Notes From the Margins…

‘Mau Mau’ and the Myth of a Benevolent Empire

  • October 07, 2012
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Last week’s ruling by  a British judge,  granting three survivors of the 1950s Kenyan ‘Emergency’  the right to a High Court trial over allegations of British government complicity in torture, is  a tremendous achievement for the Kenyan campaigners and lawyers who fought this seemingly unwinnable case for so many years.

No wonder the Kenyan veterans were dancing in celebration outside the court afterwards.    For this landmark ruling not only means that the three former ‘Mau Mau’ insurgents seeking compensation for their torture and maltreatment during the Emergency may achieve some kind of justice: it also opens the door to potentially thousands of similar cases – and not only in Kenya.

According to the Independent, the three veteran who have brought the case to court  ‘ suffered what their lawyers described as “unspeakable acts of brutality”, including forcible castration with pliers used on cattle, repeated beatings and sexual assault including rape with a bottle containing scalding water.’

Such methods were not unusual in one of the darkest episodes in British imperial history – an episode that has often been obscured by official silence, disinformation, and the fallout from one of the most successful and effective propaganda campaigns ever mounted by a colonial government.

The explosion of violence that became known to the outside world as ‘Mau Mau’ began in 1952,  when the colonial authorities in Kenya declared a state of emergency and deployed the military in response to reports of unrest amongst the Kikuyu tribe, and the killing of a pro-British local chief.

‘Mau Mau’ was a term used by the British and Kenyan white settlers to describe a complex and chaotic movement, that was partly a protest against the apartheid-style domination of Kenya’s white minority and partly an anti-colonial struggle for ‘wiyathi’ – Land and Freedom,  and partly a local African civil war.

These complexities were obscured by the official presentation of ‘Mau Mau’  as a bloodstained atavistic cult, whose members engaged in obscene human sacrifices and dehumanising oathing rituals in preparation for the slaughter all the whites in the colony.

One of the most influential purveyors of this ‘atavism’ mythology was the American novelist Robert Ruark, whose bestselling novel Something of Value glorified white settler violence and portrayed Mau Mau as a moral evil worthy against whom any means were justified.  For Ruark – and for his white settler heroes – these means included torture.

Ruark’s pornographic and racist writings were a particularly crass expression of ideas and assumptions that were shared by Kenya’s white elite, and by the British government itself.   There is no doubt that some gruesome and grotesque murders and atrocities were carried out by the Kikuyu, in an undisciplined and uncoordinated revolt that included criminal elements and personal vendettas as well as  more politicized militants.

In fact the number of white settlers killed in the course of the Emergency was less than 40, and  the overall number of victims of ‘Mau Mau’ violence were marginal in comparison with the huge death toll caused by the British attempts to suppress the movement.

During the eight years of the Emergency, the British unleashed a campaign of repression of extraordinary scope and severity against the Kikuyu, that included aerial bombings, concentration camps, fenced-in ‘model villages’, safari-style hunts in the bush, mutilation and torture.

Estimates of the overall death toll remain contested amongst historians.  The official death toll at the time claimed that 11, 503 Mau Mau were killed, in addition ot 167 members of the security forces.   The historian David Anderson has claimed that 20,000 Mau Mau were killed, while other historians, such as Caroline Elkins, have calculated that more than 150,000 Kikuyu may have died from violence and starvation in the course of the Emergency.

Such events do not fit well with the established narratives of a ‘good’ Empire.  Even George Orwell, the great critic of Empire, placed British imperialism in a higher moral category to other European empires.

The Kenyan Emergency tells us otherwise.   And  last week’s ruling is not only good for the ordinary Kikuyu whose sacrifices during the Emergency were obscured and suppressed even during post-independence Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta.

At a time when a reactionary government, advised by the likes of Niall Ferguson,  is seeking to re-invent the Empire as an essentially benign and even altruistic endeavour,  the ruling provides an opportunity for the British public to look back at one of the darkest episodes of British imperial history and seek a more honest  accounting of the past than the glorious ‘island story’ that we are currently being encouraged to believe in.


1 Comment

  1. Revd Prof Dr Lawford Imunde

    1st Jun 2013 - 3:19 pm

    Enjoy the Read!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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