Last week’s headline ‘Burying the Empire?’ brought me one or two puzzled mails from friendly readers, not helped, it appears, by the question mark at the end. Who was in fact burying the empire? Was it me? Was it a declaration of intent or was it a statement of the reality? Was it one of the speakers at the conference? It certainly wasn’t the ‘Legacy of Empire’ gathering itself, which was struggling to keep the whole notion alive through the eloquence of some of the elderly but passionate speakers.
I think what I had been trying to communicate was that there are those who clearly feel it is time to see the concept of the British Empire dead and buried, but there also those who would like it to be refreshed as a good thing, and its virtues stressed more than its vices. Hence the question mark. There should be another question, asking that, if we bury it, are the misdeeds perpetrated in its name also to be buried? It is pertinent at the moment because of the out-of-court settlement amounting to £19.9m between a group of over 5,000 Kenyans tortured in the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s and the British government.
This has followed the unearthing of extensive documents in the British archives providing documentary proof of the abuse. Much of the evidence was also published several years ago in two books, one by Caroline Elkins called Imperial Reckoning, the other by David Anderson, Professor of African Politics at Warwick University is History of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. The titles speak immediately of the relationship of the subject matter to the broader problem, of an in-depth historical assessment of the Empire.
Anderson and Elkins were in a group of historians who worked alongside the law firm Leigh Day spending ten years fighting the case. As Anderson recounts in an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, there was a large tranche of documents which “the British government smuggled out of Kenya in 1963 and brought back to London”. Some 3.5 tonnes of documents had been destroyed by the authorities in Kenya. But those occupying 30 metres of shelf space in the archive in London were later tracked down by an enterprising Foreign Office official called Edward Inglett. The judge in the court case eventually ordered the release of this secret ‘cache’ of about 1,500 files.
The more one reads of this the more astonishing it becomes, Anderson writes that the documents show that responsibility goes right to the top “sanctioned by Kenya’s governor Sir Evelyn Baring and authorised by cabinet minister Sir Alan Lennox-Boyd” then Colonial Secretary, and, incidentally well-known for having presided over Nigeria’s decolonisation. Lennox-Boyd did not order that routine torture and abuse be stopped, simply taking steps to “place them beyond legal sanction.” Caroline Elkins, interviewed by the BBC said that Baring even wrote to Lennox-Boyd commending a particular torture technique called ‘dilution’ as a means of extracting information.
The unusual aspect of this tale is that the documents were preserved, when they could easily have been destroyed along with many other such relics of colonial rule, because of what Anderson describes as “the unease of some British colonial officers” who felt that they would carry the can rather than their superiors. On the evidence, says Anderson, they were right to worry. Just as discreditable has been the British government’s refusal for a long time to accept that anything untoward had happened, as well as the way they fought the case in the High Court. Although not a huge amount when broken down, the judgment is deeply symbolic. Moreover, as Africa Confidential points out, the case could, ironically, have serious implications for the action of the International Criminal Court against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy Ruto in connection with the post-election violence in 2008.
Now with this judgment there is going to be a focus on some other blatant cases in Malaya, Cyprus and Aden, where similar actions may be taken. Britain has in fact been behind other former colonial powers in facing up to misdeeds when ruling former territories. That most often quoted has been the millions of euros offered to Namibia by the German government to compensate for the genocide against the Herero people in the early 20th century, accompanied by a public apology. More recently, although David Cameron apologised for Bloody Sunday in 1972 in Ulster, he only expressed regret for loss of life for the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919.
Even if some may argue that these have to be balanced against brutality committed by the Mau Mau (which the British media had sensationally publicised at the time), history will increasingly ensure that the rebellion has to be seen as a nationalist revolt for independence. And any idea that Britain’s period of imperial rule was somehow superior to that of others will stand up with even greater difficulty.