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Historical background

The Role of Expert Historians

The full extent of the abuses committed by the British colonial administration during the Kenya Emergency (1952-1960) has only recently been understood.

In 2005 two ground-breaking academic studies about the Emergency dramatically changed the accepted understanding of this period of history.

These were:Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Professor Caroline Elkins of Harvard University and Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by Professor David Anderson of Warwick University.

Both these studies, which were based on extensive archival research and witness evidence from both Kenya and the UK, concluded that there was regular and widespread abuse of detainees during the Kenya Emergency.

Subsequent work by Dr Huw Bennett of Aberystwyth University has built upon this revised history and brought to light the crucial role of the British Army in Kenya during the Emergency, and its role in the abuses.

Professor David Anderson, Professor Caroline Elkins, and Dr Huw Bennett have each provided extensive expert reports in support of the claimants’ claims. These reports have been complemented with statements of first witnesses to events in Kenya during the Emergency.

The “Kenya Emergency” (1952 – 1960)

The 'Kenya Emergency' or  'Mau Mau rebellion' lasted from 1952 to 1960. The core of the resistance to colonial rule was formed by members of the Kikuyu ethnic group, although a wide range of other Kenyan tribes also participated.

In 1952 the Governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, declared a state of emergency and obtained authorisation from the Colonial Office in London to detain suspected Mau Mau members without trial.

In June 1953, British Army General Sir George Erskine arrived in Kenya to direct the security forces’ operations against the Mau Mau, with a mandate to restore law and order to the colony. Erskine had full operational control of both the colonial security forces and the British Army which had been deployed to Kenya to counter the insurgency.

On 24 April 1954, the Colonial Administration launched an assault on the Mau Mau which was known as “Operation Anvil”, whereby 17,000 Mau Mau suspects were rounded up and incarcerated in detention camps without trial. Detainees were moved from one camp to another, where the treatment was of increasing or decreasing severity depending on the detainee’s willingness to cooperate and denounce the Mau Mau.

In particular, detainees were expected to confess that they had taken “the Mau Mau oath” and to repent of having done so.

In 1954, in a process known as “villagisation” was initiated and in the region of 1 million Kenyans were forced to burn their homes and rounded up for six years in 854 villages fenced with barbed wire where acts of brutality by colonial guards were widespread.

It is estimated by historians that, over the years which followed, as many as 150,000 suspected Mau Mau members and sympathisers were detained without trial in a labyrinth of about 150 detention camps and 'screening centres' littered around Kenya known as 'the Pipeline'.

From the inception of the detention camps the Colonial Administration engaged in widespread acts of brutality. Detainees were subjected to arbitrary killings, severe physical assaults and extreme acts of inhuman and degrading treatment.

The acts of torture included castration and sexual assaults which, in many cases, entailed the insertion of broken bottles into the vaginas of female detainees.

Camp guards engaged in regular severe beatings and assaults, often resulting in death. In the course of interrogations in some cases guards would hang detainees upside down and insert sand and water into their anuses.

In 1957, the Colonial Administration decided to subject the detainees who still refused to cooperate and comply with orders to a torture technique known as 'the dilution technique'. The technique involved the systematic use of brute force to overpower the Mau Mau adherents, using fists, clubs, truncheons and whips.

This brutality would continue until the detainees cooperated with orders and ultimately confessed and repented of their alleged Mau Mau allegiance.

The violence in the camps culminated in March 1959, when eleven detainees were killed by camp guards in a single incident at a detention facility known as the Hola Camp.

The resulting inquest found that each death was caused by shock and haemorrhage due to multiple bruising caused by violence at the hands of camp officials.

The public outcry which resulted from the Hola killings lead to the Fairn Report, which was published on 1st September 1959 and reported the use of excessive force in the emergency detention camps.

The Emergency was ended on 13th January 1960 and the camps were subsequently closed.

Harold Macmillan gave his 'Winds of Change' speech on 3rd February 1960 and Kenyan independence was eventually granted in 1963.

Professor Elkins states: “There is no record of how many people died as a result of torture, hard labour, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and starvation. We can make an informed evaluation of the official statistic of eleven thousand Mau Mau killed by reviewing the historical evidence we know…The impact of the detention camps and villages goes well beyond statistics. Hundreds of thousands of men and women have quietly lived with the damage – physical, psychological, and economic – that was inflicted upon them during the Mau Mau war.”

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