1950s British War Crimes in Africa

British Tyranny in Kenya

by Gwydion M. Williams

18th century Britons were mostly not racist. They participated in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but they also shipped British and Irish criminals and rebels off to the West Indies, where they were at a level with slaves bought from Africa. (Almost all sold by other Black Africans, from societies where slavery was viewed as normal.)

In the 19th century, a greater concern for morality by the rising middle classes pushed race relations in the wrong direction. Slavery was wicked, but non-whites were viewed as biologically inferior. They were definitely unacceptable for as long as they rejected Christianity.

The Slave Trade was banned in 1807 in the UK, and in 1808 in the USA. Britain went on to abolish slavery in the Empire by 1833, whereas it lasted till the 1860s in the USA . Slavery in the USA might have lasted till 1900 or later if Abraham Lincoln’s initial Civil War proposals for compromise and slow abolition had been accepted.[1] But even as the British Empire got rid of slavery, it strengthened racism. Non-white Christians remained unequal, and were placed on a racial hierarchy. A hierarchy in which the general rule was that the darker you were, the lower you stood.

In the 18th century, Britons in the Indian subcontinent had initially intermarried and formed the beginnings of a multi-racial society. Hindus and Muslims were seen as strange and alien, but not as inferior. Sadly, the 19th century zeal for reform and improvement included a strong belief in racism and white superiority. Intermarriage was frowned upon, and there was a definite limit to how high anyone non-white could rise.

In Britain itself: the population until the 1950s included very few non-whites and there was no formal segregation. But up until the 1950s, ideas of a racial hierarchy were mainstream. Multi-racists were a minority and mostly on the left.

The British Empire had a much stricter racial hierarchy. It was modified by class: non-white aristocrats could sometimes go places that ordinary white people could not. It was also not as rigid as the whites-only democracy of the USA. But it far too rigid for the Empire to survive when racism got rejected.

Britain’s hold on India was doomed when it lost Singapore, a supposedly impregnable fortress taken in a seven-day battle in February 1942. The British-led forces had a more than a 2-to-1 advantage against the Japanese, but simply collapsed. The Labour government elected in Britain in 1945 included principled anti-Imperialists, but also many who wanted the empire to continue on a modified basis. George Orwell was one of the latter, and his main wartime work was making propaganda for a BBC service directed at the Empire’s Indian subjects at a time when Mahatma Gandhi and their other main political representatives in the Congress were in jail for refusing to support the war without some definite promise of independence.[2]

The main reason for granting India independence was that British control of the Indian Subcontinent after 1942 was not really sustainable. Some Indian soldiers had fought for Japan and there were communist insurgencies within India.

Which didn’t mean that the British Empire was seen as a lost cause. India became free in 1947 and made itself a Republic in 1950. But there were lots of colonies left and a notion that they might be kept for some time. This applied particularly where there were large numbers of white settlers, people who considered that they were there for good. ‘White Highlands’ were prized, and there was no hesitation about kicking out the natives who lived there.

In North America, Australia and New Zealand the natives had been successfully marginalised and sometimes slaughtered. In Africa they were much too numerous for such treatment, but could be displaced from the best land. In Kenya, the Kikuyu people were the main victims and the main force in the Mau Mau uprising.

The British response was not significantly different from the behaviour of the regular armed forces of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. There were no death camps, and nothing as bad as the Nanjing Massacre. But there was mass brutality by British troops, arbitrary detention and regular use of torture and mutilation.

In 1959, with the battle largely won, the issue came before the House of Commons. Harold Macmillan was Tory Prime Minister and had granted independence to the Gold Coast, which became Ghana and was briefly famous under Kwame Nkrumah. The Federation of Malaya also became independent, later joining with several small states to become Malaysia. But the issue of Kenya was still live. Both future Labour minister Barbara Castle and noted Tory Enoch Powell made interesting contributions to a debate over eleven suspected Mau-Mau being beaten to death while in British custody. Barbara Castle spoke first:

“I do not think the hon. Member can have heard the last three speeches by his colleagues. A more nauseating parade of complacency I have never heard, and I have been in the House for fifteen years. To hear hon. Members opposite speak of it one would imagine that this was an unfortunate, minor incident. We heard from the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) most perfunctory regrets about this tragedy. That took two seconds of his time, and for the rest he told us that we must not undermine confidence in the Kenya Civil Service. The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. Armstrong), who spoke last, asked us to keep a ‘sense of perspective’ about this matter. We are discussing in all seriousness the future of the British Commonwealth. I ask hon. Members opposite this: if in any prison in Britain twelve men had been beaten to death, would anyone on the benches opposite have said, ‘Keep a sense of perspective about this, in view of the fine record of Prison Administration’? Of course not. Public opinion in this country would not have permitted anyone to do so. The speeches to which we have listened to tonight are a reflection of the very basis of the problem which we face in our remaining Colonial Territories. Quite instinctively, sincerely and genuinely, without even being aware of it, hon. Members opposite do not believe that an African life is as important as a white man’s life.

“If it had been eleven European prisoners who had been beaten to death, what would hon. Members opposite have said? Would they have said that no heads need roll except the head of the man lowest on the ladder? Would they have said that these were in any case criminals, so it did not matter? The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir R. Robinson) himself became a party to this argument. He asked us to remember that, after all, these were desperate, hard-core Mau Mau murderers. He gave us an example of a Mau Mau detainee who confessed to 35 murders.

“The men whose fate we are discussing tonight are men who have not confessed. That is why they are dead. Simply because they had not confessed, simply because their guilt has not been established, they have been subjected to the Cowan Plan of being taken forcibly to a work site and put in such a situation that death inevitably resulted…

“We cannot escape that responsibility because the Attorney-General of Kenya, with the backing of the Colonial Secretary, has told us that, although it has been indubitably established that these eleven men were murdered, no criminal charges can be brought against anybody…

“I say to the Colonial Secretary quite advisedly that I have memories of similar punishments meted out in the past which did not in the end amount to a row of beans. I remember years ago taking up the Kamau Kichina case in Kenya. It was that which first got me interested in this Colony. I found that a helpless African prisoner, supposed to have been in the custody of a European district officer, Mr. Richmond, was somehow strung up out of doors for five days and nights and successively beaten, left without food, exposed at night naked. In the end, nobody is called properly to account. When he dies, it is not murder, and when he dies nobody pays the full penalty for that neglect. In this House I brought to the Colonial Secretary’s attention the fact that the court proceedings 224 repeatedly condemned the behaviour of the district officer. I was attacked for maliciously pursuing civil servants just doing a good job. Eventually the Colonial Secretary said there was to be a disciplinary inquiry into his conduct, and eventually he was sacked—and twelve months later we found out by accident that he had turned up again as African Affairs Officer to the Aberdare County Council in another part of Kenya.

“So we are not impressed by the punishment meted out to Mr. Sullivan. I say it is an insult to Africans unparalleled in British colonial history for a man found guilty on three counts of ‘grave dereliction of duty’ leading to eleven deaths to be retired from his job without a penny loss to himself. I challenge every hon. Member opposite: is he really prepared to sit here tonight and stomach that?” [3]

More abstract but equally interesting is Powell’s contribution:

“Many aspersions have been cast and many imputations made by hon. Members opposite in the course of this debate with which I could not for an instant associate myself. And yet I cannot regret that even at this hour the House is once again considering the affair of Hola Camp. For the further documents relating to the deaths which were issued as a White Paper last week confirm what was already pretty clear from the earlier evidence, that it could be to the credit neither of this House nor of this country that the matter should rest where it now stands.

“The affair of Hola Camp was a great administrative disaster, and to that administrative disaster there were three aspects. There was the authorisation of an operation which in its nature was likely to have fatal results; there was the failure to see that that operation, such as it was, was at least carried out with the minimum of risk; and, finally, there was the incident, which it is difficult to find a word to describe, of the water cart communiqué. The new documents show that the responsibility for all three aspects of this administrative disaster goes higher than can be discharged by the premature retirement of the officer in charge of the camp or by the retirement, accelerated by a few weeks, of the Commissioner of Prisons…

“It has been said—and it is a fact—that these eleven men were the lowest of the low; sub-human was the word which one of my hon. Friends used. So be it. But that cannot be relevant to the acceptance of responsibility for their death. I know that it does not enter into my right hon. Friend’s mind that it could be relevant, because it would be completely inconsistent with his whole policy of rehabilitation, which is based upon the assumption that whatever the present state of these men, they can be reclaimed. No one who supports the policy of rehabilitation can argue from the character and condition of these men that responsibility for their death should be different from the responsibility for anyone else’s death. In general, 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.’

“It is then said that the morale of the Prison Service, the morale of the whole Colonial Service, is above all important and that whatever we do, whatever we urge, whatever we say, should have regard to that morale. ‘Amen’ say I. But is it for the morale of the Prison Service that those who executed a policy should suffer—whether inadequately or not is another question—and those who authorised it, those to whom they appealed, should be passed over? I cannot believe that that supports the morale of a service.

“Going on beyond that, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) reminded the House how proud the Colonial Service is of the integrity of its administration and its 237 record. Nothing could be more damaging to the morale of such a service than that there should be a breath or a blemish left upon it. No, Sir; that argument from the morale of the Prison Service and the Colonial Service stands on its head if what we mean is that therefore the consequences of responsibility should not follow in this case as they would in any other similar case.

“Finally it is argued that this is Africa, that things are different there. Of course they are. The question is whether the difference between things there and here is such that the taking of responsibility there and here should be upon different principles. We claim that it is our object—and this is something which unites both sides of the House—to leave representative institutions behind us wherever we give up our rule. I cannot imagine that it is a way to plant representative institutions to be seen to shirk the acceptance and the assignment of responsibility, which is the very essence of responsible Government.

“Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, ‘We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.’ We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere. All Government, all influence of man upon man, rests upon opinion. What we can do in Africa, where we still govern and where we no longer govern, depends upon the opinion which is entertained of the way in which this country acts and the way in which Englishmen act. We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.”[4]

As far as I know, nothing much was done. Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech in 1960 settled the question of independence – Britain was going to give up its African colonies. He made the speech in South Africa, which had for 50 years been self-governing under white minority rule. It remained such for another 34 years, conceding a non-racial franchise only in 1994. Kenya got independence in 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta. He had been identified with the Mau-Mau and imprisoned on that basis, but in power he definitely distanced himself and worked mostly with those Kikuyu who had been hostile to the Mau-Mau.

Torture as well as beatings were not individual excesses: they were part of British policy. Torture was for a long time denied. Then when claims for compensation became pressing, government lawyers found an ingenious way out. They claimed that Britain bore no responsibility for the actions of a colonial administration that took orders from London: the responsibility had passed to newly independent Kenya. At the time of writing this remains the position, despite the recent release of documents taken from Kenya and hidden in Britain for decades.

Powell himself took a highly logical line. Unlike Castle, he was not standing up for equality. He did not say that black lives were just as valuable as white lives. He was willing to classify the dead Africans as “the lowest of the low”. But he insisted they still had rights.

Powell had wanted the Empire run on a fair basis. But once it was gone, he wanted Britain preserved as it had been when he was young. He was actually a functional conservative, which most other Tories have not been. His policies would have conserved Britishness as it then existed. Personally I am glad that his sort of Britishness perished. The regrettable thing is the very slow progress towards finding anything positive to replace it. But with modern Toryism consisting mostly of greed and amoral emptiness, something new is certain to come.


[1] The deadline of 1900 was part of Lincoln’s proposals to end slavery in those slave states that had not seceded. By his understanding of the US Constitution, slavery within an individual state was protected unless the Constitution should be amended. He claimed the right to abolish slavery in seceded states, because they no longer had valid governments.

What he might have offered the Confederate states to surrender before the bitter end remains unknown: they refused to surrender. With the war over, the South was occupied territory and Radicals had a majority in the North. They passed an amendment to abolish slavery and another to prevent anyone being denied the vote on racial grounds. As 1860s-vintage radicalism faded, black rights were suppressed by unofficial but blatant terrorism, which lasted till the 1960s.

[2] See The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius [http://wikilivres.ca/wiki/The_Lion_and_the_Unicorn]

[3] [http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1959/jul/27/hola-camp-kenya-report#S5CV0610P0_19590727_HOC_543]. My thanks to Tom Docherty for drawing attention to Powell’s stand.

[4] Ibid.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2013


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