The Crimes of Empire

In early April 2011, four elderly Kenyans – three men and one woman – appeared in the High Court in London, accusing England of systematic torture during their siege of the so-called Mau Maus and demanding reparations for their treatment.

One of the men was castrated by the British colonial government in Kenya. Handcuffed and pinned to the ground with his legs pulled apart, his genitals were sliced off by the white officers.

He was then left for days without medical attention until he was liberated by Kenyan rebels.

The one woman claimant was subjected to sexual torture. White soldiers repeatedly inserted bottles of boiling hot water into her vagina.

In addition to these cases, thousands of Kenyans were maimed, lynched and brutally murdered by the British during the last century.

Thousands of others were subjected to rape, forced labor, and gross abuse and torture in detention camps. It was part of a deliberate policy of the colonial British government to break a civilian population cast as “baboons,” “barbarians,” and “terrorists” and who were seen as a threat to the colonial order in East Africa.

The proper name for the liberation forces that fought against British colonialism and land-grabbing in East Africa was the Kenya Land and Freedom Army.

The movement was derisively called “Mau Mau” by the British propaganda machine in an attempt to depict these African freedom fighters as a primitive and anti-white tribal cult.

<p> Against this, the late CLR James described the movement as “an ad hoc body of beliefs, oaths, disciplines newly created for the specific purpose of gathering and strengthening the struggle against British imperialism, its military, political and economic domination and, in particular, the Christianity it sought to inject and impose”.

And it was land and white settlers, not African “tribal” beliefs that were at the heart of the so-called Mau Mau revolt against British colonialism.

The colonial invasion of central Kenya began in the late 1880s.

It was formalised through military conquest, particularly over the most numerous ethnic group, the Gikuyu, as well as the Embu and the Meru.

By 1903, the British colonial government sent in waves of white settlers, from South Africa and England, with the hope of creating another “white man’s country” in Kenya.

They stole between 60 000 and one million acres of land, settling whites in the most fertile regions with the coolest climates – an area they eventually named the “White Highlands”.

By the time the colony of Kenya came into being in 1920, more than 10 000 whites had settled over 25 percent of Kenya’s best territory.

At the same time, the African population, mainly but not entirely the Gikuyu, were driven into reservations or were forced to work as sharecroppers.

Then, through hut and poll taxes, restrictions on movement through the issuing of kipande (identity passes), and limits on agricultural production, Africans became systematically entrapped into the racist Kenyan colonial system.

Add to this mix the ever-expanding power of the white settlers and Christian missionaries, and Kenya was primed for a revolution.

Though all ethnic groups were affected by British colonial land-grabbing and dispossession, the Gikuyu experienced this most acutely.

They did not take lightly the heavy theft of land.

When, in 1943, the colonial government threatened groups of Gikuyu with yet another eviction from their lands, they decided to take action.

Their struggle began with overt passive resistance but was quickly radicalised.

Wings of the movement began armed guerilla attacks on white settler holdings and on Africans who supported the British regime.

At the height of the revolt, it was estimated that 1.5 million Gikuyu and other Kenyan groups had taken secret oaths of unity to fight against white settlers and colonial rule.

They were met with a brutal armed retaliation.

By late 1952, the colonial governor of Kenya declared a state of emergency. 

The colonial government established and enforced communal punishment, curfews, schemes to confiscate African properties, censors for publications, detention without trial, control of African markets, forced migrations, and detention and labor camps.

“By the time the colonial government ended the state of emergency, over 90 000 Kenyans were executed, maimed, or tortured, while 160 000 were held in detention camps.”

By late 1954 the revolt was said to have been militarily defeated by the British army, but the state of the emergency was not lifted until 1960.

During the six intervening years, the Mau Mau struggle continued as the British colonial government established a terrorist state.

The assault on the Africans continued both through the campaign to arrest and dispose of the alleged Mau Mau leadership, and in detention camps, prisons, and “emergency villages”.

The British focused primarily on forcing the Gikuyu to renounce their oath of unity by the most brutal means.

According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, by the time the colonial government ended the state of emergency, over 90 000 Kenyans were executed, maimed, or tortured, while 160 000 were held in detention camps.

Others have argued that the numbers were higher.

What is well-documented is how colonial agents were unrivaled in their barbarity.

They castrated and sexually abused, starved, and maimed detainees in order to force the alleged oath takers to confess. 

They used electric shock, cigarettes and fire, broken bottles, gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, and hot eggs were thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas.

The assault only came to an end when the Gikuyu population was almost physically decimated and psychologically broken.

If not for the legal case brought against the British government by four surviving Kenyans, we would not know about the trove of secret colonial files documenting the systematic nature of their torture of Africans.

The generation of Africans who fought against colonialism is dying without recognition of their fight or their suffering at the hands of racist colonialism.

In the current context where Africans, through organisations such as the ICC, are constructed and targeted as the greatest purveyors of “crimes against humanity,” it is well worth remembering the venal work of Europeans in Africa.

The demands for reparations may begin with four elderly Kenyans traveling to the old centre of the British Empire, but the colonial archive surely documents crimes against the Herero, the Congolese, and many other victims of European colonialism.

We should not forget their struggles. – Black Agenda Report

• Jemima Pierre is an editor at Black Agenda Report. She can be reached at

September 2013
« Aug   Oct »