Britain should either acknowledge its many imperial crimes, or stop pretending to care
Three elderly Kenyan citizens, after several hard years of campaigning, are finally being seen by a judge in a British court over allegations that they were tortured by the UK over 60 years ago, in a truly shameful episode from this country’s late imperial history. The British response to the so-called “Mau Mau rebellion” in the fifties, a sustained uprising against colonial rule, involved, as recently recovered documentary evidence appears to show, atrocities committed by colonial forces ordered to crush the insurrection.
Last week, ministers acknowledged that British forces tortured Kenyan prisoners during the crisis and subjected the same group to “other ill treatment”.
There are many reasons why it has taken such a long time for Kenyans mistreated under British rule to get a fair hearing here. The chief one being that the UK government spirited away all relevant documents from Nairobi on their exit from the country, and later destroyed or concealed much of the evidence.
A cache of “migrated” documents that detail many of the very serious abuses that occurred was re-discovered last year. The papers recovered recorded many horrors, including the “roasting alive” of Kenyan victims; elsewhere, the shock of Colonel Arthur Young at the devastating “inhumanity” displayed by British forces in camps that were used to “screen” rebels.
Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot has been one of the few well-known journalists in this country to outrightly condemn such atrocities in fifties Kenya. Citing the intensive research of Harvard Professor Caroline Elkins, contained in her Pulitzer-Prize winning book Britain’s Gulag, Monbiot even argued that “ horrors of the camps were endorsed at the highest levels.”
“There, thousands were beaten to death or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis and dysentery. In some camps almost all the children died,” Monbiot added, drawing on Elkins’ work. In these ersatz concentration camps “people deemed to have disobeyed the rules were killed in front of the others. The survivors were forced to dig mass graves, which were quickly filled…Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions… The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women’s breasts… Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound.”
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be struck by the horrors contained in such an account.
Sadly, the position of Her Majesty’s government on this matter, even at this late stage, appears to be one of squalid moral evasiveness. It seems that the powers-that-be hold that the UK handed over its liabilities to the Kenyan government along with its transfer of sovereignty in the sixties. Reportedly, Kenyan lawyer Paul Muite suspects that Britain is holding out in the hope that the complainants will simply die before any justice is eked out. Nothing could be more shameful, if true.
But Britain, these days an enthusiastic sponsor of the International Criminal Court, has form in creating misery on a massive-scale with little apology. In the end days of empire, the UK’s exit from its former territories left in its wake an unholy legacy of lasting conflict in many lands, particularly Sri Lanka, Kashmir and the former British Mandate of Palestine. The separation of Pakistan and India was handled awfully, with much loss of life. Our little known involvement in depopulating Diego Garcia in the sixties and seventies to accommodate an American military base resulted in great suffering for those displaced. A candid wikileaks-released diplomatic cable between the Americans and the British dated May 2009 records a discussion about using a marine reserve to stymie right of return claims by former inhabitants of the tiny Indian Ocean Islands. A foreign office official “asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims”, the document records. It also stated that the government wanted no “Man Fridays” on the atoll. Under the sub-heading “je ne regrette rien”, the diplomatic memo records the same official admitting: “[w]e do not regret the removal of the population.”
Remember, this was only three years ago. In the high places of government, it seems, colonial-era thinking has not died a long-overdue death.
Going back to the eighteenth century, the English East India company turned a “dearth into a famine” in the Bengal, to quote Adam Smith, given that they forced farmers to “plough up rich fields of rice or other grain for plantation of poppies” that would produce opium. Over a century of British rule in Dhaka, a major city in the province, the population fell from 150,000 to 30,000; the numbers in the overall region were reduced by a million in the famine of 1770, owing chiefly to such practices. This was only one of many starvations in India during the Raj. Influenced by Malthusian population theory in the 19th century, several British advisors considered it appropriate to leave starving Bengalis or Irish or Africans, among others, to their fate despite the direct role that English policies had in creating or worsening the very famines they were confronted with. One of them, Sir Charles Trevelyan opined during the Irish potato famine “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”
But all that happened in the past, and Britain has progressively behaved in a more civilised manner, many would argue. This may be broadly true, despite the dirty tricks evinced in the 2009 cable. Nonetheless, in responding to the Mau Mau case the UK has an opportunity to demonstrate its growing commitment to human rights as a moral, not just a policy-based, obligation. By showing some rare magnanimity, to echo the sentiments of Bishop Tutu on the subject, the UK can somehow begin to apologise for its past. By contrast, to deploy legal technicalities or to claim that too much time has passed would be to yet again fall back on expedient cruelties to avoid doing what is right.
Yet that latter, ignoble choice appears to be the one that Britain has once again taken: representing the government, Barrister Guy Mansfield QC argued without irony that for the plaintiff’s case to proceed to trial would be “contrary to principle and the balance of fairness.” Astonishing.
The UK is faced with a stark choice: to take its past seriously or to stop pretending to care. Anything else is hypocrisy.Tagged in: British Empire, colonialism, human rights, Imperialism, justice, Kenya, law, Mau Mau, torture
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter