“If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”

“If therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”. The British Attorney-General for Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones wrote in June 1957 to the Governor of Kenya. In the letter the Attorney-General shared how the policy over the use of physical violence on imprisoned Kenyans was being altered so that the beatings would be ‘legal’. (‘Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive‘, 18/4/2012).

In my last post I described how the quest for compensation by a small group of now-elderly victims started a process which led to the discovery of over one million historic documents that were illegally hidden from the inquiring eyes of the public. Some of these documents provide evidence of horrible crimes perpetrated by British personnel against colonial subjects in the dying days of the British Empire.

This raises many issues. The issue that I want to explore here is what we can learn about the construction of archives from this issue. This has then led me to wonder why horrendous crimes can be ignored for so long.

“If therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”.

Principle 1: People who commit crimes invariably seek to conceal evidence. Therefore an archive will not always capture important historical information. The little bit of information it does hold about an unpunished crime will be fragments scattered through the old papers. These fragments will be untitled, uncatalogued and easy to miss even if one is rifling through the archive box in which they reside.

Perpetrators don’t want to be caught. Rarely does a perpetrator ensure that they lay a clear and detailed documentary trail for others to find. People leave documentary evidence that is complimentary to them. They neglect to keep that which shows them in a bad light. If it is bad enough they will go out of their way to hide or destroy it.

Yet the more extensive the crime, the more onlookers there are. Someone has seen something wrong, has heard the sounds of the crime, has talked to someone else. Then there is the need to do something. Will the onlooker pursue the sometimes difficult path to justice? Will they tend a blind eye or will they go out of their way to cover it up? Will the witness be ignored or accused of lying by those they turn to? Will the witness be subject to punishment themselves for ‘lying’ about the truth they told?

Principle 2: There will be evidence somewhere that a serious crime has been committed.

This evidence may not be conveniently placed for the researcher but there will be some evidence somewhere. The more extensive and serious the crime, the more likely that there will be some evidence. It may not be enough to prove beyond reasonable doubt who committed the crime, but there will be enough to know that a crime has occurred and some hints as to how it occurred.

In the case of the torture and killing of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya it was evident even at the time of the events that something was seriously wrong.

The criminal violence in the British camps and prisons was widespread. There were many witnesses. At the time plenty was said. It was so obvious that something was wrong that the British government appointed the Fairn committee in 1959 to investigate one of many fatal episodes – the killings at Hola Camp.

The news had gone around the world. Fifteen men from the Hola Detention Camp had been taken to hospital. Six were dead on arrival. Another six died subsequently. Post-mortems were conducted. An inquest was held.

Documents are just one source of evidence. They are one of the most important sources that historians rely on. Yet there are other important sources that historians need to consider. The most obvious in the case of the Hola deaths are human bodies. Dead human bodies do not lie. It was obvious that those who had died at the Hola Camp were murdered.

There were many prisoners at the camp. There were many staff. Naturally there was a lot of silence about these crimes. Onlookers were possibly scared of the consequences of telling what they heard, perpetrators were obviously not going to admit what they had done.

The Hola Camp massacre was just one incident in a period of widespread violence by all those who participated in this civil war. Some of this violence was sanctioned by law, much of it was not. Fast forward to 2005 and to two book launches. Professor David Anderson of Warwick University had done the hard work in the archives. He followed up document trails and read court transcripts. Over one thousand people were hanged during the seven years of the Mau Mau uprising, each one the result of a trial.

This testimony of one European officer in 1962 quoted in Anderson’s book, has been highlighted by reviewers. Referring to Mau Mau supporters as ‘Mickeys’, the officer publicly stated:

They wouldn’t say a thing, of course, and one of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept right on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. He went down in a heap but when he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped, I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I said something, I don’t remember what, and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys were standing there looking blank. I said to them that if they didn’t tell me where to find the rest of the gang I’d kill them too. They didn’t say a word so I shot them both. One wasn’t dead so I shot him in the ear. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him that the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleared up.’

Extract from David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, quoted in ‘How did they get away with it?’ by Bernard Porter, London Review of Books.

Just take a moment to let this sink in. This officer admitted to murder in 1962. Yet no European perpetrator was punished. The British legal system knew about this, but the legal system was not a justice system.

Professor Caroline Elkin of Harvard University wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Mau Mau uprising. She drew on a different form of evidence available to historians – the spoken memories of those who had lived this horrific history. When you consider that about 150,000 Kenyans had been interned during this period in camps were there were rampant abuses of human rights, there are a large number of people who witnessed or suffered criminal abuse. Elkin was overwhelmed by the volume of evidence about British violence in Kenya. In an article well worth reading she criticises old historical methods of research:

Some historians fetishise documents, and historians of empire are among the most hide-bound. For decades, these scholars have viewed written evidence as sacrosanct. That documents – like all forms of evidence – must be triangulated, and interrogated for veracity using other forms of evidence, including oral testimonies from colonised populations, mattered little.

Instead, many historians rarely questioned the official archive, nor the written, historical record. Instead, they reproduced a carefully tended official narrative with either celebratory accounts of empire, or equally pernicious, by turning their collective heads away from the violence that underwrote Britain’s imperial past and towards more benign lines of inquiry.

Caroline Elkins, ‘Listening to the voices from Kenya’s colonial past’, The Guardian, 21/10/2013.

Principle three: Documents are not the only form of historic evidence. Bodies, objects, oral evidence, buildings, the land itself needs to be considered. Is the court verdict of natural death supported by the evidence of a body covered in cuts, bruises and broken bones?  Does the building riddled with bullet holes support the evidence from an archive that no violence occurred? Do the stories of massacres retold by local inhabitants agree with the denials of the powerful at the time? Historians need to listen and watch out for conflicting evidence and when it is found dig deeper.

Principle four: Archives are not neutral. They are created by the powerful, the victors.

With the discovery of the hidden Foreign and Commonwealth Office archives came the news that while the British were withdrawing from their colonies they destroyed sensitive documents. This is hardly surprising given the first principle identified above – perpetrators of criminal acts will try to hide evidence. Amongst the documents in the newly revealed documents are certificates recording the destruction of documents.

Principle five: Researchers must understand how an archive was created as well as the content of the archive.

What is the history of the archive itself? What were the historic policies governing the retention or disposal of documents? Who created the documents? What were their motives? It is not enough to simply read the words on a document, the entire context around the creation of the archive and the document needs to be interrogated. It is the context of the document that gives meaning to it, not just the words scrawled on the page.

“How did they get away with it?”

On reading the books by Anderson and Elkins, historian, Bernard Porter wrote, “The puzzle is why they were allowed to get away with it for so long”. I have found it hard to understand this too and have been pondering this question over the last couple of days.

What has struck me is just how many people around the world had known about events that indicated that something was seriously wrong with the British legal system and government in Kenya in the 1950s and early 1960s. Awkward questions and comments were being made in the seat of the British Empire itself, the House of Commons, where Labour MP, Barbara Castle, was upsetting people by voicing her concerns.

There was plenty of news about the Hola Camp coming from Kenya that was disturbing to members of parliament in London. The Macmillan government was put under considerable pressure in parliament. This speech by Sir Frank Soskice outlines what was known to the parliament after the inquest. The Fairn committee was established to investigate the incident.  One of the most effective critics was a member of the government’s own party. Enoch Powell (yes, that Enoch Powell) delivered a speech where he voiced his concerns not only about the deaths but the evidence that was already known in 1959 pointing to systemic abuses which arose from Kenyan colonial policies concerning punishments in the camps. This speech was regarded as one of Enoch Powell’s finest speeches and is regarded by some today as one of the best parliamentary speeches during the twentieth century.

Enoch Powell publicly stated there was evidence that ministers in the Macmillan government had been told the Kenyan policies would result in deaths in the camps. He stated that the Ministers for African Affairs and Defence had authorised “an operation which they had been warned involved the risk of death”.

I started writing this post thinking the Mau Mau case was about how crimes were hidden at the time and historians need to work like detectives in the archives. But this story is not like that. Everything I have repeated thus far was already known and publicly available before the discovery of the hidden Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents.  Much, much more could have been found out at the time if there had been a serious will by those with power to inquire further.The destruction of records did not expunge this history, too much had been already committed to paper in too many documents. Too many eyes had seen and ears had heard the violence.

“How did they get away with it?” asked the headline in the London Review of Books in 2005 before the discovery of the hidden archives.

I believe that it boils down to family.

Think about the child born of British parents in Kenya in the 1960s. The violence has gone but the memories remain. This child did not witness any of this. People around the child didn’t want to talk about it. They were involved. They had witnessed too much. Maybe they had contributed to the violence. Every now and then unwittingly something would slip from their mouths. Yet there is no context so the child did not understand.

But then the child grows up. Maybe a dying relation lets something more substantial slip. Perhaps the child has started to read something about the history of the country where they were born. Suddenly the fragments slip into some kind of blurred, but more coherent picture. The horror hits the adult child.

Their idyllic childhood images are too diametrically opposed to reconcile. These were people who had nurtured the child, but nurturing and violence can’t reside in one person… can it? How can the adult child look at that person from their Kenyan childhood and still acknowledge the past?

Imagine if your parents, grandparents, friends of the family had committed these atrocities and you discover that the person who had such an important role in your life had tortured and murdered others or been an accessory after the fact, or had studiously ignored the sea of rumours, testimonies and other evidence which had engulfed their ears. There are a number of responses that you can have. The easiest is to pretend that you do not know of even a whisper of their crimes.

Imagine if you were British or descended from British people and had been brought up with tales of the wonderful deeds of your ancestors, of your nation, of your culture. You hear about the despicable way other colonial powers treated their subjugated populations, but you were told that in the “league table of barbarity”, as David Anderson described it in his book, the British stood out for their humanity, their kindness.

The news of colonial atrocities by the British is hard to bear, very, very hard. The easiest thing to do is to shut out the thoughts and talk about these crimes. When people persist in talking about these things, the simplest thing to do is yell, ‘it did not happen’. Yet the other people respond by talking even louder about hideous crimes, by pursuing legal redress. The obvious thing to say is ‘well they did it too’ in some kind of helpless, childish statement to the universe. Perhaps claiming that it is alright to do bad things if someone else is also doing bad things will make this matter go away?

And thus the British set about avoiding the topic entirely in the 1960s. Then the silence led to cultural forgetting. Yet the archives, the memories, the bodies remained. They emerged because of the actions of the Kenyan victims and two historians in the twenty-first century. Lawyers listened and organised legal action. Time did not diminish these crimes.

This history relates to our humanity. We understand that we are capable of good and we are capable of doing wrong. Sadly the easiest course can often be to do wrong. Our ancestors were no different. In refusing to acknowledge the dark deeds of our ancestors we perpetuate these wrongs. The will and courage of all those with British ancestors is needed to talk about our history fairly and honestly.

This is not the post I set out to write.


Further Reading

There are a lot of articles about the Mau Mau court case and this history. These opinion pieces by historians are relevant to the issues raised in this post:


4 thoughts on ““If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”

  1. Yvonne, you done an excellent job in the last two posts with a very difficult set of questions posed to a very confronting subject. The principles you laid out are informative. The evidence provided by ‘one of Enoch Powell’s finest speeches’ is compelling, and suggest another principle — that similar reports from diverse sources, across a spectrum of positions, should alert both historian and the public of a terrible situation needed to be addressed, then and now.

    Enoch Powell was a maverick, especially comparing the 1959 Hola Massacre Speech with the 1968 “Rivers of Blood” Speech. It also gives caution between the difference in the historical process between public rhetoric and decisions behind closed doors. The curious question is what had upset a nationalist like Powell so much over a question about what was happening in distant Africa, and further, if it had upset a person like Powell so much, why was the UK Government unable to change the course of events during the Mau Mau uprising sooner? Were there divisions on the issue of handling the situation between the Government, the Colonial Office, and the authorities in Nairobi? And, of course, one can imagine that there were shifts in responses during the duration of the tragic affair. A matter of catch-up a bit too late. Powell’s 1959 speech was very late in the day.

    There is also another principle that is overlooked in understanding the history from the archives and elsewhere. Violence, not matter how justified, is not only the failure of political processes, but often confounds workable political solutions. Nelson Mandala understood that insight and saved, along with the efforts of his political allies and foes, South Africa falling into a destructive, and ultimately unproductive, civil war. One can imagine that each human rights violations from both sides, during the Mau Mau uprising, made it difficult for good will to prevail. That is not an excuse for human rights violations but only to acknowledge the powerlessness that continues in bitter conflicts. Syria is currently a good example.


    • Thankyou for your thoughtful comments Neville. This BBC News article about some of the historic documents released by the High Court show that a British cabinet minister was informed of some of the crimes committed by European officers, including murder. The minister was also informed that all of these officers would receive immunity from prosecution. This was in 1955. Your questions about why the UK government was unwilling or unable to deal with these serious matters are the questions to ask. I would imagine that there would be some historians who are working on this material now and exploring the relationship between the Kenyan colonial administration and the UK government as well as the dynamics within the UK cabinet and ministries. I have seen reference to Barbara Castle actually visiting Kenya in the mid 1950s and voicing her concerns not only of what was happening there but what was happening in Cyprus as well.

      I agree that it is very difficult to find effective political solutions when violence has already taken hold. Civil wars do not occur out of the blue. There is generally a period of unreconciled political conflict leading to unrest. David Anderson traces the political concerns of the Africans in Kenya from the 1920s in chapter one of his book, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. There needed to be a profound change in the attitude of the colonial administration in Kenya demonstrated by a complete change in the way Africans were treated with regards to land, wages, work and participation in the governing institutions of the country. The UK was dealing with the Depression, the unstable situation in Europe and serious issues emerging in their Empire which would lead to its dismantling. It was all made worse by the racist paradigm in which the government and so many Europeans were working within. This made them blind to the fact that the Empire was unjust and therefore unsustainable.

      It will be interesting to see what will happen after the apology from the UK government and the payment of compensation. There is much work to be done both in Kenya and the UK so that people can reconcile with the past. It takes commitment and courage from all the people hurt by the past to do this.


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