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“Brutalities” and “Barbarities”: The Violence of the British Empire in Kenya

July 10, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

“Histories of the Hanged” by David Anderson is a book that offers a detailed and balanced account of the Emergency period in Kenya – between 1952 and 1960 – when the Mau Mau revolt broke out and was later cracked down by the British. The book sheds light on the extremely violent methods that the British empire employed to preserve an order that could no longer hold. The book illustrates  two lessons that apply still today. Firstly, when a war breaks out brutalities are committed by both parties involved in the conflict hence if justice is to be pursued, responsibility should  be sought on both sides of the fence. Secondly, barbarity and irrational violence are rarely epistemological concepts that can help to understand the situation. In the case of Kenya, what was perceived to be a return to primitivism was in fact the consequence of social and political processes. The failure to recognize such causes leads to the incapacity to settle the conflict.

Brutalities. Firstly, judicial execution was massively used to suppress the rebellion. To get an idea of the scale imagine that between 1952 and 1958 the British hanged 1090 Kikuyu men (one of the main tribe in Kenya) for Mau Mau offences. If the massive extension of capital punishment is a symptom of the institutionalization of violence in Kenya, what is more striking is the justification of the use of extra-judicial punishments. In the effort to isolate the Mau Mau movement and to suppress the passive support, the British put in place measures that could incentivize other Kikuyu to remain loyal to the empire. These measures included but were not limited to: villagization whereby entire communities were forced to resettled in regulated with the not much disguised purpose of punishing Mau Mau sympathizers; land consolidation, whereby land owned by Mau Mau sympathizers was arbitrarily disposed and reallocated to loyal Kikuyu; the use of torture to “convince” Mau Mau sympathizers to confess their sins. In sum, as Anderson puts it “predation backed by official acquiescence was repeated throughout Kikuyuland (..) excesses were condoned if not actively encouraged”. Also important is that when the British left, this process of consolidation of resources in the hands of the loyalist Kikuyu was crystallized in the new Kenyan political landscape. The failure to recognize and come to terms with the brutalities of the loyalist Kikuyu and of the British and the inequality generated, fostered a sense of injustice and resentment amongst the victims of this violence, thus preempting a process of national reconciliation. Thinking today of Ivory Coast in the aftermath of the post-election violence, the importance of recognizing the atrocities committed by both parties stands out.

Barbarities. When the Mau Mau revolt started both white settlers and British officials seemed to have no doubt about the origin of such violence. The violence of the Mau Mau was accounted for in terms of a “mental illness” and “the inability of the Kikuyu to grapple with modernity”. No space was left for social grievances so that the violence could not be imputed to what settlers had done. Yet social and political grievances was one of the main cause of the violence.

Land was arguably the most crucial source of political grievance. When the European settlers begun to settle in the highlands they claimed land in an arbitrary manner. However, as they lacked capital to develop the farm they allowed Kikuyu farmers to stay on “their” land in exchange of labor. The former became de facto squatters, without being aware that they could be evicted by their landlord without right to appeal.  Also a steady supply of labor was secured through the levy of tax of the colonial states, so that some 40,000 Kikuyu became squatters between 1902 and 1940. The price spikes brought about by World War II provided the settlers with the necessary capital to the develop their farms. Squatters were no longer needed and therefore were to be “repatriated” to their Native Homeland. When the evicted Kikuyu squatters returned to the districts they had left long time ago they found that no space for them was left. Population pressure had in fact made land a scarce resource in the Native Homeland and hence newcomers could be hardly welcomed. The quest for the restitution of their expropriated land combined with a sense of resentment towards the Kikuyu chiefs and elders unwilling to provide for the landless offered fertile grounds for a more militant wing that sought to claim back these rights with the force.

The unwillingness to recognize social and political claims had an important consequence: Mau Mau was not to be considered a political movement and this served to justify in the court of law the routinely resort to extra-judicial violence on behalf of loyalist Kikuyu. Barbarity came to be used to justify brutality. The British resorted to brutality because they were unwilling to recognize the rights to the land they had expropriated. The use of the term barbarity by Western media and politicians to describe violence in Africa today conceals rather than reveals the social and political roots of the conflict. It brushes aside the injustice at the root of the grievances thus preventing the conflict to be settled. If the West wants to constructively engage in Africa, new epistemological categories should be used.


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