The London Times reported a while ago that Hussein Onyango Obama, Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather, was arrested in 1949 by the British during the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya and subjected to horrific violence which left him permanently scarred and embittered against the British. He worked as an army cook but became involved in the independence movement aimed at overthrowing colonial rule.
“The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” Sarah Onyango, 87, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman President Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah” said. “He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,”
Onyango served with the British Army in Burma during the Second World War. Although a member of the Luo tribe from western Kenya, he sympathized with the Kikuyu Central Association, which evolved into the Mau Mau. Mrs Onyango said that her husband had supplied information to the insurgents. “His job as cook to a British army officer made him a useful informer for the secret oathing movement.”
Mr Onyango was probably tried in a magistrates’ court on charges of political sedition or membership of a banned organization, but the records do not survive because such documentation was routinely destroyed in British colonies after six years.
British involvement in Kenya began late in the 19th century when at the Berlin Conference of 1885, European nations carved up the African continent. East and southern Africa fell under the British sphere of influence. In 1888, the Imperial British East Africa Company was granted a Royal Charter to administer East Africa until, in 1895 the British government established a Protectorate.
Kenyan society was clearly divided along racial lines during colonial rule. White Europeans dominated politics, economics and were at the top of the social scale. Asians occupied the middle levels of society. They were mainly involved in small-scale agriculture and industry, retail, trade, skilled and semi-skilled labour and generally worked in the middle level of the civil service. Africans, who formed the majority of the population, were mostly poor farmers and had very little say in how Kenya was run.
The occupation of land, particularly in the Kikuyu areas of the cool central highlands, by European settlers had long been a source of bitter resentment. By 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyu were restricted to 2,000 square miles, while 30,000 white settlers occupied 12,000 square miles of the best agricultural land.
Settler farming was uneconomic, supported by government subsidies for most of the colonial period, whereas early Kikuyu cash-crop farming was efficient and undercut settler prices. But Africans were soon banned from growing tea, coffee, and sisal, and a minimum price set for maize removed their advantage. Some Kikuyu were allowed to occupy land as tenant farmers with no legal rights on white settlers’ farms, which had been their homes, in exchange for their labour. The real income of these Kikuyu fell by about 40% during the period 1936 to 1946 and fell even more sharply after that. The settlers demanded ever more labor and further restricted access to land in an attempt to turn the tenant farmers into laborers. Overstocking, soil erosion, and hunger spread. “Improvements”, like the digging of terraces by female forced labour, were bitterly resented.
Thousands migrated to Nairobi whose population doubled between 1938 and 1952. By 1953, almost half of all Kikuyu had no land claims at all. The results were worsening poverty, starvation, unemployment and overpopulation.
After World War II, there was an increase in the number of white settlers in Kenya. Most were demobilised British officers who hoped to benefit from the comfortable lifestyle that was available to them and their families. Black Africans who had served with British forces during the Second World War returned home to Kenya with hopes for a better life. I have met the spoilt offspring of some of these creatures.
There was a civil war among the Kikuyu because some Kikuyu managed to retain their land and forged strong ties with the British. Divide and rule.
The Mau Mau were able to be portrayed as savages by the British because of lurid tales of oaths which included promises to kill, dismember and burn settlers and rituals which included animal sacrifice or the ingestion of blood. There were rumors of cannibalism, congress with goats, orgies, ritual places decorated with intestines and goat eyes.
A State of Emergency was declared in October 1952. Troops arrested nearly 100 Kenyan leaders, including future president Jomo Kenyatta. In the first 25 days of Operation Jock Scott, 8,000 people were arrested. The British fielded 55,000 troops in total over the course of the conflict, although the total number did not exceed more than 10,000 at any one time. The majority of the security effort was borne by the Kenya Police and the Tribal Police/Home Guard. Over the course of the conflict, some soldiers either could not or would not differentiate between Mau Mau and non-combatants, and reportedly shot innocent Kenyans. Many soldiers were reported to have collected severed rebel hands for an unofficial five-shilling bounty,
The small numbers of British troops, a high degree of popular support for the rebels, and the low quality of colonial intelligence gave the Mau Mau the upper hand for the first half of 1953. Over 1800 loyalist Kikuyu (Christians, landowners, government loyalists and other Mau Mau opponents) were killed. The Mau Mau mainly attacked at night, emerging from the forests. They attacked isolated farms, but occasionally also households in suburbs of Nairobi. Only the lack of firearms prevented the rebels from inflicting severe casualties on the police and European community.
In 1954, Nairobi was put under military control. Security forces screened 30,000 Africans and arrested 17,000 on suspicion of complicity, including many people who were later revealed to be innocent. About 15,000 Kikuyu were interned and thousands more were deported to the Kikuyu reserves in the highlands west of Mount Kenya. Entire rebel leadership structures, including the Council for Freedom, were swept away to detention camps and the most important source of supplies and recruits for the resistance evaporated. The authorities repeated the exercise in other areas so that by the end of 1954 there were 77,000 Kikuyu in concentration camps. About 100,000 Kikuyu squatters were deported back to the reserves.
One British colonial officer described the labour camps thus: “Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Cholera swept through the camps. Official medical reports were ignored, and the British lied about conditions in the camps.
Atrocities were committed on both sides. Mau Mau militants were guilty of human rights violations, and many of the murders of which they were guilty were brutal in the extreme. More than 1,800 Kenyan civilians are known to have been murdered by Mau, and hundreds more disappeared, their bodies never found.
Kenya’s whites saw the killings by the Mau Mau as irrefutable proof of African barbarism, but Africans were engaging in practices perfected in Europe. Galician serfs hacked their Polish landlords to pieces in 1846; Spanish peasants used the scythe and the axe on latifundista families in the civil war; Ukrainian peasants did the same or worse to their better-off neighbors between 1941 and 1944.
In January, 1953, Mau Mau murdered a white couple and their six-year-old son on their farm with knives. Many settlers sacked all their Kikuyu servants. Europeans, including women, armed themselves with any weapon they could find, and in some cases built full-scale forts on their farms.
In March 1953, 1,000 rebels attacked a loyalist village, where 170 non-combatants were hacked or burnt to death. Most of them were the wives and children of Kikuyu Home Guards serving elsewhere. In the weeks that followed, some suspected rebels were summarily executed by police and loyalist Home Guards, and many other Mau Mau implicated in the massacre were brought to trial and hanged.
Only 32 British civilians were killed by Mau Mau militants. The number of Mau Mau fighters killed by the British was about 20,000, and large numbers of Kikuyu not directly involved in the rebellion were persecuted. Lawyers acting for Kenyans suing for compensation have documented about 6,000 cases of abuses including fatal whippings, blindings and rapes.
A British officer, describing his exasperation about uncooperative Mau Mau suspects during an interrogation, explained that:
“I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I said something, I don’t remember what, and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys [Mau Mau] were standing there looking blank. I said to them that if they didn’t tell me where to find the rest of the gang I’d kill them too. They didn’t say a word so I shot them both. One wasn’t dead so I shot him in the ear. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him that the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleared up.’”
Many settlers took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects, running their own screening teams and assisting British security forces during interrogation. Many white settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Mrs. Katharine Warren-Gash—who liked to think of herself as a “white Kikuyu,” ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There they were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labour, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many women gave birth at Kamiti, but the infant death rate was overwhelming. The women buried their babies in bundles of six at a time. Mrs. Warren-Gash brought the archbishop of Mombasa to Kamiti, where he conducted a mass oath-cleansing ceremony in person.
Neil Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, described an encounter he had in Cyprus in the late 1950s. “Pordy Laneford had come from Kenya. He sat on his hotel bed, a chinless wonder with watery blue eyes and a small moustache, and chatted about himself. He was even younger than I was. Pordy had been named after a Devonshire trout stream which ran past his family home, a bankrupt farm (as he described it) run by a military father who collected medals and taught his children about the Empire. Pordy also took up medal-collecting and Empire. He signed up with the Rhodesian police. But soon, to his surprise, he was discharged ignominiously for torturing an African suspect. He looked around for ‘something which was good fun and sort of helped to hold the Empire up.’ In Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion had begun, so Pordy joined the infamous Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the ‘red tape’ of trials and witness statements. ‘Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.’”
“I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season. Addicts are treatable. Fun-lovers will always hanker for more fun.”
Ascherson was reviewing books by Caroline Elkins and David Anderson.
Caroline Elkins, Associate Professor of History at Harvard has written a book on the period, Imperial Reckoning: the untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a lot of attention.
According to her calculations, up to 320,000 Kikuyu—nearly a third of the population—may have passed through the more than 50 camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children, held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages.
She also attempts to put a figure to the total loss of Kikuyu lives, the born and the unborn. She projects population growth from the 1948 census total, compares the result with the 1962 census figure, and finds a gap between them of over 136,000—at the very lowest estimate of growth rates. In her introduction, Elkins declares: “I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead.”
Lawrence James, who has written extensively on the British Empire, criticized Elkins’s book as being one-sided. James in turn was criticized for being too kind to the British. A number of historians have questioned her methodology and asserted that her figures are grossly exaggerated.
Demographer John Blacker writing in African Affairs demonstrated in detail that Elkins’ estimates of casualties were grossly over-estimated.
In the Journal of African History, Kenyan historian, Bethwell Ogot, wrote that the Mau Mau:“Contrary to African customs and values, assaulted old people, women and children. The horrors they practiced included the following: decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women. No war can justify such gruesome actions. In man’s inhumanity to man there is no race distinction. The Africans were practicing it on themselves. There was no reason and no restraint on both sides, although Elkins sees no atrocities on the part of Mau Mau”.
David Anderson went into the surviving trial archives of Emergency Kenya. He examines the grounds on which at least 1,090 Africans were sent to the gallows within a few years—a total without parallel in the late British Empire. He then uses the evidence to reconstruct in detail the story of the Mau Mau rebellion, with its intricate background and its terrible consequences.
Caroline Elkins did lengthy archival research in Kenya and London but also uses oral testimony, which can be unreliable. Nevertheless, the brutality revealed in her interviews is in all too many cases corroborated by witnesses who could not have cooked up the stories in collaboration. Chroniclers of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State,” for example, have always lamented that the firsthand witnesses to its atrocities were all European or American. Nobody let the Congolese speak for themselves.
The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan, history. On March 3, 1959, a hundred detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. A force of five hundred riot police had already been assembled. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured. In spite of a frantic cover-up campaign, Britain’s domination of Kenya was fatally damaged.
Anderson writes: “What is astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented.”
Ascherson comments: “The British need to believe that their Empire was run and eventually dismantled with restraint and humanity—as opposed to the disgusting brutality of the French, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, and German colonial empires. Punctures in that belief have to be mended.”
“The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”