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British crimes in Kenya

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

Submitted by George Callaghan…

Crimes against humanity are not part of a civilising mission. The action of British and Kenyan Forces in the 1950s present what civil servants once called ‘presentational difficulties.’ Sentimental imperialists like me have to reckon with some monstrous acts committed by the British Army and by Kenyan soldiers under British command. It is possible to believe that the United Kingdom held legal title to Kenya and that the empire did many splenderous things for Kenya whilst also acknowledging that some aspects of British imperialism in Kenya were deplorable. Imperialism took Kenya from the iron age to the jet age in two generations. The improvements wrought by imperialism are truly breathtaking. The very concept of Kenya is a British one.

From 1952 to about 1956 a guerrilla conflict raged in Kenya. Irregular conflicts never bring out the best in soldiers in terms of chivalry. The enemy does not wear a uniform and is usually not regarded as a soldier. Therefore, he is a brigand, freebooter, franc tireur or a terrorist. An unlawful combatant is usually not held to benefit from the Geneva Convention and seldom abides by it. The Mau Mau Rebellion was no exception to this general rule. Civilian raiment acts as camouflage. The Mau Mau fighter could strike the Crown Forces and then blend back into the civilian populace. Mau Mau normally hid deep in the forest though and away from population centres.

Why do we have a rule that combatants must wear a uniform and carry weapons openly? This is so soldiers can tell friend from foe. If the enemy wears your own uniform then you are likely to shoot your own side on suspicion that they are enemy fighter engaged in ruse de guerre. Moreover, if combatants do not wear a uniform then soldiers will suspect that every civilian is an enemy combatant. A soldier might be tempted to kill a civilian because he might be enemy fighter and that soldier is not going to take the chance that this person had a concealed weapon. Geneva Convention rules are there to reduce gratuitous suffering.

There are acceptable counterinsurgency actions. Habeas corpus can be suspended and almost every country has done it at some time.  Those suspected of abetting the rebels might be housed in encampments so long as these are humane and the people are amply furnished with nutriment, accommodation, healthcare and sanitation. Requiring people to move from one place to another is often done. Checkpoints, searches and compulsory ID cards are all par for the course.  Shooting enemy combatants on sight is almost universally regarded as permissible. If you ask him to lay down his gun (as the British Army did in Northern Ireland) might allow him a chance to shoot you.

If someone permits an enemy combatant to hide in his house or to conceal weapons in that house is it permissible for the security forces to burn the house? In the 1950s surely every government would have said yes. It was common practice. The argument being that this is no longer a civilian domicile but an enemy barracks or arms dump. If you do not raze the house it will simply be used again. The trouble is that the householder might have been coerced into letting the enemy fighter stay there or use it as a cache. If you are too scrupulous as security forces then you will lose to those who are more ruthless.

The Geneva Convention prohibits the destruction of civilian property not justified by military necessity. If burning a civilian residence as adumbrated above allowed by that rule? I suppose that it is.

What transpired in what was then British East Africa often overstepped the bounds of ethical or legal counterinsurgency. Some egregious crimes were committed. The number of Kikuyu people detained was probably excessive. Those suspected of being concerned in Mau Mau were questioned. The interrogators were often guilty of an overexuberance for their task. Suspects were commonly battered. The abuse that suspects suffered sometimes turned into outright torture. This was richly ironic considering that only two years before the conflict commenced the United Kingdom had publicly vowed never to use torture under any circumstances whatsoever. The defence of this being done in extremis has no merit.

In Camp Hola there was a notorious incident where 11 detainees were beaten to death. Some luckless detenus were mutilated and one was even castrated. There can be no plea in mitigation for such infernal cruelty. It is galling that the UK claimed to be civilising Kenyans whilst visiting such barbarities on colonial subjects.

There were huge numbers of pro-British Kenyans. These loyalists were sometimes overzealous in fighting to defend the British Empire. This occasionally spilled over into committing atrocities against Kikuyu people.

Only a naif would think that an armed conflict is ever fought entirely cleanly by either side. There will be bad eggs on both sides of every conflict. That means people who do not do simply accepted things such as slaying an enemy fight in combat. What is damnable is to kill a prisoner when he is not trying to escape or attack his guards. Torture or other cruel treatment is condemnable as are crimes against civilians. An armed conflict can never be picturesque. I am glad that I have never been near one. An irregular conflict tends to be especially unedifying. The protagonists tend to be especially unchivalrous in these situations.

There will be psychopaths on both sides. There are fighters who committed crimes when they were not ordered to do so. In this case the authorities need to take action to investigate and punish the malefactor. But in Kenya malfeasants seem to have enjoyed impunity. I am not aware of a single member of the security forces white or black who was ever held to account for his crimes however gross.

What happened in Kenya was not simply a handful of headcases in the Crown Forces being a disgrace to the uniform. It went rather further than that. The abuses were fairly large scale and quite widespread. The moral case for imperialism was seriously undermined by the significant and sustained misconduct of forces in Kenya. This stretched all the way to murder. I use that word advisedly. Killing an enemy fighter in combat is not murder. Judicial execution is not murder. To have a prisoner totally under your control who is not trying to escape or to seize a weapon and to then beat him to death is murder by any definition. However, people got off scot free for these grisly crimes. It is deeply shameful that they were never held accountable.

Sir Kenneth O’Connor was the UK’s hanging judge in Kenya. He was the Chief Justice of the colony. Just in case you think that Ireland was not involved in this bear in mind that Sir Kenneth was Irish. Admittedly Sir Kenneth was not in the service of the Irish Government. He was serving Her Britannic Majesty. Sir Kenneth’s bloody assizes sent hundreds of Mau Mau combatants to their doom. His prolific death sentences make me wonder if trials were rushed. Capital punishment was not so controversial back then. Nonetheless the large scale use of the supreme sanction makes me queasy. Killing someone in battle is one thing. But when someone is a prisoner and no longer a danger it seems unnecessary and vindictive to kill him. Dedan Kimathi was one person for whom O’Connor donned the black cap.

I do not besmirch the honour of every member of the security forces in Kenya at the time. I do not suggest that all or even most of them were even indirectly involved in these abuses. However, at least a significant minority were.

Mau Mau fighters who were wounded in fights deep in the jungle were commonly finished off by the Crown Forces. Was this coup de grace or murder? I am inclined to think it was the latter. Otherwise they would be left to a lingering death and could be eaten alive by ravening beasts. But perhaps I am making excuses too enthusiastically. In some cases presumably that Mau Mau prisoner was only lightly wounded and could simply have been left to recover if he could not be taken with retreating Crown Forces. Am I being too moralistic? The Crown Forces would say: we could not take him with us since he could not walk and we could not carry him nor would we leave him to recover and kill us later. Faced with that situation I do not like to think what I would have or should have done.

Sir Winston Churchill was Prime Minister for most of this conflict. Churchill’s reputation as a lion of liberty is seriously impugned by his involvement in these grave misdeeds in Kenya. What was going on in East Africa was no mystery to London. The Cabinet was apprised of the situation. These serious breaches of human rights were reported in the newspapers. The free media ensured that the public was kept abreast of events. Some politicians such as the redoubtable Barbara Castle raised her voice on these issues. One unlikely advocate for decency in Kenya was a certain John Enoch Powell. Therefore no one can plead ignorance on behalf of Churchill. All this happened with at least his connivance. He had a stroke in 1954 but was still somewhat in control of his faculties. British officials who composed memoranda on the counterinsurgency drew parallels between some of the shocking crimes of the Crown Forces and abuses committed by the Third Reich.

The Mau Mau conflict makes uncomfortable reading. An armed conflict is always distasteful. But a counterinsurgency is so often particularly hideous. It is unpleasant to bring oneself to reckon with the very considerable crimes committed by the Crown Forces in Kenya. There is a bogus notion about that if you fight ethically you can prevail against rebels and if you fight unethically you shall not. This is quite often untrue. Regimes with no ethical scruples whatsoever such as Red China, the USSR, Saddam’s Iraq and the Pakistani Government have annihilated rebels. Liberal Western states with some minimum moral standards, a free media and independent courts ring hands over acceptable methods. Much more restrained countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany have struggled to contain rebellions or terrorist campaigns.

Though there was grave wrongdoing by colonial forces in Kenya and the iniquities were not isolated or few the scale and severity should not be overstated either. The victims of massacres were in the dozens. In comparison to the number of victims of massacres in the 1950s that is small fry. No that does not justify it. It was still murder. Actual torture was only used in a small minority of cases.

Conscience stricken officials expressed their disgust at these horrifying misdeeds committed in the name of the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty. It stuck in the craw to see the Queen swathed in the most elysian robes and bedecked in the most resplendent jewellery while her minions in Kenya were inflicting the most grievous cruelty on defenceless prisoners. Indeed the Queen was in Kenya when her father died and she discovered that she had succeeded to the Crown.

The astonishing thing is that having comprehensively thrashed Mau Mau the UK granted independence to Kenya just 8 years later. Jomo Kenyatta was false accused of being involved in Mau Mau. He and most of the doyens of independent Kenya were dead against Mau Mau. It remained illegal for decades afterwards.

We are often told that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is vital to ensure liberty for the citizens of signatory countries. Since the United Kingdom left the EU the government has mulled about repealing the Human Rights Act which incorporates the ECHR into UK domestic law. The curious thing is the United Kingdom had ratified the ECHR in 1950. This did not stop fairly large-scale crimes being committed by British security forces and Kenyan Forces under British command in the 1950s. Just as the ECHR was worthless in the 1950s we need not be too troubled if the UK repeals the act of accession thereto now.

Admittedly, the ECHR had not been made part of UK domestic law. Nor indeed was Kenya a part of the United Kingdom. As a colony it was ultimately controlled not by its own legislative council but by the UK. Her Majesty’s Government and the British Armed Forces in Kenya were supposed to be conducting themselves in accordance with the articles of the ECHR.

We are so often told that the ECHR is sacrosanct. How come it did not stop these crimes being committed in Kenya? At that same time France was battling to maintain control of Algeria. The French Armed Forces committed crimes on a much larger scale than the British in Kenya. This is not what aboutery. The British misdeeds were not acceptable because they were not the most prolific.

Though the crimes of the Crown Forces should not be overstated they definitely occurred. There is a mountain of documentary evidence. I am not one who wants to apologise because Cain slew Abel. But the crimes of the 1950s are within living memory. Therefore, an apology would be apposite. UK courts have founded that the United Kingdom and not Kenya is liable for any compensation to be disbursed to the victims of this horrid abuse.

Some of those who abused Kenyan prisoners are still alive. Should they not stand trial? The ‘’just following orders’’ defence was rejected by British judges at Nuremberg.

A candid acknowledgement of injustice and of outright evil acts committed against Mau Mau prisoners and against innocent civilians ought to be made. This is morally imperative in itself. It would also allow the UK to build a more cordial and mature relationship with Kenya. As Kenya is the third largest economy in Africa it is increasingly important to develop more trade with this country. If one cannot appeal to an ethical sense in London at least London has a head for business.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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Olivia Kroth
July 10, 2020

Thank you for this interesting report. I have read similar reports telling about atrocities the British committed in India. They were no angels, for sure.

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Olivia Kroth
July 11, 2020

How true, George Callaghan!
“What happened in Kenya was not simply a handful of headcases in the Crown Forces being a disgrace to the uniform. It went rather further than that. The abuses were fairly large scale and quite widespread.”

The abuse by the “Crown Forces” was systemic in Kenya, in India, in all of the British colonies world-wide. It is a very ugly and dark chapter of British history.

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Olivia Kroth
July 11, 2020

Not only Kenya and India, Myanmar was terrorized as well by the British, they called it “Burma”. All of Myanmar came under British rule, on 1 January 1886. Myanmar’s resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralysed Yangon (Rangoon) on occasion, all the way until the 1930s. Some of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Myanmar’s culture and traditions such as the British refusal to remove shoes when they entered pagodas. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement.U Wisara, an activist monk, died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest against a rule… Read more »

Tony Sustak
Tony Sustak
July 10, 2020

I went through about as much of this article as I could stand. As a military veteran myself and as someone who has since learned quite a bit of REAL history, I am disgusted by the equivocating. Straight up: War is a crime. Imperial occupation is a crime. Killing on behalf of imperial occupation and to further imperial ends is a crime. Looting a countries human and natural resources for the benefit of one’s home country’s oligarchs is a crime and is against the actual interest of any sane person in the imperial heartland’s military. Eventually, what the imperial oligarchs… Read more »

July 11, 2020

This article is incredibly ignorant. You need to do some proper research like I did:

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