The Empire strikes back

By June 7, 2013February 18th, 2021No Comments

To talk about British atrocities in Kenya during the Mau Mau era is nonsense

It was the Mau Mau, not colonial officers like me, who terrorised ordinary Kenyans. We were looked on as protectors.

The Guardian,

George Monbiot asserts that in Kenya’s colonial era, the British detained almost the entire Kikuyu population in camps where thousands were beaten and abused (Deny the British empire’s crimes? No, we ignore them, 24 April). It is a pity he did not seek out any of those who worked in Kenya in the years leading up to full independence.

I first visited east Africa in 1951, finding a carefree and happy community where nobody needed to bolt their doors or lock their windows. I travelled on foot and by train, bus, lorry and boat from Nairobi to Khartoum, spending considerable time with the Kikuyu in Kenya, the Nuer in southern Sudan and the Baggara Arabs in Kordofan and Darfur. I saw with my own eyes how a handful of colonial officers could keep the peace between bitter enemies, rivals for scarce resources.

In 1954 I returned as a British army soldier, and played a small part in ending the civil war among the Kikuyu, which is what the Mau Mau rebellion was. Those who took the various Mau Mau oaths, mostly under duress, were always a minority of the million-strong Kikuyu, themselves never more than 22% of the population.

It is significant that no other ethnic group chose to join the Mau Mau. Our primary task, as members of the security forces, was to protect the majority from terrorists. At night the Mau Mau would look for food, recruits and women to enjoy. The horrors Monbiot describes, and worse, were perpetrated not by security forces but by Mau Mau themselves on innocent citizens who resisted their demands.

Monbiot says: “The British detained not 80,000 Kikuyu, as the official histories maintain, but almost the entire population of one and a half million, in camps and fortified villages.” In fact, it proved impossible to protect individual scattered homesteads, so villages were constructed where proper security could be provided. At the same time better facilities such as water supplies, health centres, sports grounds, markets and schools were developed. Monbiot is quite wrong to identify the villages, many of which continue to this day, with the work camps for ex-terrorists where they could be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

He then claims: “Thousands were beaten to death or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis and dysentery. In some camps almost all the children died.” This is nonsense. I and the men I served with were greeted with great friendliness by folk who appreciated the facilities provided for them. In 1956 I returned to the UK and applied for a post in the Colonial Service. At my interview with the secretary of state’s appointment board, I was told in the clearest possible terms that I should measure my success by the speed with which I worked myself out of a job. We all knew, as the whole service had known for years, that independence was not a question of “whether'”but “when”. Together with every other district officer I met during the next seven years, I worked my heart out to help the people – Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo and Kalenjin – prepare economically, socially and educationally for life in a world that was going to become increasingly competitive.

Of course, no one will deny that there were instances of unacceptable behaviour by people in authority during colonial times, just as there are today. But, given the fact that Kenya is five times the size of England, and Africa three times the size of Europe, Monbiot has surely lost all sense of proportion in supposing that those examples that have been verified can be extrapolated to incriminate the whole service. It is as if the scandals of President Ceausescu of Romania were held to be representative of all European governments.

Monbiot is fully entitled to argue that the whole colonial and imperial venture was wrong in principle; but he should at least recognise that many thousands of young British men and women served in the colonial territories from a sense of mission, and were fully dedicated to the well-being and advancement of the people they served. As a footnote, I might add that when my wife and I returned to Africa thirty years after we had left, we travelled through seven different countries, covering three thousand miles by local transport, local busses and cars, and found that as soon as we revealed that we had worked in the colonial service, we were welcomed with open arms and shown the greatest hospitality. Partly, of course, that was because we had taken the trouble to learn to speak the lingua franca, Swahili, fluently. We also used as much as we could of whatever was the local language of the place where we were. Few of today’s visitors to Africa can say the same.