My critics ignored evidence of torture in Mau Mau detention camps
These new documents only elaborate what we already knew about British brutality in Kenya
The Guardian, Thursday 14 April 2011
As your article reported, there was "'systematic' torture, starvation and even the burning alive of detainees" in the Mau Mau detention camps of Kenya (Papers reveal brutal treatment of Mau Mau prisoners as victims bring fight to Britain, 8 April). And four elderly Kenyans "who claimthey were variously whipped, beaten, sexually abused and castrated while detained under colonial rule in the 1950s" are looking for the UK to take responsibility for the structure of systematic torture created by its colonial administration and military forces, and authorised at the highest levels of the British government.
In 2005, I provided a detailed account of this system in Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. I discovered that British forces wielded their authority with a perverse colonial logic: only by physically and psychologically atomising almost the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million could colonial authority be restored and the civilising missionreinstated.
I used archival evidence collected in Kenya and Britain, along with witness testimony that I collected from hundreds of detention survivors. A number of former detainees told me that electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire. As I wrote: "Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, and hot eggs were thrust up men's rectums and women's vaginas. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned, and mutilated Mau Mau suspects, ostensibly to gather intelligence for military operations, and as court evidence." At the time, the British government sought to circumvent international accords. Forced labour was constantly imposed in the camps. Kenya's defence minister had said of the use of detainee labour: "We are slave traders and the employment of our slaves are, in this instance, by the Public Works Department."
Recently, as your article stated, the Foreign Office has produced 300 boxes of files, totalling some 17,000 pages of documents, related to the detention camps. These boxes have been under lock and key since Kenya's decolonisation in 1963. They were only produced because of document disclosure rules governing the current Mau Mau case.
As you report: "The extraordinary quantity of Kenyan colonial service documents … will lead to a re-examination of the period." Undoubtedly we will learn a great deal from these files. As an expert witness for the current Mau Mau case, I have read some of them with great interest. But will these new documents alter dramatically what we already know about the detention camps of Kenya? Probably not. But these files do provide significant elaboration on the previously detailed brutality, as well as more extensive documentation on who precisely was perpetrating, ordering and condoning the offences.
My book was resoundingly criticised at the time of its publication. Historian Andrew Roberts wrote that I had committed "blood libels against Britain". Africans make up stories, one eminent historian publicly told me. Many critics chose to ignore the significant documentary evidence. Instead, they zeroed in on the survivor testimony, and declared it unusable. Defenders of empire – and even those less imperial-minded – declared there was no systematic abuse.
These sentiments should give us pause as they are informing today's media coverage. The current Mau Mau claimants had significant evidence, including their own testimonies, to substantiate their case long before the recent FCO disclosures. The problem was that some chose not believe it.