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Jolly good fellows


The recent ruling by a high court in London allowing three veterans of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s to sue the British government for damages for torture is quite likely the most significant admission in recent years that British colonialism was far from being the gentleman's form of oppression that it is often made out to be. One of the many idioms in which the great game of colonialism survives today is in those numerous discussions that seek to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' colonialisms, between the barbaric Germans or King Leopold's Belgian officials in the Congo and, on the other hand, those colonialists who allegedly brought the fruits of European enlightenment to underdeveloped people. It has long been held by some apologists of empire that the British were jolly good fellows: they may have committed excesses every now and then, but the country that gave the world cricket cannot have bred mass murderers or genocidal fiends. 

The British repression of the Mau Mau rebellion forms one of the more gory chapters of violence in a century filled with brutality. British settlers were offered farmlands in Kenya's Central Highlands at nominal prices. The indigenous Kikuyu were driven off the land, forced into reserves, and subjected to a draconian regime of taxation. Those outside the reserves became squatters on white-owned plantations and laboured as virtually serfs.

Over the next few decades, following a long established British policy of developing a creamy layer of native elites who would serve the empire faithfully as collaborators, a small number of Kikuyu were also drawn into schools run by Christian churches. By the late 1930s, a movement of resistance had built up on several fronts, one among squatters whose pauperisation had become unbearable and, secondly, among radical intellectuals centered in Nairobi. Moreover, World War II veterans who returned home found themselves barely acknowledged and became part of a drifting and embittered slum population.

The economic and political conditions at the end of the war were thus ripe for a full-blown rebellion. Anti-colonial movements were sweeping Asia and the example of Indian independence, achieved in 1947, was paramount. By 1950, Kikuyu political formation would converge around three blocks, among them the militant nationalists who invoked the critical issue of landlessness and were thus able to forge ties of resistance among the working class, peasants, trade unionists, and the urban proletariat. The four years of the Mau Mau insurgency that began in 1952, and which ended with the decimation of the rebel forces in late 1956, furnish a grim history of the naked violence of the colonial state.

One part of the British campaign against the Mau Mau rebellion was directed against the rebels, another against the larger civilian population that was thought to have taken the Mau Mau oath and provided the insurgents with food, shelter, and moral succour. Though a vast system of "detention camps" was set up to contain the rebels and their supporters, the British achieved something much more sinister, indeed something quite without parallel in history.

Unlike the Nazis, who deported Jews to concentration camps, the British struck on the expedient of transforming extant Kikuyu villages into "emergency villages", each of them complete with barbed wire, trenches, watch towers, and armed patrols. Of course, no such narrative is without its complexities: the rebellion pitted insurgents not only against the colonial state, but as much against the "Home Guard", comprised of Kikuyu "loyalists" who feared a change of regime.

Much of this history has been written about previously, but the quest for justice by a group of Mau Mau veterans - Wambuga Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara and Paulo Muoka Nzili - who alleged torture at the hands of the colonial state's functionaries led earlier this year to a previously undisclosed archive of documents that provides bone-chilling details of the suppression of the insurgency. One is not surprised that knives, broken bottles, and rifle barrels were inserted into women's vaginas, or that Kikuyu men were anally raped. Ministers in London were fully aware of the murder and torture being waged in the name of empire. The perpetrators of the worst atrocities were given full legal immunity.

There is a warning in all this, though not the one drawn by counter-insurgency experts such as John Arquilla, who in September 2003 wrote apropos of the British strategy of setting up Kikuyu "pseudo gangs" against the Mau Mau: "What worked in Kenya a half-century ago has a wonderful chance of undermining trust and recruitment among today's terror networks. " The United States, which has in many respects become the successor imperial state, should not delude itself into thinking that it can emerge from its own military adventures without a similarly heavy toll on its own psyche and culture.

The writer teaches at the University of California Los Angeles 

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