Documentary proof of the ‘evil nature' of the British empire and of atrocities committed in its name has been unearthed.
The past few weeks have not been good for apologists of the British raj. First, there was that mea culpa of sorts by British Prime Minister David Cameron over Kashmir that upset many on the Right. Answering a question on a visit to Pakistan about what Britain could do to help resolve the Kashmir dispute, he said: “I don't want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world's problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”
This caused outrage back home. He was accused of “distorting” history and “running down” his own country while on foreign soil to buy cheap popularity with his Pakistani audience. There was shock and horror in right-wing circles at the sight of a proud Tory trying to “distance himself from Britain's imperial past.” The Tory press, ever on guard against any attacks on the long-lost empire, dug up an old quote in which Mr. Cameron had spoken of the glories of British history and said that Britain should do more to celebrate it. So what was going on? Critics argued that even Labour leaders had not stooped so low to please their hosts. The Telegraph said Mr. Cameron “could learn something from his predecessor in No 10,” Labour's Gordon Brown who, on a visit to Africa, declared that “the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over” and that “we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it.”
Not be left behind were quite a few Liberal academics. Tristram Hunt, a respected historian and a Labour MP, called Mr. Cameron's remarks “naïve” saying he had “a tendency to go to countries around the world and tell them what they want to hear, whether it is in Israel, Turkey, India and Pakistan.”
But Mr. Cameron's mea culpa was nothing compared to what was to hit the Rajwallahs a few days later: shocking official documentary proof of the often evil nature of British empire and of the atrocities committed in its name.
The Mau Mau revolt
After denying their existence for more than 50 years, the British Foreign Office was forced last week to produce a cache of documents relating to Britain's brutal and violent suppression of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the 1950s and its attempts to cover up what is regarded as one of the most shameful episodes in British colonial history. The papers — some 1,500 files — were secretly taken out of Kenya in 1963 before the country gained independence and brought to Britain as the colonial administration feared that they “might embarrass Her Majesty's Government,” according to extracts published in The Times.
Until now, officials had claimed that the papers had been “lost” and were untraceable. In the event, they were found safely hidden in a Foreign Office archive; and they may have remained hidden there had the Government not been forced to unearth them following a High Court order after four surviving victims of British atrocities sued the Government demanding an apology and compensation for their ill-treatment. They claimed they were victims of a “system” of torture and abuse and the Government in London knew what was going on but did nothing.
Case supported by Kenya
Their case is supported by the Kenyan Government but Britain, while not denying the allegations, argues that it cannot be held responsible for the actions of the colonial administration which transferred all legal liability to the Kenyan republic on independence in 1963.
The files which were removed days before Kenya was formally granted independence reveal systematic abuse of suspected Mau Mau rebels. One document says that an officer was implicated in burning alive a suspect. The methods used to crush the eight-year-long rebellion included whippings, beatings and even sexual abuse. In 1952, an army officer Colonel Arthur Young, who was sent from London, brought this to the notice of Kenya's governor Sir Evelyn Baring and complained that not enough was being done to stop it.
“I do not consider that in the present circumstances government have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that in its screening camps the elementary principles of justice and humanity are observed,” he wrote.
Yet the abuses continued.
The files also show how attempts were made to cover up the abuses with the Attorney-General of Kenya's colonial administration observing: “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”
Files have ‘new information’
According to David Anderson, professor of African politics at Oxford University and an expert witness who appeared on behalf of the claimants, the files reveal a “highly significant amount of new information.”
“Many of the documents provide copious detail on the administration of torture and substantive allegations of abuse,” he said.
Describing the papers as the tip of the iceberg, Prof Anderson said there might be similar “missing' documents relating to other British colonies such as Malaya, Cyprus, Nigeria which have not been disclosed.
“The Mau Mau claim is not the only claim the British Government may have to worry about. Claim may arise from, for example, Palestine and there is a fear that a successful claim (in the Mau Mau case) could set a precedent,” he said.
According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed while 1,60,000 were detained in appalling conditions on suspicion of their involvement in the uprising.
The Raj apologists have sought to shrug it off arguing that the rebels themselves were guilty of “unspeakable crimes” not only against the British but those of their own countrymen who did not support them. It was simply a case of “appalling atrocities” by the rebels provoking “appalling retaliation” by the British, wrote one such apologist.
But others believe that modern Britain's refusal to acknowledge the ugly legacy of its imperial past is “a dangerous encouragement,” as The Guardian writer Seumas Milne warned, “to ignore its lessons and repeat its crimes in a modern form.”