UK documents confirm torture of Mau Mau rebels

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Counter-insurgency is not easy. The U.S. knows something about that, especially now after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. History shows that even successful counter-insurgency campaigns often leave a troubled legacy. One example is the British campaign against the Mau Mau movement in Kenya in the 1950s. The Kikuyu and other ethnic groups in central Kenya rebelled against colonial rule and demanded access to land held by white settlers. The British cracked down hard. Last week, we reported how victims of that repression are suing in London for compensation. Their plight was highlighted in the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning IMPERIAL RECKONING: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BRITAIN'S GULAG IN KENYA by Caroline Elkins. She's a professor of African history at Harvard. Elkins is just back from testifying in the case and joins us in the studio. Professor Elkins, welcome.


WERMAN: Now when you wrote your book, there wasn't much in ways of official documentation but that's just changed in a dramatic way. Tell us what happened.

ELKINS: Yes, you know, it's been extraordinary. At the time of decolonization, a great number of the files were destroyed and many were withheld by the British government and for years we've been asking for these files that have been withheld and, literally, in the eleventh and a half hour of the court case, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office disclosed these files. 300 boxes in total. About 17,000 files.

WERMAN: And what do these files say? What are in these documents?

ELKINS: It's extremely important insofar as they tell us in part what we've already known. In other words, there was a great deal of work that I undertook in my research to piece this story back together again with the existing files. And I also did hundreds of interviews with survivors of the detention camps and emergency villages that the British had set up, a complete system of brutality and torture in Kenya. And since then, the response from British officials has been, Elkins is wrong. And I think what these documents are telling us is not only was I right in this but the claimants that are coming forward right now have plenty of evidence, including their own, that needs to be taken seriously.

WERMAN: Did you meet with the four Kenyan plaintiffs in the lawsuit? I mean, what do they want? What is their sort of goal here?

ELKINS: Yes, I have met with them and in fact was just with them in London and I think their goals are not dissimilar to those goals of individuals who I interviewed in the late 1990s and that was one, they want people to know what happened to them. In other words, this story was silenced for many, many years. And secondly, they're very, very interested and I think deserving of an apology.

WERMAN: How bad was the British campaign against the Mau Mau uprising? How bad did it get?

ELKINS: It was extraordinary in terms of the level of torture and brutality and I think one of the things that was also extraordinary was the degree to which the British went to cover this up. And it's only based upon my own research as well as the recent revelations coming out of the British government in terms of newly disclosed documents that we have a sense of the kind of torture and systematized violence that was condoned at the very highest levels of British government in order to reclaim Kenya for the sake of civilization.

WERMAN: Now one of the central issues of abuse concerns the processing of the Kenyan detainees, mostly Kikuyu detainees. The British authorities basically detained the entire adult male population of the disaffected ethnic groups but slowly released them after processing through what was called the pipeline. Now this is from a document that you had seen. This came out before this current stock of documents was released. I'd like to read just one passage that talks about how the British were very firm in making sure the detainees wore the camp uniform: Gavigan - he's the British officer who was in charge of these camps - Gavigan explained however that there had in past intakes been more persistent resistors who had to be forcibly changed into the camp clothing, that some of them had started the Mau Mau moan, a familiar cry which was promptly taken up by the rest of the camp, representing a concerted and symbolic defiance of the camp authorities. That in such cases it was essential to prevent the infection of this moan spreading through the camp and that, accordingly, a resistor who started it was promptly put on the ground, a foot placed on his throat and mud stuffed in his mouth and that a man whose resistance could not be broken down was, in the last resort, knocked unconscious. Now the evidence grows worse than that. Much worse, as you know, Caroline, and even more gruesome perhaps is the appendix in which the British written rules are enumerated that gave the British officials the right to do these things. Tell us how close the British government is to acknowledging this carefully engineered campaign against the Mau Mau?

ELKINS: It's an important question because, you know, for years subsequent to the publication of my book, there was denial that there was any kind of systematic torture. There were one offs, bad apples, if you will, in the British colonial administration. And there has been very much of a turnaround in this insofar as there is not much contestation in terms of fact any longer. The contestation is over who is responsible and, at this juncture, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is suggesting through a legal maneuver that the British government is actually no longer liable for these crimes that were committed.

WERMAN: How did they make that logic turnaround?

ELKINS: Well, the logic turnaround is in this in terms of responsibility. What they are suggesting is that all legal liability and responsibility passed to the Kenyan government at the time of independence.

WERMAN: Even though these crimes, as they are, took place during the 1950s? I mean, wasn't that prior to independence?

ELKINS: Was prior to independence and quite extraordinary, but nonetheless, what they are suggesting is that things went with the right of state, with the right of passage in terms of the independence transition. And again, it's extraordinary when one thinks about it. Even if they get away with it in terms of legal maneuver, in the court of public opinion, one has to imagine that people will look at this and suggest, not only are they no longer contesting fact but they're also contesting the fact that they have any kind of responsibility.

WERMAN: I mean, the catalog of abuses is horrific, but one point has to be made and that is, this was a comparatively successful counter-insurgency campaign. The detainees pipeline did flip a critical mass of former Mau Mau guerrillas. Can you also make that argument, Caroline Elkins?

ELKINS: Mm-hm. You know, in fact, I wouldn't. Listen, it depends on how you define success. At what cost did they have success? And in this instance it was with known and systematized brutality and torture against tens of thousands of people, number one. Now yes, did it get Britain out of the empire? Did it get them out of Kenya? Absolutely. But one has to ask about the long-term consequences of this. Not only do we see people irreparably damaged, 70 and 80 years old, living in the central province of Kenya but we see states like post independent Kenya and other places in the empire where similar kinds of counter-insurgency operations were invoked, we see these places as states where they continue to have authoritarian issues, where they continue to deploy the similar kinds of laws on the books that the British used to torture their own people. One has to ask about the question of colonial legacy and the ways in which Britain leveled these counter-insurgency operations.

WERMAN: What is the lesson, do you think, for Americans who may in future find themselves fighting counter-insurgency campaigns?

ELKINS: I think this is a very important cautionary tale for all of us. Britain deployed extraordinary tactics, torture and brutality and went to incredible links to cover it up. We also know that, in the 1950s, the British passed these same tactics directly to the Americans with a special envoy, Sir Robert Thompson, to the American administration. We deployed them in Vietnam and is now serving as the blueprint for our actions in the war against terror and we need to take a long, hard look at what's going on and to look at what happened in the past in places like Kenya to understand the ways in which it's informing our actions today.

WERMAN: Caroline Elkins, author of IMPERIAL RECKONING: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BRITAIN'S GULAG IN KENYA. Thanks very much for coming in. Good to speak with you.

ELKINS: Thank you for having me.

WERMAN: You can watch more of this interview. We've posted a video of Caroline Elkins further discussing the Mau Mau rebels at