On his first visit to a Commonwealth state as monarch, Charles faced rising anger over colonial-era atrocities. It might be the first of many such occasions.
Paulo Nzili was 30 years old when he was held down in front of other detainees and castrated with pliers by a British officer, who was known as Luvai (‘ruthless’) to the Kenyans. It was 1957, and though the authorities had largely suppressed the five-year Mau Mau military struggle against colonial rule, the state of emergency remained in place until 1960. During that time, tens of thousands of Kenyans continued to be rounded up, tortured and imprisoned without charge.
Jane Muthoni Mara was another detainee, only 15 years old when arrested at her home and taken away. Accused of being a Mau Mau sympathiser and held for three years in a series of concentration camps, she was systematically beaten and deprived of food and water. But the worst treatment was when she, along with many other women, was held down and raped with a bottle. ‘I was in so much pain,’ she testified in a landmark compensation claim in the UK half a century later. ‘I relive the events … I do not understand why I was treated with such brutality for simply having provided food to the Mau Mau.’
Castration and rape appear to have been frequently used punishments. Kimweli Mbithuka Kilatya worked for the colonial government but was still detained with his wife, Naomi Nziula Kimweli, in 1952. He was castrated; she was raped with a bottle and miscarried. The moment before she was blindfolded and taken away was the last time she saw her children.
King Charles, who was on his first overseas trip to a Commonwealth state as monarch last week, understandably faced calls for an ‘unequivocal apology’ by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and others in the country, but disappointed many by merely expressing his ‘sorrow and deepest regret’. This was considered a ‘miss’ by critics, such as the KHRC.
But the UK high commissioner, Neil Wigan, told Kenya’s Spice FM radio: ‘An apology starts to take you to a difficult legal territory, and settlements were made out of court.’ This was a reference to the British government’s landmark admission in parliament in 2013 of the torture and ill treatment meted out to those fighting for independence, along with the payment of £19.9m compensation.
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It was a paltry amount to be shared between 5,228 claimants but it marked a breakthrough in acknowledging colonial atrocities. The KHRC estimates that 100,000 Kenyans were executed and 160,000 people were held in appalling conditions, and tortured or maimed during the rebellion. Many were detained on remote Indian Ocean islands for years.
In their books Britain’s Gulag and Histories of the Hanged, Caroline Elkins, now a Harvard professor, and Prof David Anderson, of Warwick University, detailed the abuses inflicted by British and settler forces, with their Kenya auxiliaries. This supplemented the testimony of survivors in the Mau Mau litigation, which was led by the human rights law firm Leigh Day.
Other historians – notably the Kenyan Bethwell A Ogot – have criticised aspects of Elkins’ work for glossing over Mau Mau atrocities, while a few critics, such as the broadcaster David Elstein, entirely dismissed calls for an apology, calling the KHRC’s claim ‘pure tosh’. Writing in the Daily Mail, Elstein claimed the atrocities were grossly exaggerated and instead condemned what he called the ‘savagery’ of Mau Mau fighters, referring to ‘tens of thousands slaughtered’, children of tribal police beheaded in Ndakaini and other civilians burned alive in Lari.
However, most informed opinion acknowledges the scale of colonial abuses in Kenya and a huge cache of documents released by the high court during the compensation hearings makes it clear that the torture and abuse, such as burning detainees alive, was known about at the highest levels of the British government. Even Kenya’s attorney-general at the time, Eric Griffith-Jones, expressed concern that the treatment of detainees was ‘distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia’.
Crucially, for victims of other colonial atrocities wanting to bring compensation claims, the British government’s main arguments were dismissed by the high court: firstly, that under international law the colony’s liabilities were inherited by the Republic of Kenya, which should therefore pay for the crimes of British colonialism; secondly, that the case should be barred as too much time had lapsed; and thirdly that a fair trial was no longer possible, given how much time had elapsed.
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Days after the announcement that an out-of-court settlement had been reached with the Kenyans, other alleged victims of colonial atrocities prepared to file claims; Cypriots were among the first. As in Kenya, colonial forces acted brutally and with impunity, as detailed in coroner’s reports and secret records that described British soldiers acting like an ‘hysterical mob’. Meanwhile, the UK government dissembled, claiming that it could ‘rely on the worldwide knowledge of [British] traditions of humanity and decency to convince the public of the free world of the falsity of allegations’.
Other brutal examples of colonial-era violence that are suitable cases for an apology – and possible compensation claims – include the killing in 1919 of at least 370 Indian protesters at Jallianwala Bagh (and possibly 1,000) in what is known in Britain, where it is known at all, as the Amritsar massacre.
Or the Croke Park massacre in 1920, during Ireland’s war of independence, when a crowd at a Gaelic football match in Dublin were fired on by British forces, killing or fatally wounding 14 civilians and injuring dozens more. Or the massacre by Scots Guards of 24 villagers on the Batang Kali rubber plantation in 1948 during the Malayan ’emergency’.
There are countless examples of barbarous acts by the forces of ‘civilising’ colonial powers such as the British. But, just as with the calls for reparations for slavery in many parts of the Commonwealth, demands for apologies will be ignored for fear of opening the floodgates of unaffordable compensation claims.
As the Kenya president, William Ruto, said, in acknowledging Charles’s half-apology: ‘The colonial reaction to African struggles for sovereignty and self-rule was monstrous in its cruelty … much remains to be done in order to achieve full reparations.’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.