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On watch for Mau Mau fighters.

It makes a good story – but the cover-up of Britain’s savage treatment of the Mau Mau was exaggerated

There are two essential elements to any good media story about history. The first is a secret cache of documents which promise to transform our understanding of a particular episode. The second is an intrepid, lone historian who discovers them.

These ingredients featured prominently in 2011 when the British government revealed it had been secretly holding on to thousands of files generated by dozens of its former colonial administrations. The files, stored at Hanslope Park, a secretive government complex in Buckinghamshire, had been covertly spirited away at independence.

The government made this announcement during a case brought by a group of elderly Africans who were claiming compensation for having been tortured by the authorities during the brutal suppression of the so-called Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Their legal team had won a ruling requiring the government to release all relevant records. But it was only after the historian David Anderson provided the court with evidence of the removal of files from Kenya when the British withdrew in 1963, that the Foreign Office finally “discovered” them.

This story caused a sensation, and has rumbled on ever since. But in its retelling, a myth has arisen that does a serious injustice to the way in which historians have approached the British response to Mau Mau – and the process of decolonisation more generally.

The latest version of this myth appears in The History Thieves, Guardian journalist Ian Cobain’s new study of British official secrecy, published in September.

Cobain suggests that the UK government had largely succeeded in sustaining the idea that colonial rule in Kenya had been generally benign and that any acts of brutality had been “isolated and unauthorised rather than systemic”.

But then a group of lawyers and historians visiting Kenya in 2001 heard “stories from elderly people that suggested that this was not true”. According to them, atrocities had been “well organised and committed on a previously unimagined scale”. “Bewilderingly,” Cobain continues, “the available official documents from the period did not support these lurid tales of British colonial bloodlust.”

These tales were confirmed by American historian Caroline Elkins, a prominent supporter of the compensation claims, in her book Imperial Reckoning, published in 2005. According to Cobain, her conclusions were greeted with opposition from many of her peers, who felt her methodology was flawed. Cobain said she was criticised “for relying so heavily on oral history techniques rather than documents”. But then, Cobain argues, these had “largely vanished”.

When the Hanslope papers were finally released in 2011, they vindicated Elkins by documenting the full extent of the atrocities. Among them, Cobain quotes a memorandum from June 1957 by the Kenyan attorney-general, Eric Griffiths-Jones, authorising the use of particular forms of violence against detainees and stipulating that anyone who resisted would have “a foot placed on his throat and mud stuffed in his mouth” and “in the last resort [would be] knocked unconscious”. The clear implication of Cobain’s account is that, before Elkins came along, historians had complacently accepted the official line on British policy in Kenya and had been hoodwinked by carefully sanitised archives.

Not so secret documents

To say that this version of events is misleading is a huge understatement. Indeed, it unravels at almost every turn.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, books which shed important new light on the Mau Mau emergency and highlighted the brutal repression employed by the authorities had already been published – by Bruce Berman Robert B Edgerton and Wunyabari O Maloba. These earlier works – and Elkins’s own book – drew, among other sources, on official files in the National Archives which, contrary to the impression given by Cobain, contain a considerable amount of information about brutal acts of violence by the security forces and colonial officials.

You would need to have a photographic memory and a lot of time on your hands to be in a position to pronounce confidently on what the thousands of relevant files in National Archives didn’t include (the series covering 1920s-1960s Kenya alone runs to 3,302 files). Of course there were gaps in the record where the official censor had obviously been at work. And the recently released Hanslope files have told us more about the wholesale destruction of sensitive papers which the British colonial administrations did not want to pass on to independence leaders. But there remained plenty of incriminating evidence in the British government files. A copy of the memo by Griffiths-Jones which Cobain quotes may well be among the Hanslope documents. But there is also one in the National Archives, released in the 1980s under the standard “30-year rule” (and Elkins cites it in Imperial Reckoning).

A broader view

Elkins’s work did indeed receive a mixed response from her peers. But the reviews raised more substantive concerns than her use of oral evidence. They focused on the following statement she made towards the beginning of the book:

I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead.

Critics claimed that the suggestion that hundreds of thousands might have died was based largely on a flawed analysis of census evidence. And the new Hanslope material seems to have done little to resolve this dispute or vindicate the original claim.

Kenyans representing alleged victims of torture during repression of the Mau Mau movement deliver a petition to Downing St seeking compensation in 2009. Stefan Rousseau/PA

The Hanslope files were important to the court case as much for the fact they existed as for anything they contained. The British government had claimed that so much time had passed since the Mau Mau campaign, it was no longer possible to reach a judgement on the accusations against it. Yet the very fact that it appeared to have been hiding potentially relevant evidence effectively demolished this argument.

Another defence of the British government was that since the campaign had been coordinated by the colonial authorities, legal responsibility for any abuses had passed to the post-independence government of Kenya. This was forensically skewered by Huw Bennett, another historian advising the claimants’ legal team. Bennet demonstrated that there was a direct line of command from the War Office in London to security forces on the ground in Kenya. Much of the evidence cited by Bennett was from files already available in the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives.

The saga of the Hanslope files provides a suitable shabby and disreputable coda to a brutal counter-insurgency campaign which was surrounded by lies and cover-ups. But the new mythology surrounding them distorts our understanding of the affair as well as misrepresenting the essentially collaborative nature of historical enquiry and wildly exaggerating the degree to which the archives were successfully sanitised.

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