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For victims of British colonial rule, the Twentieth Century won`t go away

by  James Graham

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Word Count: 1295
Summary: I feel ashamed posting this as I haven't been active in the group for quite a while. Poetry Group 1 is almost a full time job! I shall try to mend my ways and spend some time here.

For victims of British colonial rule, the Twentieth Century won't go away

A recent Rory Bremner sketch has Condi Rice telling George Bush that in the fifties Iran was a democracy. 'That so?' he says. 'I guess they were overthrown by a bunch of towel-heads'. 'No sir. They were overthrown by the CIA'. 'Well, that's all past history,' he says. A follow-up line sums up the attitude to history of people like George Bush: 'What happened in the twentieth century stays in the twentieth century'.

This week a group of ageing Kenyans and their lawyers are resurrecting the twentieth century again, in a way that may bring some discomfort to Bush's poodle before he finally departs for the poodle sanctuary. They are bringing a test case against the British Government, seeking compensation for the brutalities of the colonial regime in Kenya in the 1950s.

These are some of the things that were done - a few instances from an immense catalogue of cruelty. Security forces would arrive in a country district without warning, force the people out of their homes, then torch the huts with everything inside. The Kikuyu village people would then be marched to a piece of open ground where they had to build themselves a concentration camp: erect their own huts, dig a trench all round the camp, and set up fences and watchtowers. When the camp was built, they were put to forced labour elsewhere. Refusal to work, even on grounds of sickness or weakness through lack of food, would result in beating, rape, castration or summary execution.

This herding of people into fenced compounds was known as 'villagisation', and its declared aim was to prevent supplies getting from the countryside to Mau Mau rebels in the forest. It was only part of the picture. There were also twenty or so main concentration camps, the largest of them some three or four square miles in area, as well as up to a hundred labour, 'reception', 'holding', and other camps. The inmates of these camps were mainly men, and those of the fenced villages mainly women.

Torture, execution for minor offences, and food deprivation were systemic. The rationale of the camps was to 'screen' prisoners and classify them according to how committed they were to Mau Mau. 'Screening' methods included hanging prisoners upside down, castration, sodomising with beer bottles, being tied to the back of a Land Rover and dragged through the camp, or being forced to run round in a circle for an hour carrying on the head a bucket full of excrement and urine. Those who resisted were shot - or in some cases, suffered a fate worse than shooting, such as being burned alive in a petrol-soaked sack.

Beginning on April 24, 1954, at attempt was made to remove the entire black population of Nairobi to camps. The logistics of this operation are familiar: people driven out of their homes, crammed on to the backs of lorries, and taken to the railway station from where they were transported to the camps in freight wagons. One of the camps even had an arched entrance, over which - whether by coincidence or in conscious imitation of the notorious Auschwitz motto - a sign 'Labour and Freedom' had been placed.

Neither this nor any other mass detention, however, amounted to an attempted Nazi-style genocide. A large percentage, possibly a majority, of the white settlers did believe that the entire Kikuyu 'race' should be wiped out; but although tens of thousands died in the camps and fenced villages, they were not death camps. (A few came uncomfortably close, especially the so-called 'exile' camps such as Mageta Island and the infamous Hola, where 'hard core' Mau Mau were supposed to be detained without hope of release.) If they were not death camps, they were certainly concentration camps; tens of thousands were killed and maimed in them, and the regime which built and managed them was a tyranny.

Mau Mau was unquestionably a terrorist organisation. But a 'balance sheet' of killings weighs heavily against the colonial authority. The number of white civilians murdered by Mau Mau was 60; some 2,000 Kikuyu collaborators - Home Guards, police, administrators and others - were also killed. In contrast, the number of dead at the hands of the colonial power was at least 50,000, of whom about 10-12% were active Mau Mau. None of this makes Mau Mau any 'better' than the British authorities; every murder, whichever side is responsible, is an atrocity. But in the scales against the colonial power another heavy weight must be placed: the fact that the British were there at all. They had expropriated huge tracts of the best land for themselves, evicted from this land the people who had farmed it for generations, and forced them on to overcrowded reserves where there was a growing number of landless poor - and, as time went on, malnutrition and famine. Their land grab resulted in mass poverty, in the Kenya countryside and the burgeoning slums of Nairobi, as had already happened in India, Malaya and every other corner of this great empire on which the sun never set. In the last resort, in order to hold on to their power and their stolen land they created a police state.

The pending lawsuit is much strengthened by the scholarship of an American historian, Caroline Elkins, whose book Britain's Gulag has won this year's Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Every detail of the colonial oppression that I have cited in this article comes from this source. My few paragraphs merely skim the surface. The book gives us the clearest possible account of the history and politics of the Kenya Emergency, but the individual experiences of victims are everywhere in the book also. The sufferings endured by women are especially telling: women, for example, going out to dig ditches with their new-born babies strapped to their backs - babies born in many cases as a result of rape - and being struck by an overseer for stopping work to comfort the child. Sometimes a mother would steal a break while the overseer's back was turned, only to discover that her baby was dead.

If the case comes to court, Professor Elkins may be called as a witness. Even the book and the action together may not be enough to extract either compensation or a retrospective apology from Blair or Brown. But at least the assertion will be made once again: that there are people who are not prepared to let the past stay in the past.

At the time, under pressure from the left - especially its most resolute campaigner Barbara Castle - the Colonial Office did carry out an inquiry; but as so often happens with internal investigations, blame was laid on subordinates - the old 'bad apples' trick - while such men as Governor Sir Evelyn Baring and Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd were not held responsible. After that, a veil was drawn over Kenya's troubles - not only by the British government, it has to be said, but equally by Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, independent Kenya's first two presidents. 'Well, that's all past history,' as Bremner's George Bush tells us. Nail the 'bad apples' and then draw the veil.

It won't do at all. There are people still alive, and their children and grandchildren, who have to live with the legacy of the unjust and irresponsible acts of politicians. This disgraceful episode in twentieth-century history must not be swallowed in the mists of time. The veterans' case needs to be heard. Instead of airbrushing past oppressions out of the collective memory, governments should openly admit that injustices were done, and offer victims the compensation they seek - but more importantly, offer them acknowledgement and respect.