Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: British Empire

The Colonial Project- how did my family benefit from plunder?

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 27 2011

Last week Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. He also referred to the publication by Juliet’s company of Marlon Ariyasinghe’s poetry collection Froteztology. I have read some of Malinda’s own poetry and, on the strength of that, I respect his judgement enough to want to read Marlon’s work. I am working on my own poetry collection with the provisional title of The Toxicity of Taxonomy. My running themes are the poisonous nature of stereotyping, nationalism and racism and how the inexorable tides of imperialism and other isms drown helpless little people. I’m looking for a publisher, Juliet!

Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago, Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle – Rajpal’s articles about the gay mafia in the UNP reminded me of Edward’s court) and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.

Sam1

I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.

Sam2

As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.

Sam3

Imperial service certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.

 

My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.

da1

Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university. Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals” and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.

 

Reconciliation in Cyprus

Many of the conflicts that I have described in these articles on reconciliation have not been helped by  colonisation. In 1878, Britain was granted control of Cyprus in exchange for giving military support to the Ottoman Empire against Russia. The first British High Commissioner was  Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley. The indigenous Greeks of the island, who in the 1881 census formed 73.9% of the population, desired enosis,  to unite with Greece.


Cypriots initially believed  British rule would bring  prosperity, democracy and national liberation. However, the  British levied severe taxes to cover the compensation which they were paying to the Sultan. All powers were reserved to the High Commissioner and to London, thwarting hopes of participatory democracy for Cypriots.
The First World War ended protectorate status and Cyprus was annexed to the British Empire. Britain offered to cede Cyprus to Greece if they would fulfil treaty obligations to attack Bulgaria, but Greece declined. Britain proclaimed Cyprus a Crown colony in 1925 under an undemocratic constitution.
Under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 the new Turkish government formally recognised Britain’s sovereignty over Cyprus. Greek Cypriots continued to demand  enosis ,which had been  achieved by  many of the Aegean and Ionian islands following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The  British opposed enosis and unrest  developed rapidly during the 1930s. There were riots in Nicosia in 1931 during which Government House was burnt down.
The Governor, Sir Richmond Palmer, took a number of suppressive measures against the  Greek population and prohibited trade unions and limited freedom of association. In spite of this more than thirty thousand Cypriots joined the British armed forces during the Second World War.


After the war, there was increasing international pressure for enosis and a delegation from Cyprus submitted a demand to London. The demand was rejected but the British proposed a more liberal constitution and a ten-year programme of social and economic development.
When international pressure did not suffice to make Britain respond, violence escalated with a campaign against the colonial power organised by EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston). Its leader, Colonel George Grivas created and directed an effective campaign beginning in 1955. The first bombs were set off on April 1. Attacks on police stations started on June 19. The Governor proclaimed a State of Emergency on 26 November.


For the next four years EOKA attacked British targets and those Cypriots it accused of collaboration. Archbishop Makarios and other Cypriot clergy and political leaders were forced into exile. The Cyprus emergency cost the lives of 371 British servicemen, more than have died in Afghanistan.
Turkish Cypriots in 1957 responded to the demand for enosis  by calling for  taksim, partition.  Taksim became the slogan which was used by the increasingly militant Turkish Cypriots to counter the Greek cry of ‘enosis’. In 1957 Fazıl Küçük, who represented Turkish Cypriots and later became vice-president of independent Cyprus, declared during a visit to Ankara that Turkey would claim the northern half of the island.


The British were forced to take a different attitude after the Suez fiasco demonstrated that they were no longer a convincing imperial power. Britain  decided that independence was acceptable if military  bases in Cyprus could be an  alternative to Cyprus as a base. However, Governor  Sir Hugh Foot’s plan for unitary self-government alarmed the Turkish community and violence between the two communities became  a new and deadly feature of the situation.


On August 16, 1960 Cyprus gained its independence from Britain. Archbishop Makarios was elected the first president. In 1961 Cyprus became the 99th member of the UN. Independence  did not bring reconciliation. Greek Cypriots argued that the complex mechanisms introduced to protect Turkish Cypriot interests were obstacles to efficient government and tried to exclude Turkish politicians. Both sides continued the violence. Turkish Cypriot participation in the central government ceased on December 23, 1963, when all Cypriot Turks from the lowest civil servants to ministers, including the Turkish Vice-President Dr Fazıl Küçük, were out of the government. UN peacekeepers were deployed on the island in 1964, effectively recognising the Greek Cypriots as the government. UK PM Sir Alec Douglas-Home said international intervention was essential: “There would probably have been a massacre of Turkish Cypriots” which were confined in enclaves totaling little more than 3% of the island.


In July 1974, Makarios was overthrown by a coup carried out by the Cypriot National Guard which supported the military dictators who had seized power in Athens. Turkey invaded Cyprus on July 20 and  took control of 38% of the island. 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled the northern areas and  60,000 Turkish Cypriots were transferred to northern occupied areas by the UN. Since then, the southern part of the country has been under the control of the internationally recognised Cyprus government and the northern part occupied under a Turkish administration and the Turkish army. Turkey relocated 40,000 Turkish civilians to the occupied part of the island through coercive measures, meaning that now only 45% of the Turkish population were actually born on Cyprus.


Many have accused Britain of its customary divide and rule tactics. Nicos Koshis, a former justice minister, said: “It is my feeling they wanted to have fighting between the two sides. They didn’t want us to get together. If the communities come together maybe in the future we say no bases in Cyprus.” Martin Packard, a naval intelligence officer, told Jolyon Jenkins of the BBC that in 1964 he had to take US acting secretary of state George Ball, around the island. Arriving back in Nicosia, says Packard, “Ball patted me on the back, as though I were sadly deluded and he said: That was a fantastic show son, but you’ve got it all wrong, hasn’t anyone told you that our plan here is for partition?”
Historians such as Brendan O’Malley, Ian Craig, Lawrence Stern and  William Mallinson have argued that the U.S. had a continuous, decade-long plan to partition Cyprus through external military intervention and that this plan was based on the strategic value of Cyprus as a military base and source of intelligence. Caroline Wenzke and Dan Lindley  disagree: “While the U.S.’s rationale was not always commendable or favourable to the Cypriot people and at times the State Department’s
decisions may merit criticism, the U.S. did not orchestrate a decade-long conspiracy to protect its own interests on the island.”

When Cyprus applied  to join the EU in May 2004, members of both communities (and citizens of EU) have been able to cross the buffer zone. A UN-sponsored referendum on reunification was held on 21 April 2004. Turkish Cypriots voted to accept the UN plan as stated in the referendum, but Greek Cypriots rejected it by a large majority.


The first elections to take place after Cyprus’s accession to the EU and the failed referendum, were in 2008. Dimitris Christofias of the communist party became president and  started talks with on the reunification of Cyprus as a bizonal federal state. His hopes for Greek Cypriot approval of such a plan were thwarted  by the nationalists’ victory in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Turkey’s own bid for EU membership has constantly been thwarted and they may now have given up. EU membership was a strong factor in reconciliation for the island of Ireland but that avenue seems to have closed for Cyprus.
Although Northern Cyprus has been a de jure  member of the EU since 2004, EU law is “suspended” there. Cyprus currently holds the EU presidency for the first time. President Christofias has stressed that the Cyprus Presidency will be a European Presidency, that it would only promote the EU’s interests as a whole, working as an honest broker. Cyprus is the fifth state to ask for a EU bailout. Standard and Poors estimate 15 billion euro will be needed. There is growing fear that the main victim of the Cyprus EU Presidency will be the ongoing re-unification talks.
On July 19 2012, Christofias welcomed an agreement which will continue the identification process of exhumed remains, believed to belong to missing persons in Cyprus. The President announced that soon the first 280 samples of remains, believed to belong to about 70 missing persons, will be delivered to the International Commission on Missing Persons. He also said that the remains of 330 missing persons have been identified, 66 of whom are Turkish Cypriots and the rest Greek Cypriots. He stressed that the healing process for the families of missing persons will only end when the remains of the last of those victims are identified, on the basis of international law. The European Court of Human Rights established that there had been continuing violations by Turkey of Articles 2, 3 and 5 of the Convention concerning the right to life, liberty and security and prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment. Turkey was found to have failed to conduct an effective investigation into the fate of the Greek Cypriot missing persons who disappeared in life-threatening circumstances or were in Turkish custody at the time of their disappearance.
Mehmet Ali Talat, a leftist like  Christofias, was  president until 2010 of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. He said  he wanted a Cypriot federation with a central government and a shared flag  but “the Greek Cypriots aren’t cooperating.” The north has increasingly attracted undesirable elements. Turkish Cyprus attracts fugitives seeking sanctuary in a territory without extradition arrangements, smugglers, human traffickers and gamblers. Electricians, plumbers and bricklayers cross the border to work in  EU territory. Some 80,000 Turkish Cypriots, or about one-third of the population in the north, now have EU passports. They can obtain health insurance and medical treatment in the south, and board direct flights to other countries.
Nicosia is internationally recognised as the capital of Cyprus but buffer zone runs through Ledra Street dividing Greeks and Turks, although the street was re-opened on 3 April 2008.
Eleni Mavrou, a Greek Cypriot MP said in 2005: “Reconciliation means facing our past. It involves accepting the mistakes of  the other side and accepting that both sides have suffered in one way or another and through this process facing the future. It means understanding that we cannot continue living in the past so we should concentrate on the possibility, the capability of creating something together for the future. In the political realm, it means a dialogue that should lead to an agreement on the future constitutional, territorial, settlement of the Cyprus problem.

Sir Roger Casement Part2

Irish Patriot

Although one normally thinks of Irish Nationalist Republicans as being Catholic, Casement was not the first to come from the Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmett, John Mitchel, Charles Stewart Parnell and Erskine Childers were heroes of the Nationalist pantheon who were Protestants.

In the 1970s the leader of the Provisional IRA had the impressively Gaelic name of Sean Mc Stíofáin. He was in fact an Englishman called John Stephenson.

Casement had long been interested in Irish history and believed that the Irish had a distinctive character which could not thrive within the existing constitutional framework and relationship with Britain. His interest was transformed from a hobby into a passion by his friendship with Alice Green. She was the widow of the distinguished English historian, JR Green, and built a substantial reputation as a historian in her own right. Her main thesis in her writings was that the English, far from civilizing the savage Irish, had imposed a destructive alien rule on a highly cultured community.

Casement connected his Congo experiences with his analysis of the colonization of Ireland by the English. The English had not only parcelled Irish  land out as property, they had distributed it among themselves and appropriated most of its produce. The population of Ireland had been drastically reduced by undernourishment, disease or emigration. This was particularly devastating in the 1840s when the failure of the monoculture crop caused by recurrent potato blight led to widespread famine compounded by doctrinaire economic policies based on ‘free’ trade.

A commission of inquiry investigating the financial relationship between England and Ireland concluded that, since the Act of Union of 1800, the Irish had actually been overtaxed relative to the English. Even the fiercely loyalist Ulster unionist leader, Colonel Saunderson, said, “When Englishmen set to work to wipe the tear out of Ireland’s eye, they always buy the pocket handkerchief at Ireland’s expense.”

It was easy to see the parallels with Leopold’s ‘system’ in the Congo. In 1904, Casement was not anti-English and continued to be employed by the British crown. However, his passion for Ireland led him to start learning the Irish language in that year and he met the Irish nationalist writer, Stephen Gwynn at the Festival of the Glens. He contributed financially to Irish cultural causes. Gwynn described him thus: “What remains in my mind is chiefly the impression of his personal charm and beauty…Figure and face he seemed to me to be one of the finest-looking creatures I had ever seen; and his countenance had charm, distinction, and a high chivalry. Knight-errant he was; clear-sighted, cool-headed, knowing as well as any that ever lived how to strengthen his case by temperate statement, yet always charged with passion.”

Casement resigned from the consular service in 1912. The following year, he helped form the Irish Volunteers. He worked hard to raise funds for the Irish independence movement but was distrusted by some because of his background serving the Crown and because he was too moderate. However, the extreme Clann na Gael leader, McGarrity was devoted to him. A gunrunning enterprise in late July 1914 which he had helped to organise and finance further improved Casement’s reputation.

In September 1914, Casement met the German Ambassador to the US in New York and attempted to secure German aid for Irish independence. In November 1914, Casement negotiated a declaration by Germany which stated, “The Imperial Government formally declares that under no circumstances would Germany invade Ireland with a view to its conquest or the overthrow of any native institutions in that country. Should the fortune of this great war, that was not of Germany’s seeking,  ever bring in its course German troops to the shores of Ireland, they would land there not as an army of invaders to pillage and destroy but as the forces of a Government that is inspired by goodwill towards a country and people for whom Germany desires only national prosperity and national freedom.” Casement  travelled to Germany and negotiated with Under Secretary of State in the Foreign Office, Arthur Zimmermann and with the Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.

The main purpose of his visit to Germany was to talk to Irishmen who were prisoners of war. The plan failed because all Irishmen fighting in the British army did so voluntarily. The Germans, who were skeptical about  Casement but nonetheless were aware of the military advantage they could gain from an Irish rebellion against England They  offered the Irish 20,000 rifles and ten machine guns with accompanying ammunition. This was a mere fraction of what Casement had hoped for.

Casement did not get much thanks from the Irish Republican Brotherhood for his efforts. They deliberately kept him in the dark and even tried to replace him. He did not learn about the 1916 Easter Rising until the plan was fully developed. The German weapons were never landed in Ireland. The British  had intercepted German communications out of Washington and knew there was going to be an attempt to land arms even if the Royal Navy was not precisely aware of where. The arms ship under was apprehended by HMS Bluebell on the late afternoon of Good Friday. About to be escorted into Queenstown (present day Cobh, birthplace of my father) in County Cork on the morning of Saturday 22 April, after surrendering, the ship was scuttled by pre-set explosive charges. Her crew became prisoners-of-war. Casement was put ashore at Banna Strand in County Kerry on 21 April, 1916, three days before the Easter Rising began. He was too weak to travel and was soon arrested on charges of treason, espionage and sabotage and taken straight to London.

Trial and Execution

The trial was something of an embarrassment to the British government. The Treason Act seemed to apply only to treasonous activities conducted on British soil and Casement’s crimes had been committed in Germany. The court decided that a comma be read into the text allowing a broader interpretation.

In his speech from the dock, Casement said that he was being tried by a foreign power which exerted its rights over him and his countrymen by conquest.

“It is a rule derived not from right, but from conquest. Conquest, my lord, gives no title, and if it exists over the body, it fails over the mind. It can exert no empire over men’s reason and judgment and affections; and it is from this law of conquest without title to the reason, judgment, and affection of my own country men that I appeal. I would add that the generous expressions of sympathy extended me from many quarters, particularly from America, have touched me very much. In that country, as in my own, I am sure my motives are understood and not misjudged,  for the achievement of their liberties has been an abiding inspiration to Irishmen and to all men elsewhere rightly struggling to be free in like cause.

We are told that if Irishmen go by the thousand to die, not for Ireland, but for Flanders, for Belgium, for a patch of sand on the deserts of Mesopotamia, or a rocky trench on the heights of Gallipoli, they are winning self-government for Ireland. But if they dare to lay down their lives on their native soil, if they dare to dream even that freedom can be won only at home by men resolved to fight for it there, then they are traitors to their country, and their dream and their deaths alike are phases of a dishonorable phantasy.

If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against a state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for man to fight and die without right than to live in such a state of right as this.

Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours—and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them—then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.’

In spite of pleas for clemency from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, and GB Shaw, Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916 at the age of 51. Casement converted to Catholicism just before his execution. After his execution, Casement’s body was buried in quicklime in the prison cemetery.

In 1965, his remains were repatriated to Ireland. Half a million people filed past his coffin as it lay in state for five days. Thirty thousand Irish citizens, including the frail 85-year-old president, Eamon de Valera, the last surviving leader of the Easter Rising, attended a state funeral with full military honors. Casement’s remains were buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Casement’s Homosexuality

Even before his execution, a smear campaign was underway with copies of the so-called ‘black diaries’ being circulated. The documents show Casement to have been a promiscuous homosexual with a penchant for boys and young men. There was always a strong lobby arguing that these were forgeries.

In August 1916, the English poet Alfred Noyes (I remember being subjected to his greatest hit, “The Highwayman” at primary school – it was voted England’s 15th favourite poem in 1995),  was working in the News Department of the Foreign Office.

He wrote: “I have seen and read them and they touch the lowest depths that human degradation has ever touched. Page after page of his diary would be an insult to a pig’s trough to let the foul record touch it.”

Later Noyes  was  in Philadelphia to give a lecture on English poets, but before he could utter a word he was confronted by Sir Roger’s sister, Nina. “A  lady of distinguished bearing rose in the audience and asked if she might say a few words… to my horror and that of the audience, she announced that she had come for the express purpose of exposing the speaker of the evening as a ‘blackguardly scoundrel’. ‘Your countrymen,’ she cried, ‘hanged my brother Roger Casement.’ “

He admitted he might have been mistaken and his admission was seized upon by Casement sympathisers. Twenty years later, Yeats named Noyes in a withering attack: “Come, Alfred Noyes, come all the troop That cried it far and wide Come from the forger and his desk Desert the perjurer’s side”.

In 1957, Noyes tried to make amends  when he published The Accusing Ghost or Justice for Casement in which he argued that Casement had indeed been the victim of a British Intelligence plot.

His conversion, and Yeats’s  protest in verse, cemented the idea that the diaries were forgeries. However, an independent forensic  team published the following verdict:

“The unequivocal and confident conclusion which the Giles Document Laboratory has reached is that each of the five documents collectively known as the Black Diaries is exclusively the work of Roger Casement’s hand, without any reason to suspect either forgery or interpolation by any other hand. The Diaries are genuine throughout and in each instance.”

Jeffrey Dudgeon’s (Dudgeon himself was instrumental in getting homosexual acts decriminalized in Northern Ireland in 1982) annotated 2002 edition of the diaries, accompanied by a perceptive and empathetic biographical treatment, went a long way towards integrating Casement’s nationalist, humanitarian and gay lives.

Obama Tortured by British Shock!

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.”

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