Throughout the self-proclaimed ‘civilised’ western world, the ruling classes have banded together to denounce Hamas’ attack on Israel on 7 October and have rallied around Israel’s ‘right of self-defence’ as it bombs Gaza to smithereens. But this is not the first time we have been told to accept a bloody war against an oppressed people in the name of the oppressor nation’s ‘self-defence’.
King Charles III’s recent four-day trip to Kenya has stirred memories of one of the worst atrocities of Britain’s brutal colonial era. From 1952-1960, faced with an anti-colonial uprising, loyal British forces engaged in the extensive collective punishment of 1.5 million Kenyans – all in ‘self-defence’. Such was the brutality of the period that the British attorney general in 1957 described the situation as “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany”.
The Mau Mau uprising, known to the British at the time as simply the “Emergency”, was a poorly-equipped insurgency against the might of British imperialism, which was met with an unprecedented campaign of internment, torture, rape, forced labour and indiscriminate killing.
The British government didn’t talk about ‘democracy’ or ‘International Law’ – no, this was an old fashioned, unvarnished colonial war. But in all respects other than the stinking hypocritical language, the present war in Gaza is just that too: a colonial imperialist war, intended solely to destroy the spirit of resistance among the Palestinians, as the British attempted to break the Kenyan people in the 1950s.
The violence of the oppressed
British media played a key role in exaggerating the cruelty of the Mau Mau, whilst underplaying and hiding any distasteful acts by loyalists. The capitalist media boldly maintains this time-honoured tradition of lies and slander even today, as evidenced countless times during Israel’s current war on Gaza.
From the very beginning of the uprising, British newspapers were swamped with lurid and often completely fabricated descriptions of Mau Mau violence, inspired by scandalising reports handed out by the government.
One government report described Mau Mau fighters as “terrorists insatiable for blood” who murdered children “in the sight of their mothers”. Such a statement could have been lifted verbatim from today’s descriptions of Palestinians in the capitalist press! Bourgeois newspapers loyally echoed this message, proclaiming the Mau Mau to be “barbaric”, “savage”, “bestial” or “merciless”.
The death toll from Mau Mau attacks was also grossly exaggerated by the press, giving the impression that thousands of white Kenyans had been killed in various unsavoury ways. Official reports, however, put the real number of white Kenyans killed from 1952-1960 to be less than 100, the majority of whom were soldiers killed in combat. Anthropologist Robert Edgerton notes that, during the eight year insurgency, more white civilians were killed by traffic accidents in Nairobi than by the Mau Mau. Official estimates put the total number of loyalist casualties at less than 2,000.
The violence of the oppressor
While the Mau Mau were certainly guilty of killing innocents, this pales in comparison to the brutality of the British. Officially, the British government claims that around 10,000 Kenyans were killed by loyalist soldiers.
This includes over 1,000 people killed by hangings, which were carried out at a rate that was unprecedented for the period. At the height of the uprising, 50 Kenyans were being hanged every month, many on charges as vague as ‘rebellion’. Only a minority of those executed by the British were charged with murder.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. As historian Caroline Elkins points out, there is no record of how many non-combatants died as a result of torture, malnutrition, abuse and forced labour. Elkins estimates the number of deaths as a result of the British response to the uprising could be as high as 300,000.
We would likely also know more about the scale of the killings conducted by loyalist forces if the colonial officials in Kenya had not conveniently destroyed three-and-a-half tons of confidential documents shortly after the end of the uprising.
Added to the unrecorded deaths of Britain’s torture victims are the countless deaths from Britain’s indiscriminate bombing campaign of rural areas considered Mau Mau hotspots. Over the eight years of the conflict, the Royal Air Force dropped a total of 50,000 tons of bombs and fired two million machine gun rounds from planes into forested areas as part of “Operation Mushroom”.
This campaign of blind destruction mirrors Israel’s current devastation of Gaza, with Israel dropping 18,000 tons of bombs within the first three weeks of the current conflict. The British ruling class cannot claim a shred of credibility as it makes noises about ‘International Law’ and protecting civilians, although we hardly need to go back to the 1950s to convince ourselves of that.
Taking even the most conservative estimates of Britain’s death toll and ignoring the uncountable casualties, loyalist forces killed five or six times as many Kenyans as the Mau Mau. It is more than likely, however, that British kills outnumbered the Mau Mau’s by more than 100:1.
All of this was conducted under the mantra of ‘self-defence’. Since 2008, the UN estimates that Palestinian deaths outnumber Israeli deaths by 20:1 as a result of the conflict. Such behaviour is not the product of a ‘civilised’, ‘democratic’ state defending itself – in Kenya as in Palestine, it is the product of a one-sided war to crush an oppressed people who dare to fight back.
The bombing and murder of civilians was, however, only one piece of Britain’s reign of terror in Kenya. Perhaps even more insidious was the forced internment of practically the entirety of Kenya’s native Kikuyu people, who made up the bulk of the Mau Mau – a total of 1.5 million people.
Here is one metric in which Israel today has outdone its British forebears. Currently, over two million people are held hostage by Israel in Gaza alone, along with another three million in the West Bank.
The majority of the Kikuyu were interned through the process of so-called villagisation, hailed by the British imperialists as the introduction of a ‘European’ way of life for the primitive Kenyans. Without warning, their homes and farms were burnt down by colonial soldiers – often with the families still inside – and any who survived this were forced into patrolled camps that they were unable to leave.
Much as in Gaza today, access to key resources such as food and water was heavily restricted. This was intended to break the spirit of any Kikuyu who had hopes in the Mau Mau, but had the predictable side effect of killing huge numbers due to disease and malnutrition.
Far worse than the fate of those in the ‘villages’, however, were the conditions that awaited those suspected Mau Mau members or sympathisers that ended up in the ‘pipeline’ – a series of concentration camps specialising in different degrees of forced labour and mental and physical torture.
The pipeline’s supposed ‘rehabilitation system’ produced by far some of the most disgusting and inhuman behaviour that imperialism is capable of, even by Britain’s shockingly low standards.
A former inmate describes the regular ‘interrogations’ by British officers as follows:
“If a question was not answered to the interrogator's satisfaction, the subject was beaten and kicked. If that did not lead to the desired confession, and it rarely did, more force was applied. Electric shock was widely used, and so was fire. Women were choked and held under water… [Men] were dragged behind Land Rovers, whipped, burned and bayoneted… Some police officers did not bother with more time-consuming forms of torture; they simply shot any suspect who refused to answer, then told the next suspect, to dig his own grave. When the grave was finished, the man was asked if he would now be willing to talk.”
Alongside the beatings, sexual abuse, castration, burning and forced labour, Mau Mau suspects were also subjected to vicious psychological tortures. Christianity was enforced, with preachers regularly broadcasting religious propaganda throughout the camps, denouncing traditional Kikuyu beliefs. Prisoners were also often forced to sing “God Save the Queen”, whilst being beaten by British officers.
The pipeline’s widespread and monstrous regime of terror was forced upon as many as 320,000 people over the course of the uprising, leaving physical and emotional scars on an entire generation, which still exist today.
“Enlightened and humane”
Just as today, while British loyalists massacred and humiliated Kenyan civilians with an inhuman brutality, not one shred of regret was shown by the British ruling class or its Conservative cronies in government.
Terence Gavaghan, in charge of overseeing the ‘rehabilitation’ of the Mau Mau, described the process of physically and psychologically torturing a suspect until they admit any links with the group as “enlightened, humane and Christian-based”. Undoubtedly today he would have used the phrase “rules-based international order”.
Similarly, Kenya’s British attorney general at the time, Eric Griffith-Jones, drafted laws sanctioning unjustified beatings as long as they were not reported, writing: “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”
These are the gentleman-war-criminals, who still today fill the enlightened halls of the Houses of Parliament and the Knesset. They have the decorum to talk about humanity and dignity, whilst they murder and plunder. And most importantly, these officials were not the ‘animalistic terrorists’ that launched an anti-colonial uprising!
Crocodile tears in Kenya
On his trip to Kenya, whilst shedding a few crocodile tears about his “deepest regret” and the “painful aspects” of British colonial policy during the Mau Mau uprising, King Charles III could not even bring himself to utter a perfunctory apology.
And indeed, there is good reason why he cannot offer an apology for the policy British imperialism conducted in the midst of the Mau Mau uprising, for the simple reason that that policy has not ended.
The reality is that the ‘civilised’ forces of British imperialism in Kenya today have been linked to countless murders and sexual assaults, as well as widespread explosive and chemical damage to farmlands and villages right down to the modern day.
So, no, Charles III cannot apologise for crimes that British imperialism is still committing in present day Kenya, and when it has no compunction in its allies committing crimes that, after all, are not so dissimilar from its own crimes.
Fundamentally, whether in Palestine or in Kenya, such crimes will always continue as long as imperialism exists. The subjugation of the oppressed does not concern itself with democratic values, the “rules-based order”, or the question of “who shot first”.
The horrors of British imperialism in Kenya show the unvarnished face of the capitalist class, once the sham of liberal democracy is stripped away. This is the true nature of the war that is being fought against the people of Gaza, and the attempts to present it in more palatable terms are nothing but the purest hypocrisy from the mouths of a rotten capitalist class that is prepared to do far worse.