenya

This article is over 17 years, 4 months old
"Not in the British tradition", was the response to torture revelations in Iraq last week. John Newsinger shows far worse atrocities took place in Kenya in the 1950s
Issue 1936
British troops with detainees
British troops with detainees

ON 3 March 1959, 85 internees at the Hola Detention Camp in Kenya refused to take part in forced labour and sat down in protest. Internees in the camp had been refusing to work for nine days and now these men were to be made an example. When the camp commander, G M Sullivan, blew his whistle over 100 guards attacked the prisoners with clubs and rifle butts, killing one of them.

The men were then asked if they would work, and when they refused, Sullivan blew his whistle once more and the attack was renewed. This assault lasted about ten minutes and at the end of it some of the men agreed to work. The guards once again attacked those who continued to refuse.

By the end of this last assault, they had beaten eight prisoners to death and seriously injured 20 others. The governor of the colony, Sir Evelyn Baring, issued a statement saying that the prisoners had died from drinking contaminated water. A few years earlier, he might have got away with it, but by 1959 the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial occupation in Kenya was effectively over.

An atrocity like the Hola camp massacre could no longer be successfully covered up in the interests of security. Instead, the incident became front-page news in Britain, with the Labour opposition in parliament, hard though it is to believe it today, attacking the Conservative government for the brutality of their counter-insurgency methods.

Hola was, however, merely the tip of a very large iceberg. The Mau Mau rebellion against white setter rule was put down by one of the most brutal and bloody campaigns in British imperial history. Troops and police were given a free hand to break a resistance movement that, even the Army admitted, had the support of over 90 percent of the Kikuyu tribe, the biggest tribe in Kenya, and was spreading throughout the colony.

Within six months of the declaration of a State of Emergency in October 1952 no less than 430 Kikuyu were reported as being shot while trying to escape.

In reality, suspects were being routinely tortured and murdered by the security forces. Far from crushing the resistance, this repression had the effect of driving thousands more into revolt.

The situation became so bad that in June 1953, the British commander, General Sir George Erskine, had to issue an order making clear that, “I most strongly disapprove of beating up the inhabitants of this country just because they are the inhabitants.”

This had little effect. One former policeman later admitted beating prisoners to death and remembered how at the end of a day’s interrogation, “My hands would be bruised and arms would ache from smashing the black bastards”. Prisoners were electrocuted, burned, partly drowned, raped, mutilated and murdered. Suspects were dragged to their deaths tied behind police vehicles. An American serving with the police recalled how after he had beaten a woman prisoner to death with his rifle, a fellow officer had jokingly advised him to take up cricket. Kenya was turned into one vast Abu Ghraib.

This “unofficial” repression was accompanied by a judicial massacre. Between October 1952 and November 1954, 756 rebels were hanged, most for offences less than murder. Around 290 were hanged for possessing firearms or ammunition and 45 were hanged for “administering illegal oaths”. By the end of 1954 the number hanged had gone over 900 and it was to go over 1,000 by the end of the Emergency, the draconian legislation passed to quell the rebellion.

At one point, the British authorities were hanging 50 prisoners a month, prompting the prime minister Winston Churchill, to urge that some effort should be made “to avoid the simultaneous execution of any large number of persons”. He was worried that “anything resembling mass executions” might arouse public opinion.

Churchill refused to allow Sir Evelyn Baring to add the possession of incendiary materials to the list of capital offences, remarking that colonial judges would be hanging people for possessing a box of matches.

He was not joking. Even the Daily Telegraph’s reporter later described the trials that sentenced these men to death as “a mockery of British justice”. By the end of 1954 some 77,000 Kikuyu had been interned without trial. They included thousands of women, and children as young as 12. Even more were imprisoned for emergency offences.

What finally put an end to the revolt was the use of “pseudo-gangs”, mixed bands of African police and former Mau Mau members under white officers that acted as “death squads”. Official figures for the number of rebels killed by the troops and police were 11,503, but the real number was much higher with some estimates going as high as 50,000.

What was clearly a brutal and bloody assault on the Kikuyu tribe was portrayed as something very different in Britain at the time. The media reported the Mau Mau rebellion as an uprising of savages inspired by black magic and barbaric rites. The rebels were demonised. They were insane monsters, driven by blood lust to slaughter white women and children.

So effective was the British propaganda campaign that today Mau Mau is remembered as a story of African savagery rather than as an example of murderous imperial repression. It must always be remembered that the reality was that just 32 white settlers and 63 British troops were killed.

While they were militarily defeated, the rebels’ courage and determination nevertheless ended white settler domination. It stopped the settlers declaring independence like others in Rhodesia, today’s Zimbabwe. The rebellion forced the British government to leave in 1963 and hand the country over to moderate nationalists for fear of another revolt.

John Newsinger’s latest book Rebel City (£14.95) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 020 7637 1848 or go to

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