We all rely on archives. The moment that we first drew breath in this world is registered in an archive. Our education records, driving records, legal records, marriage and death are all recorded in an archive somewhere. We go about our lives assuming that vital information about our lives is automatically and adequately stored by our governments. We assume that important records about the workings of government and businesses are held. Our justice system depends on well-maintained archives and strong archival procedures.
Yet it doesn’t always work like that.
This particular story concerns the Mau Mau uprising in the British colony, Kenya during the 1950s.It is about a civil war, the messiest kind of war where right and wrong are obscured in viscious blood-letting that involves too many willing and unwilling participants. Very few people emerge from such wars without harbouring personal shame, bitter regrets and a sense of loss that lives with them for the rest of their lives.
“This was a dirty war. It became a civil war – though that idea remains extremely unpopular in Kenya today.”, observes Professor David Anderson, an historian who has written a book about the Mau Mau uprising. At the time his book was published he said:
…the Mau Mau war cannot be reduced to a modern morality tale. This gritty struggle divided the Kikuyu communities of central Kenya: many people were unwilling to support violence, and Kikuyu Christians in particular stood against the rebels. The British nurtured a ‘loyalist’ movement, recruiting more than 60,000 Kikuyu men: much Mau Mau violence was aimed at these ‘collaborators’. Loyalists gained considerably in terms of property, land and political rights, while rebels and their supporters were imprisoned and dispossessed.
David Anderson, Burying the Bones of the Past, History Today, 2005.
There was hideous torture and gruesome deaths. White settlers were murdered, Kikuyu who did not support the Mau Mau were murdered, the Mau Mau themselves were killed in a variety of ways.
Truth is trammelled in wars. The various sides speak when it suits them, say what will advance their cause and ignore or hide that which will turn public opinion against them. Somewhere in there is the truth. It can generally be found if you try hard enough.
A small group of elderly Kenyans have been seeking compensation from the British government for horrific injuries they received at the hands of the British while imprisoned during the Mau Mau uprising. In British run prison-camps they were beaten unconscious, castrated and sexually assaulted.
As part of the court process the British government was required to produce any documents they held about the abuse of prisoners in Kenya at the time. That was when the discovery was made. A repository of 8,800 files containing previously undisclosed colonial era documents were found in a high security government site in England.
Under UK law these documents should have been disclosed to the public years ago as they were over thirty years old. Through an internal review which investigated how these files were ignored for so long, it was disclosed that Freedom of Information requests had been made of these documents in 2005 and 2006 but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) did not release them. Their existence was finally disclosed in 2011.
More revelations followed. In October 2013 The Guardian reported that the UK Ministry of Defence held 66,000 previously undisclosed files which exceeded the thirty year rule. (I have unable to find a statement from the Ministry of Defence about these files.) Eleven days later it was revealed that the Foreign Office had found even more previously undisclosed files. The total number of hidden Foreign Office files was now a staggering 1.2 million. Will more ‘lost’ files be discovered? According to The Guardian the Ministry of Defence has said that it is possible that it holds more files which exceed the thirty year rule.
These are not just routine administrative files. As demonstrated by the Mau Mau compensation case, these files can have a profound effect on people’s lives. According to the Kenyan’s legal representatives, Leigh Day, the newly found documents were instrumental in the court finding that a fair trial could be held after so many years. Over five thousand Kenyans have now shared the stories of torture at the hands of the colonial authorities and put forward claims for compensation. The documents found during and after the Mau Mau case don’t just relate to victims in Kenya. They extend to many populations around the world who suffered from abuses at the hands of the British in the dying days of the Empire.
In the face of overwhelming evidence demonstrating systemic torture and cover up by the British in Kenya, the British government has agreed to pay £19.9 million to settle the claims relating to the court case and erect a memorial to the victims in Nairobi. There are a further eight thousand claims which are not covered by this compensation.
In a statement to parliament, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague said:
The British Government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place…
We continue to deny liability on behalf of the Government and British taxpayers today for the actions of the colonial administration in respect of the claims, and indeed the courts have made no finding of liability against the Government in this case.
It is not just Kenyans who are seeking justice. The families of a massacre in Malaysia in 1948 are seeking a public inquiry in the UK into the atrocities. Indian Malaysians are seeking redress through the UK legal system as are Cypriots and the Caribbean nations. The newly found Ministry of Defence files may have significant information about the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and early 1980s which may be relevant to a police review now being undertaken into deaths during this period.
The current Mau Mau claimants had significant evidence, including their own testimonies, to substantiate their case long before the recent FCO disclosures. The problem was that some chose not believe it.”
Caroline Elkins, ‘My critics ignored evidence of torture in Mau Mau detention camps‘, The Guardian, 14/4/2011.
In the west many historians, lawyers and judges give greater credence to documentary evidence than oral testimony from elderly people recalling events over fifty years ago. It is appalling that such crimes took place in the first place. It is compounded when victims are not believed, their lives ruined and their attempts at seeking justice are prolonged or blocked because the documentation of these crimes cannot be found. If a crime had been perpetrated against us by a government official we would want our testimony to be believed. We would expect the government to immediately launch an investigation and reveal any records they held which documented the crimes. In the case of the Mau Mau uprising both the British and the post-colonial Kenyan governments did their best to avoid any inquiry after the independence of Kenya.
These files are of interest to many people of many different nations. This is not just a domestic British issue. It is a multi-faceted issue that affects the world. Historians who research the post World War II decolonisation process are watching this issue very closely and are considering whether legal action needs to be taken to ensure that the documents are made available in accordance with UK laws and in a timely manner.
My interest is in what this story reveals about the nature of archives, the archival process and how history is constructed. In the next post I will explore why these files remained hidden and how these insights need to inform the conclusions we draw from all archival documents.
But at the same time we must never lose the sight of the fact that these are real stories about real people who have suffered great trauma. It is their story.
Archives are important… very important.
The Claimants’ Stories
These are difficult stories to read:
- ‘We Were Tortured in Kenya’s Mau Mau-Era Detention Centers’ by Margot Kiser, Newsweek, 10/8/2012.
- ‘The Kenyan Claimants‘, Leigh Day website.
This is the first post in a series about the newly discovered historic files held by the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Read the second post, ‘If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly‘.