The Kenya files

Another veil lifted from the murderous face of British imperialism’s colonial past.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Four elderly Kenyans seeking justice and recompense for the torture they suffered at the hands of the British in the 1950s have helped uncover hidden evidence of the brutality of British rule.

Papers from some of Britain’s former colonies, which should have been transferred to the incoming governments on independence, have instead been kept secretly in this country for 50 years and more, never released under the 30-year rule and never mentioned anywhere. These papers reveal some of the thinking that drove colonisation, as well as the racist disregard and even hatred for the indigenous peoples by colonisers, colonial administrations and the British bourgeoisie that organised, oversaw and profited from the whole enterprise.

So far, only 1,200 of the 8,800 files held have been released, with further releases promised by the Foreign and Colonial Office (FCO). However, the ‘independent’ historian Tony Badger, appointed by the FCO to oversee the release, has already said that around 1 percent will be held back.

This may seem like only a small percentage, but the released papers have revealed that masses of the most damning files were destroyed as each colony neared independence. The unknown quantity of destroyed files are assumed, among other things, to include details of the torture and murder of ‘Mau Mau’ (as the British dubbed the patriots of the Land and Freedom Army) suspects in Kenya, of the 1948 massacre of 24 unarmed villagers by soldiers of the Scots Guards in Malaya (see separate article), and of the torture centre at Aden in the 1960s. In fact, it seems likely that the FCO’s remaining files are just a small fraction of those that originally existed.

The surviving FCO files, said to come from 37 former colonies, are of a lower clearance level than the ones that were destroyed, but they do give details on how and why files were selected for destruction, as well as revealing the methods employed to this end.

Included in the first batch are some of the monthly intelligence reports on ‘eliminating’ the colonial authority’s enemies in Malaya, as well as reports showing that ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of ‘Mau Mau’ suspects – including, apparently, the details of one man who was said to have been ‘roasted alive’.

There are also papers that relate to the lengths the British authorities went to in forcibly removing islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean so that the island could be used as a military base by the British and Americans after Mauritian independence.

In 2006, Leigh Day, the legal firm representing the Kenyan litigants, submitted a Freedom of Information request for documents relating to the suppression of the ‘Mau Mau’ held by the Public Record Office that the government was ‘refusing to release’. The FCO response explicitly denied the existence of missing files, stating that all information they had held had been transferred to the National Archives.

The Treasury Solicitors’ response to Leigh Day’s request went even further, stating that not only were all relevant documents with the National Archives but that they were also in the public domain. However, a handful of FCO officials, notably Edward Inglett, persisted in searching. Finally, a witness statement by Professor David Anderson, an expert witness for the Kenyan litigants, in December 2010 alleging “systematic withholding by HMG of 1,500 files in 300 boxes taking up 100 linear feet”, eventually resulted in the coming to light of the files in January 2011.

Lying and deception are, of course, standard practise for bourgeois governments, but, unlike in the 1950s, when these papers were gathered and so many others destroyed in order to cover up Britannia’s long list of crimes against humanity, it seems these days you just can’t get the staff. Back then, no FCO worker would have dreamed of finding something that had been deliberately lost!

In colonial Kenya everything was recorded on file, and every file was given a security rating that determined who could access its contents. As various colonial governments prepared to haul down the Union Jack and depart, there was great activity to destroy or ship to England any and all materials that could possibly embarrass the British government, its ministers, ex-governors, colonial police officers and judiciary.

Files labelled ‘legacy’ were to be left behind, but only after they had been purged of anything that linked the colonial rulers to such crimes as genocide, torture, mutilation, mass incarceration, deliberate starvation and equally deliberate spreading of disease in the concentration and work camps, along with mass thefts of land and livestock.

Files graded ‘guard’ were not to be divulged to the Americans (!), while ‘watch’ was the label applied to the most sensitive files, which were only to be read by high-ranking, white civil servants. In the words of the instructing memo from April 1961: “An ‘authorised’ officer is defined in the draft as a servant of the Kenya government who is a British subject of European descent, and who has been security cleared to see classified documents.

So worried was the departing power about the possible repercussions of leaving any evidence of its terrible crimes that could fall into hostile hands that Special Branch officers in Kenya were instructed to leave no trace even of the incineration: “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”.

Of course, many bourgeois historians will tell us that the ‘Mau Mau’ rebellion was extremely vicious and bloody and the colonial government simply responded in kind. ‘They should have known better, but it is quite understandable,’ is the usual line that is put forward, but in fact the reverse is true.

British involvement in Kenya started in the 19th century and, on 1 July 1895, Kenya was claimed as a British protectorate. It was declared a full colony in 1920.

The primary British interest in Kenya was the country’s land, which, observed the British East Africa Commission of 1925, constituted “some of the richest agricultural soils in the world, mostly in districts where the elevation and climate make it possible for Europeans to reside permanently”. Land also needs people to work it, and the colonists had no intention of getting their hands dirty. Luckily for them, the Africans who had been dispossessed by Britain’s theft of all the best land now had nothing to do except work it for their colonial ‘masters’.

The racist and homicidal thinking of those colonialists was adequately displayed in the words of many colonial officers. One of these, Richard Meinertzhagen, wrote of how, on occasion, he and his colleagues had massacred Kikuyu by the hundred.

Meanwhile, in 1894, British MP Sir Charles Dilke observed in the House of Commons: “The only person who has, up to the present time, benefited from our enterprise in the heart of Africa has been Mr Hiram Maxim,” a reference to the maker of the machine gun. This was in accordance with Sir Arthur Hardinge’s insistence that “these people must learn submission by bullets – it is the only school … In Africa to have peace you must first teach obedience and the only person who teaches the lesson properly is the sword.

The bloody cruelty and sheer volume of violence even led that reveller in the blood of others, Winston Churchill, to question how it looked to the rest of the world and history. In 1908 he commented that “It looks like a butchery … Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”

The Kikuyu bore the brunt of British colonial blood-lust, but no Kenyan was safe, especially as, right from the start, there was strong resistance to British rule. The Kikuyu opposition of 1880-1900, the Nandi revolt of 1895-1905, the Giriama uprising of 1913-14, the women’s revolt against forced labour in Murang’a in 1947, the Kalloa affray of 1950, and, of course, the ‘Mau Mau’ rebellion of 1952-57.

The Kikuyu had previously owned much of the best land and so they suffered most from colonial policy of deportation to crowded reservations, often involving being treated worse than beasts of burden or even cattle for slaughter.

In 1952, when a white settler was killed and, a couple of days later, the same fate befell a black chief who supported British oppression of the vast majority of his countrymen while his own wealth increased from British bribes, a massive counter-attack was launched by the occupiers, which included rounding up thousands of suspects, along with the usual beatings and deaths in custody that were ever-present with such actions. Thousands of Kikuyu took to the forests to join up with resistance forces already operating from there.

Now in a state of emergency, the colonial government was using all its troops to guard the settlers and had none to spare to follow the resistance fighters into the forests. Instead, governor Evelyn Baring sent Lincoln bombers to carry out a programme of indiscriminate carpet-bombing. Between June 1953 and October 1955 the RAF conducted over 900 sorties and dropped nearly 6m bombs. Lack of time and a dearth of reliable intelligence meant bombing was rather haphazard, but many people living in the forests had been killed or wounded by air attack by June 1954.

The second phase of Baring’s backlash consisted in rounding up even more Kenyans, stealing their land and livestock as he did it, and forcing ever more people into concentration camps and work camps, where mass ‘screenings’ took place. Violent interrogations and torture (including “most drastic” beatings, solitary confinement, starvation, castration, whipping, burning, rape, sodomy, and forceful insertion of objects into orifices) were used to extract information and confessions. Those suspected of being Mau Mau, or who had had confessions beaten out of them, could be hanged. More than a thousand Kenyans were executed on the basis of this ‘evidence’.

Baring also instigated ‘villagisation’ for those Kikuyu not already in some type of camp, with the aim of putting an end to the safe havens and support for the freedom fighters being provided by ordinary people.

The so-called ‘villages’ established in the reserves were actually elaborate prisons, surrounded by deep, spike-bottomed trenches and barbed wire, where the reluctant ‘villagers’, who had now lost all their land and livestock, were watched over day and night, and ‘punished’ or ‘rewarded’ as the colonial authorities saw fit.

By early 1955, districts began reporting rising levels of starvation and malnutrition in the ‘villages’.[sup] [/sup]One provincial commissioner claimed that parents were deliberating withholding food, saying the latter were aware of the “propaganda value of apparent malnutrition”, while a colonial minister blamed the “bad spots” in Central Province on mothers “not realising the great importance of proteins”!

Diseases were helped along by the colony’s policy of returning sick detainees to receive treatment in the reserves, even though the medical services there were well known to be virtually non-existent. Of the 50,000 deaths that can be attributed to the ‘emergency’, half were of children under the age of 10.

Of those who didn’t die of disease or malnutrition, the British likely killed in excess of 20,000 ‘Mau Mau’ or suspected ‘Mau Mau’. For their part, the liberation fighters killed fewer than 2,000 Kenyans, overwhelmingly agents of the British government, while 32 Europeans and 26 Asians were also killed.

Kenyan protest against colonial rule did not end with the Land and Freedom Army’s struggle. In the years that followed the uprising and right up to independence, a series of mass protests, strikes and boycotts were carried out by Kenyan militants.

Such is but a small part of the hidden history of British imperialism. It must all be brought to light, and recognition must be given to the fact that this rapacious beast has not changed its spots and must now be put down as swiftly as possible for the sake of humanity.