Our colonial torturers

Even after the Mau Mau case the British will never stop kidding themselves about the crimes of empire.

The five elderly Kenyans who brought the original case in front of 10 Downing Street, the home of the British Prime Minister.

Torture comes cheap for the old imperial powers. Just £2,670 was paid out this month, June 2013, to each of the 5,228 elderly Kenyans judged eligible for compensation as the British government finally settled a case it has attempted to block every step of the way (between 2005 and 2011 it insisted that officials had “misplaced” or “forgotten about” a secret archive of 2,000 boxes of files detailing late colonial abuses from all over the world). With characteristic cynicism, the government briefed journalists that there would be an apology, and then never made one. Despite prominent reporting of that phantom apology, there has been merely an expression of “regret” from William Hague, and an insistence that “a line be drawn” beneath this awkward national embarrassment. Unfortunately, at least in the British national consciousness, it looks like that is exactly what is happening.

Our colonial torturers, like those who survived our abuses, are old and dying (like the Scot Ian Henderson CBE, torturer-in-chief in Kenya in the 1950s, later nicknamed the “Butcher of Bahrain”, who died this month). If a meaningful public reckoning with the crimes of our empire is ever to take place while the last of the perpetrators and the victims are still with us, then it has to happen now. Yet even in the face of overwhelming documentary and testimonial evidence of the scale and brutality of our imperial sadism, this reckoning is simply not taking place. Many of us in Britain have our heads so stuffed with jingoism that we can’t make any sense of this part of our history, and so choose to ignore it.

We know from our official reports that we roasted people alive. We know that the salient feature of the way that we tortured was our preference for overtly sexual techniques. One of the five who brought the case, Jane Muthoni Mara, had bottles filled with boiling water pushed into her vagina (a technique that was not at all uncommon). Like many of the men awarded compensation, Paolo Nzili and Ndiku Mutua were castrated.

As a society, we have been nowhere near appalled enough by these revelations. I find myself at a loss to know what it would take for us to properly face up to our past. Whether in Kenya half a century ago or in Iraq this past decade (Baha Mousa’s murder bears striking similarities to the kinds of abuse recorded in the Mau Mau files), we just can’t seem to take our history of torture seriously. The national frenzy for vacuous expressions of “support” for “Our Boys” — regardless of who they are fighting or how — has created a public sphere in which anything but the most craven deference for the British armed forces is taken as a traitorous slur. Blair’s wars have somehow deepened and popularised our collective postcolonial melancholia.

We have a national fairytale that Mau Mau was really about the rape of white women and white infants butchered in their beds. That cover story is proving hard to budge from the popular imagination, and somehow “Mau Mau” remains a shorthand expression describing their brutality, not ours (just read the comments). The BBC made an excellent documentary, “Kenya: White Terror“, over a decade ago now, and it deserves a prime-time re-run now that the case has been settled (don’t miss the segment from 32 minutes in where former prison official Trevor Gavaghan silently eyeballs the interviewer when confronted about his abuses).

Cristina Odone’s unpardonable column in the Daily Telegraph (newspaper of middle England, older expatriates, military history enthusiasts and colonial nostalgists, which was also the first to report on the case back in 2005) was typical of the scornful reaction to the compensation claims two years ago. Odone characterized the claimants as ungrateful natives, merely scrounging from the British as usual, and their lawyers as engaging in a kind of historical ambulance-chasing. Here’s an excerpt: “I know a little about the Mau Mau because my parents lived in Kenya just as their reign of terror drew to an end. Local farmers, black and white, lived in fear for their lives during the 1950s and into 1960: rapes, pillaging, arson and torture were routine. Although they are now being reinvented as freedom fighters, my parents remember that when the British colonial authorities tried to stamp out the Mau Mau rebellion, many native Kenyans were as grateful as their adoptive compatriots (or evil white imperialists, whichever you prefer) […] proof that the colonial government, with the explicit support of the Westminster authorities, carried out systematic human rights abuses is yet to surface […] Leigh & Day [the law firm] have spotted what some might feel is a lucrative niche: in our self-hating culture, where the Prime Minister felt he should publicly apologise for the legacy of the British Empire, the “victims” of colonial rule – deserving or not – will have the blessing of public opinion in their fights for compensation. Any chance of an apology from the Mau Mau?”

Odone hasn’t written on the matter since. Neither has there been a cheep from our dunce of an Education secretary Michael Gove, who gave the job of overhauling our namby-pamby history curriculum to noted bigot Niall Ferguson, whose ultra-thin skin is of course matched only by his mindless rah-rah enthusiasm for the British Empire. Our history syllabuses have in fact been in need of reform for a long time — we learn about Nazi Germany and the European theatre of the Second World War ad nauseam, and very little else, which is one reason why young people in Britain are as likely as their grandparents to suffer from our weird national obsession with the Nazis (and therefore with our own role as history’s perennial heroes).

The American media hasn’t paid much attention to the case either (though David Anderson wrote a great column in the New York Times on some of the wider ramifications). Barack Obama hasn’t said a word, despite journalists like the Guardian’s superb Ian Cobain reporting that Obama’s own grandfather was tortured by the British:

Among the detainees who suffered severe mistreatment was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of Barack Obama. According to his widow, British soldiers forced pins into his fingernails and buttocks and squeezed his testicles between metal rods.

Who knows? Perhaps President Obama has his own reasons for not wanting to say too much about the torture and extrajudicial killing of “military age males” classed as anticolonial insurgents. Never mind that he is himself the beneficiary of decades of black radical struggle in America that took inspiration from the Mau Mau’s fight against the British. History sometimes seems to move very fast.

Here are a few more interesting links on this topic:

(1) Historian Caroline Elkins‘ research, especially her 2005 book Imperial Reckoning, has played a major role in getting a measure of justice for survivors of British abuse. Bernard Porter reviewed that book as well as David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged in the LRB (most of the British press were at pains to discredit her findings at the time). One assumes Elkins’ next book will be quite something.

(2) Since his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, Enoch Powell has been adopted as a poster-boy for racists and xenophobes. But he is less well known for a speech he gave in parliament following the Hola massacre in 1959. Well worth reading (by the standards of colonial speechifying), here’s a highlight: “I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgment on a fellow human-being and to say, ‘Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow’.”

(3) We’re excited about Amira Tajdin’s new short film, His to Keep. Here’s the blurb: “It’s 2012 in Kenya and the British judicial system has granted the Mau Mau Freedom Fighters the right to sue the British government for the crimes it committed against these men and their families during the nation’s fight against colonial rule/ the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950’s. In the highlands of Limuru town, Wamiti (David Nganga) sits listening to this news. An ex Mau Mau veteran, he is overcome with a mix of emotions that he can’t fully process. In an attempt to deal with the ghosts this news piece brings back to life, Wamiti delicately delves back into his past fighting back the hurt he’s been shutting out for so long.”

(3) Lastly, here’s the full text of an extraordinary letter by David Larder, the first registered British conscientious objector against colonial warfare, recently published in the Guardian following the settlement of the Mau Mau case.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.