Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, study, ‘Britain’s Gulag’, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups. The Mau Mau uprising was an armed rebellion launched by the Kikuyu, who had lost land during colonisation.
The British, declaring a state of emergency in October 1952, proceeded to attack the movement along two tracks. They waged a forest war against 20,000 Mau Mau fighters, and, with African allies, also targeted a bigger civilian enemy: roughly 1.5 million Kikuyu thought to have proclaimed their allegiance to the Mau Mau campaign for land and freedom. That fight took place in a system of detention camps. The British had sought to quell the Mau Mau uprising by instituting a policy of mass detention. This system – “Britain’s gulag”, as Elkins called it – had affected far more people than previously understood. She calculated that the camps had held not 80,000 detainees, as official figures stated, but between 160,000 and 320,000. She also came to understand that colonial authorities had herded Kikuyu women and children into some 800 enclosed villages dispersed across the countryside. These heavily patrolled villages – cordoned off by barbed wire, spiked trenches and watchtowers – amounted to another form of detention. In camps, villages and other outposts, the Kikuyu suffered forced labour, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder.
Many documents relating to the detention camps were either absent or still classified as confidential 50 years after the war. Elkins discovered that the British had torched documents before their 1963 withdrawal from Kenya. Files indicate that roughly 3.5 tons of Kenyan documents were bound for the incinerator. The scale of the cleansing had been enormous. For example, three departments had maintained files for each of the reported 80,000 detainees. At a minimum, there should have been 240,000 files in the archives. They also expatriated colonial records that were considered too sensitive to be left in the hands of successor governments. One record 1961 dispatch from the British colonial secretary to authorities in Kenya and elsewhere, states that no documents should be handed over to a successor regime that might, among other things, “embarrass” Her Majesty’s Government. British officials acknowledged that more than 1,500 files, encompassing over 100 linear feet of storage, had been flown from Kenya to London in 1963. Under legal pressure, the UK government finally acknowledged that the records had been stashed at a high-security storage facility that the Foreign Office shared with the intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. It also revealed a bigger secret. This same repository, Hanslope Park, held files removed from a total of 37 former colonies.
Elkins found a few hundred. But some important records escaped destruction. One stamped “secret”, revealed a system for breaking recalcitrant detainees by isolating them, torturing them and forcing them to work. This was called the “dilution technique”. Britain’s Colonial Office had endorsed it. Over some 300 interviews, Elkins heard testimony after testimony of torture.
After the country gained independence in 1963, its first prime minister and president, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, declared repeatedly that Kenyans must “forgive and forget the past”. This helped contain the hatred between Kikuyu who joined the Mau Mau revolt and those who fought alongside the British. Elkins met young Kikuyu who didn’t know their parents or grandparents had been detained; Kikuyu who didn’t know the reason they had been forbidden to play with their neighbour’s children was that the neighbour had been a collaborator who raped their mother. Mau Mau was still a banned movement in Kenya, and would remain so until 2002.
“I’ve come to believe that during the Mau Mau war British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic,” Elkins wrote in Britain’s Gulag. “Only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomising its men, women, and children could colonial authority be restored and the civilising mission reinstated.” After nearly a decade of oral and archival research, she had uncovered “a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead”. 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are unaccounted for, an estimate derived from Elkins’s analysis of census figures.
At the Royal Courts of Justice in London plaintiffs from rural Kenya have come to seek justice. In court, lawyers representing the British government tried to have the Mau Mau case tossed out. They argued that Britain could not be held responsible because liability for any colonial abuses had devolved to the Kenyan government upon independence. But the presiding judge, Richard McCombe, dismissed the government’s bid to dodge responsibility as “dishonourable”. He ruled that the claim could move forward. “There is ample evidence even in the few papers that I have seen suggesting that there may have been systematic torture of detainees,” he wrote in July 2011. Foreign Office lawyers then conceded that the elderly Kenyan claimants had suffered torture during the Mau Mau rebellion. But too much time had elapsed for a fair trial, they contended. There weren’t enough surviving witnesses. The evidence was insufficient. In October 2012, Justice McCombe rejected those arguments, too. The British government, defeated repeatedly in court, moved to settle the Mau Mau case. On 6 June 2013, the foreign secretary, William Hague, read a statement in parliament announcing an unprecedented agreement to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused during the insurrection. Each would receive about £3,800. “The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague said. Britain “sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.” It was the first time Britain had admitted carrying out torture anywhere in its former empire.
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