Colonial Brutality Revisited: “Atoning for the Sins of Empire”

In this insightful New York Times op-ed, the historian of Africa David Anderson, reflects on the historic decision by the British government to pay compensation to Africans who suffered torture in the hands of British colonial officials in Kenya. Anderson cautions today’s political leaders that with the passage of time, today’s human rights violations will have to be paid for in the future.

Anderson asks: “Would the United States be so accommodating to a similar claim? In the current political climate, probably not. But times change. Fifty years from now, will Americans face claims from Guantánamo survivors? You might, and perhaps you should.”

Atoning for the Sins of Empire
By David M. Anderson
THE British do not torture. At least, that is what we in Britain have always liked to think. But not anymore. In a historic decision last week, the British government agreed to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Each claimant will receive around £2,670 (about $4,000).
The money is paltry. But the principle it establishes, and the history it rewrites, are both profound. This is the first historical claim for compensation that the British government has accepted. It has never before admitted to committing torture in any part of its former empire.
In recent years there has been a clamor for official apologies. In 2010, Britain formally apologized for its army’s conduct in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” killings in Northern Ireland in 1972, and earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron visited Amritsar, India, the site of a 1919 massacre, and expressed “regret for the loss of life.”
The Kenyan case has been in process for a decade in London’s High Court. The British fought to avoid paying reparations, so the decision to settle is a significant change of direction. The decision comes months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the British departure from Kenya — once thought of as the “white man’s country” in East Africa.
The Kenya case turned on the evidence of historians, including my own role as an expert witness. I identified a large tranche of documents that the British government smuggled out of Kenya in 1963 and brought back to London. The judge ordered the release of this long-hidden “secret” cache, some 1,500 files.
The evidence of torture revealed in these documents was devastating. In the detention camps of colonial Kenya, a tough regime of physical and mental abuse of suspects was implemented from 1957 onward, as part of a government policy to induce detainees to obey orders or to make confessions.
The documents showed that responsibility for torture went right to the top — sanctioned by Kenya’s governor, Evelyn Baring, and authorized at cabinet level in London by Alan Lennox-Boyd, then secretary of state for the colonies in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.
When told that torture and abuse were routine in colonial prisons, Mr. Lennox-Boyd did not order that such practices be stopped, but instead took steps to place them beyond legal sanction. “Compelling force” was allowed, but defined so loosely as to permit virtually any kind of physical abuse.
Why did the British keep these documents, instead of destroying them? Plenty else was burned, or dumped at sea, as the British left Kenya.
The answer lay in the unease of some British colonial officers. Many did not like what they saw. When the orders to torture came down, some realized the jeopardy they were in. These men worried that it was they, not their commanders, who would carry the can.
They were right to worry. Official reports from the 1950s always blamed individual officers — the “bad apples in the barrel” — for acts of abuse. But the blame lay not with junior officers forced to implement a bad policy but with the senior echelons of a colonial government that was rotten to the core.
Kenya’s will not be the last historical claims case. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office faces others, some of which have been in progress for years.
A case already before the courts concerns the 1948 Batang Kali massacre in colonial Malaya, now Malaysia. There, the relatives of innocent villagers — who were murdered by young conscript soldiers ordered to shoot by an older, psychopathic sergeant major — have asked for compensation. For Americans, the case has eerie echoes of Vietnam.
In Cyprus, translators employed by the British during the 1950s told tales of electrocutions and pulled fingernails as British intelligence officers tried to elicit information about gunrunning.
The case of Aden, now in Yemen, could be the worst of all. In 1965, the British governor retreated up the steps of his departing aircraft, firing his revolver at snipers arrayed around the airport runway. This was not the “orderly retreat from empire” that many historians would have us believe characterized British decolonization. Britain’s brutality against its Yemeni enemies in Aden during those final days has become a local legend.
Though Britain is the first former European colonial power to pay individual compensation to victims, other countries have been confronted by similar accusations. In 2006, Germany offered to pay millions of euros to the Namibian government to compensate for the German Army’s genocide against the Herero tribe in the early 20th century. It also issued a public apology in the capital, Windhoek. In 2011, the Dutch government was ordered by the International Court of Justice to compensate survivors of a 1947 massacre in colonial Indonesia; it has not yet paid.
Historical research has played its part in all these cases, but not all historians are happy with the way things are turning out. Leading historians of British colonialism have long tended to rejoice in a benevolent, liberal view of imperialism.
The British historians Andrew Roberts, Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings have all nailed their colors to the mast of the good ship Britannia as she sailed the ocean blue bringing civilization and prosperity to the world. This view seems unlikely to be credible for much longer.
Empire was built by conquest. It was violent. And decolonization was sometimes a bloody, brutal business. No American should need reminding of that. And Britain, along with other imperial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries, may yet have to pay for this.
Torture is torture, whoever the perpetrator, whoever the victim. Wrongs should be put right. Whatever wrongs were done in the name of Britain in Kenya in the 1950s, the British government has now delivered modest reparations to some victims. And maybe we in Britain have also finally begun to come to terms with our imperial past.
Would the United States be so accommodating to a similar claim? In the current political climate, probably not. But times change. Fifty years from now, will Americans face claims from Guantánamo survivors? You might, and perhaps you should.
David M. Anderson, a professor of African history at the University of Warwick, is the author of “Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire.”