Caroline Edkins is an assistant Professor of History at Harvard University and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright and Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship. Her research on Britain’s Gulag was the subject of the BBC documentary Kenya: White Terror, which was shown in Britain in November 2002 and was awarded the International Committee of the Red Cross prize at the Monte Carlo Festival.
Edkin’s 2005 book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of the Empire in Kenya, published by Jonathan Cape, is the product of nearly a decade’s research. The US paperback edition of the book was also published in 2005 by Owl Books under the title, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. It paints a picture of British colonial rule in Kenya that is deeply at odds with the supposed colonial mission to pacify and civilize the African indigenous people. What comes forth instead, are actions that portray the British colonial officials as being guilty of some of the most unimaginable brutality, savagery and inhumanity.
By the virtue of their skin color, whites of all classes in colonial Kenya were the master race and therefore deserving of privilege. Virulent racist ideology grew more intense over time as the so called native was moved along the racist spectrum from stupid, inferior, lazy and childlike to savage, barbaric, atavistic and animal-like. This shift in characterization would correspond closely to the African’s increasing unwillingness to be exploited by the colonial economy, and with their desire to reclaim land they considerd to be rightfully their own. And, though all indigenous groups were affected by British colonial rule in Kenya, none experienced repression as intensely as the Kikuyu.
At the heart of the book is the Mau Mau, a peasant mass movement that was galvanized by growing kikuyu discontent, largely driven by Kikuyu soldiers, who returned from serving in the Second World War. Threatened by the colonial government with yet another eviction, sometime around 1943, the local Olenguruone residents radicalized the traditional Kikuyu practice of oathing using it to secretly recruit many Kikuyu against the British. By 1950, the massive scale of the oathing campaign made the movement’s detection unavoidable. At the time, the colony’s African Affairs Department noted that secret meetings were being held in which illegal oaths, accompanied by appropriately horrid rituals, were being administered to initiates binding them to treat all Government servants as enemies, to disobey Government orders and eventually evict all Europeans from the country.
With enormous grassroot support, there were hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu who had taken an oath of unity, pledging their lives for Mau Mau and its demand for land and freedom. By 1950 Kenya was on the verge of one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars of decolonization fought in Britain’s twentieth-century empire. After the murder of Senior Chief Waruhiu a British loyalist at the hands of an assassin, the British began to clamp on the movement arresting its suspected leaders. Though there was no direct evidence to implicate him as directing either the oathing campaign or escalating terror, ex Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta was pinpointed as the mastermind behind the Mau Mau movement. A state of emergency was imposed. On the morning of October 21, 1952, scores of Kenyan policemen, white and black, zealously carried out their arrest orders, rousing suspected Mau Mau protagonists like Jomo Kenyatta, Paul Ngei, Fred Kubai, and Bildad Kaggia from their sleep.
Even with such arrests, the prevailing Mau Mau threat never relented, and no one was thought safe from them. Local Europeans chastised the colonial government, and Governor Baring in particular, for being too hestitant in eliminating Mau Mau. Many called for a wholesome extermination of the Kikuyu population.
This did not happen, of course. However, the British government, firmly bent on suppressing the Mau Mau, became more and more repressive. Local officials and their agents applied extreme acts of brutality against the Kikuyu. They used electric shocks as well as cigarrettes and fire, bottles (often broken), guns barrels, knives, snakes, and vermin. Hot eggs were thrust up in men’s rectums and women’s virginas. Colonia agents were accused of burning the skin of live suspects and forcing them to eat their own testicles. They used forced labor and systematic torture, all the time maintaining the illusion that their actions were the epitome of civilized behaviour, and casting themselves as harpless victims, rather than perpetrators of crimes, seeking to evoke sympathy, not condemnation, and straining to maintain a benevolent image as advocate and protector of African intertests in Kenya.
Given the claims in Britain’s Gulag, it is, perhaps, not surprising that a group of Kikuyu comprising former Mau Mau detainees are suing the British government for crimes committed against them during the Kenya Emergency.
Moses Kibe Kihiko holds a Master’s degree in Leadership Studies. He recently published his book “Public Leadership: The Ten Defining Moments How Leaders Acquire & Handle Fame, Power & Glory “with Miraclaire Publishing, Website: www.miraclairebooks.com). Moses is the CEO of Practicum Leadership, a training, consultancy, writing and research firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.