A cache of government documents that shows the extent of the brutality employed by British authorities in an attempt to suppress the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya has finally been made public almost half a century after it was spirited out of the country on the eve of independence.
The papers disclose the depths to which the British authorities sank during the 1950s rebellion and prove that ministers in London were briefed fully about the abuses that were being inflicted upon prisoners at camps across the colony.
In a test case before the United Kingdom courts a group of former Mau Mau detainees is suing the British government. Two men were castrated while being tortured. The men were part of a violent uprising against British rule triggered by the loss of farming land to settlers.
While the British Foreign Office is not denying the allegations it is deploying a range of constitutional precedents to reject the claims, arguing that legal responsibility was transferred to the Kenyan republic on independence in 1963.
The high court in London heard that the latest cache of documents had been taken from Kenya as part of a policy of removing sensitive or incriminating files from former colonies and was later stored at a Foreign Office depository in Buckinghamshire. They were finally disclosed earlier this year.
They show that in June 1957 Alan Lennox-Boyd, secretary of state for the colonies, received a secret memorandum written by Eric Griffiths-Jones, the attorney general of Kenya, which detailed the abuse of Mau Mau detainees, who were being subjected to extreme violence upon admission to detention camps.
Blows were aimed mostly at the upper body, Griffiths-Jones wrote, adding that “vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys”. Those who protested would have “a foot placed on his throat and mud stuffed in his mouth … in the last resort knocked unconscious”.
Griffiths-Jones drafted changes to the colony’s laws to permit such abuses.
While expressing no concern for the legal or human rights of the detainees, his memorandum did express concern for those carrying out the attacks: “The psychological effects on those who administer violence are potentially dangerous; it is essential that they should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate.”
Griffiths-Jones’s memo was written for the governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, who passed it on to Lennox-Boyd with a covering letter, which asserted that inflicting “violent shock” was the only way of dealing with Mau Mau insurgents. Despite this, the Foreign Office is arguing that it is not legally liable as Lennox-Boyd was acting as Kenyan secretary of state at the time.
The documents also show that Colonel Arthur Young, a veteran police officer and Christian socialist who lasted less than a year as commissioner of the Kenyan police before resigning, told Baring in December 1954 that the camps “present a state of affairs so deplorable that they should be investigated without delay so that the ever-increasing allegations of inhumanity and disregard for the rights of the African citizen are dealt with”.
The following month Baring informed Lennox-Boyd that eight European officers were facing accusations of a series of murders, beatings and shootings. They included: “One District Officer, murder by beating up and roasting alive of one African.”
Despite receiving such clear briefings, Lennox-Boyd repeatedly denied that the abuses were happening and publicly denounced those colonial officials who came forward to complain.
The documents also contain descriptions of torture that the colonial officials themselves were providing to their superiors.
An African employee of the Special Branch “pushed pins into their sides, buttocks, fingers and, on at least one occasion, the head, and … pinched the sides of their bodies, penis and scrotum with pliers. He crushed the fingers of one detainee”.
Four of the test-case claimants, Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, who are in their 70s and 80s, flew from their rural homes for the hearing. Last week the judge, Mr Justice McCombe, heard Mutua and Nzili had been castrated, Nyingi spent two years in manacles before being beaten unconscious during an incident at a British detention centre in which 11 other men were clubbed to death, and Mara had been subjected to severe sexual violence.
The case continues. —