I thought I knew the story of the Mau Mau. Reports of it were circulating when I was old enough to be paying attention. This past week, my assumptions about how much I understood were blown away.
As very often happens with things I want to talk abut, this discussion started with an episode of RadioLab. If you want to go right to the inspiration for this blog, there is link at the end. I will go ahead and give a summary of the information here.
During WWII, thousands of Kenyan tribesmen had fought for justice and freedom on the British side. When they returned home, they found they were given no quarter when it came to their own personal freedom and prosperity. Between 1952 and 1960, the Kenyan tribal people’s anger at their treatment at the hands of the colonial government boiled over. Led mostly by Kikuyu, a sworn brotherhood of rebels rose up with the goal of ejecting the British from their land.
Some horrific incidents ensued. A few settler families were butchered, including in at least one case, a small child. Stories began to circulate abroad of savage black on white violence. The news that spread worldwide reported that the Mau Mau warriors were a splinter group, that their wishes and tactics were espoused by only a small percentage of the population, that the majority of the tribal people wanted the Mau Mau to be controlled. The violence involved was portrayed as black Africans gone berserk. Eventually the term Mau Mau came to mean brutal rebels out for nothing but blood.
And that’s the way the story remained. In 1963, when the British withdrew from the Kenya Colony, lots of their colonial records were destroyed or tossed overboard (as was the practice with all the colonies, large and small.)
End of story.
Until the 1990’s when Caroline Elkins, a Princeton undergrad history major went to Nairobi to research her senior thesis. In the Government Archives building, she came across a curious file. It seemed to contradict the prevailing Mau Mau story. After finding other files in that Nairobi repository, she began to interview people about what had really happened. The evidence that she rediscovered pointed to the fact that there were thousands of Kenyans involved in the Mau Mau “war,” and that contrary to popular belief most of the victims were, not white settlers, but Kenyan tribal people. Eventually, the trail of investigation led to the town of Milton Keynes, northwest of London, site Hanslope Park—a top-secret repository of British government archives. Suspicions were that more and damning information regarding the British behavior vis-à-vis the Mau Mau reposed in that place. But access was impossible.
That stalemate was not broken until 2012, when a group of elderly Kenyans won permission to sue the British government for their suffering at the hands of their colonial rulers. In the course of the case, files from the secret stash were subpoenaed, and contrary to anyone’s expectations, the judge ordered the government to open its records. What emerged was a picture, not of black savagery on whites, but the opposite. One source that I consulted put the white death count at 32. Hundreds of thousands of blacks were imprisoned in concentration camps, and many thousands were executed, others castrated, raped, and tortured.
As a result, the British government was found guilty of committing violence against the tribal people of Kenya Colony. They paid the plaintiffs in the case £14 Million and another £6 Million in court costs. Most important of all, they took responsibility and apologized. Here is what Foreign Secretary William Hague said in June 2013, when the case was settled:
"I would like to make clear now, and for the first time, on behalf of Her Majesty's government, that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved in the events of the emergency in Kenya," he told the Commons.
"The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.
"The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya's progress towards independence."
One of the reporters of this story thought to ask, why did the British government keep those records? If they had wound up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean or in an incinerator, there would have been no proof of the allegations. Here is the good news: those files contain reports and complaints from British officials who were appalled about what was happening in Kenya, and they kept the files because they wanted a record both of the wrong-doing of their government and of their objections to it.
If you want to hear a riveting account of all this on the best radio show in history of the universe—RadioLab, go here.
If you want to see a wonderful film about one of the plaintiffs in the case and how he went to primary school in his 80’s, you should watch the great film The First Grader. After the sad story told by this post, the film will lift your heart! Here is the trailer.
Annamaria - Monday