By Max Lawson
Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host
Together with slavery, colonialism was in many ways the original sin of today’s modern inequality, forcibly creating huge disparities of wealth across the world. Country after country lives with this legacy today; a legacy of an economic, legal and social structure designed to maintain the wealth and power of a very small ruling elite.
This is true in Kenya. In the creation of Kenya as a colony, huge tracts of land were given out to white settlers. Kenyans found themselves working for white farmers, on land that had historically been theirs. A whole legal and economic system, based on racism, was established, to benefit the small white minority who controlled the colony.
By the early 1950’s, this system was reaching breaking point. Many Kenyan men had fought in the second world war. They learned not only many modern fighting skills, they also learned that the white man was far from invincible, and had mixed with others like the Indian soldiers who were also fighting for their freedom.
The extreme pressure on land in Kenya created by colonial expropriation led to the emergence of the Land and Freedom Army (LFA), which was a group of guerrilla fighters determined to fight back against colonialism. They were supported by much larger numbers of ordinary Kenyans, sympathetic to their cause. The Kikuyu tribe, who had been one of the tribes that suffered most from colonial land-grabbing, were the leaders of this revolt, which became known as Mau Mau.
The guerrilla fighters had a number of successful attacks on white settlers and on Kenyans who were working for the regime in 1952 and 1953, killing 32 white settlers, and causing widespread panic.
This led to an enormous crackdown by the British colonial authorities which was deeply shocking in its scale and savagery. Nearly 80,000 Kenyans were detained in a network of concentration camps set up across the country. Nearly a million others were forced to move into heavily fortified villages, with women and children suffering some of the worst atrocities, often being worked or starved to death. White settlers had organised themselves into vigilante groups, and the British Army was brought in force to the country. Communities were bombed. Horrific torture and brutality were commonplace. Men were castrated. Women were raped and subjected to appalling abuse. Forced labour was used to build infrastructure, like the runway at Nairobi’s international airport, where one witness described how by noon each day five or six of each work party had died. It is conservatively estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died, the majority buried in unmarked graves.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet Josphat, a veteran of those times, and talk to him about his experience. He had been a teacher and had taken an oath of allegiance to the Land and Freedom Army, but he had not been a fighter. He is 91 now, yet still a large, strong man, and very articulate. He described how he had been detained for months, and in his words ‘savagely beaten’. He showed me the place, just a few miles from his house, where the detention camp had been set up by the British. He described the trench that surrounded it, with sharpened wooden spikes set into the ground. Now all that is there is trees, he says planted by the white men when the camp was finally destroyed.
The planting of trees was a very concrete realisation of a much wider cover up which was undertaken by the British authorities. There was a deliberate and concerted effort to conceal the scale of the brutality and what happened here. Masses of documents were officially destroyed.
This was helped by the fact that many of the atrocities had been committed on behalf of the British by Kenyans working on the side of the colonial authorities. In this way the Mau Mau uprising was as divisive as any civil war. Survivors today talk about their torturers still living in the same street. Many ended up in positions of power.
It was only recently, in a landmark case in the UK made by some of the survivors, brought much of the remaining evidence of brutality to light between 2010 and 2013, sixty years after it had happened. The UK government refused to agree liablity but did agree compensation for over 5000 survivors.
Mau Mau is covered really well in this very powerful BBC documentary, ‘White Terror’ which is well worth watching. The bit where Terence Gavaghan, the officer in charge of ‘rehabilitation’ is interviewed 33 minutes in is very powerful, and reminds me of the interviews of unrepentant Nazis carried out in the 1970’s. No coincidence, as whilst Britain was engaging in this forced labour, torture and death, it was at the same of course engaging in the Nuremburg trials.
Josphat was so gracious and forgiving of the British. He was keen to stress how much the British had brought to Kenya. I am not sure I could ever be able to be that forgiving. It was shameful what we the British did in Kenya, and it should never be forgotten.
The inequality of history and deliberate forgetting
It was embarassing to me how little I knew about Mau Mau before moving here to Kenya, despite having an active interest in both Africa and history.
Recently, my niece came to visit us in Kenya. At one point I was boring her about colonialism and she said ‘But Uncle Max, what actually is a colony?’. She has just successfully finished her exams, including modern history.
These two things really made me reflect on the paucity of teaching of empire and colonialism in the UK, and this has recently been raised by others. Children in school, including both me in the 1980’s and my niece in the 2010’s are taught almost nothing about Britain’s enormous empire and our history as a colonial power. They are taught that we beat Hitler. They are taught about King Henry XIII and his many wives. They are taught about slavery, but only with Britain cast as the hero, bringing an end to the slave trade, not as the country that probably benefited most from slavery. But no teaching of empire.
It is often said that history is written by the victors, so we only hear about kings and battles, and the escapades of rich and powerful people. In recent decades in the rich world, this has been rectified a bit as thanks to mass education, more people from working class backgrounds have become historians, and have in turn written about working class history. When this happened it was revolutionary in the way history was written. Yet such history from below, or people’s history, is barely written about poor nations. With the work of a handful of brilliant scholars, Mau Mau is a notable exception. But even this makes it nowhere near a school curriculum.
History is written by the victors, but it seems to me equally important that what is not written, and not taught, is also controlled by them. By shaping school curriculums and what is taught, they decide not just what we remember but what we forget. Large periods of history are not just omitted in a benign way. I think they are deliberately forgotten.
I think is really shocking that educated British people know so little about colonial history and our history as an empire. I also think it is not too conspiratorial to see this as in some ways deliberate. Britain’s empire and our actions are instrumental in the history of almost every major modern crisis, from Afghanistan to Palestine, from Syria to Iraq, or from Somalia to Haiti to name just a few. There is hardly an institution in modern Britain that was not shaped by empire in some way. This is not something it is easy or comfortable to remember. It is so much simpler to forget, to focus on the good news, like how we came together with the other allies to beat Hitler in World War Two and smash facism, not that we were engaged in fascist and racist actions in Kenya after that war had finished.
The British poet, rapper and historian Akala is incredibly eloquent on this topic; this is a recent short interview he gave which is well worth listening to.
The power to forget, and to deliberately make others forget, is a very dangerous one. I think as we see the rise in fascism and racism once again all over the world, there has never been a more important time to remember.