A Mau Mau Mirror

Revising the British Imperialist Self-Image

Raising the Flag
A Mau Mau Mirror : Revising the British Imperialist Self-Image - Eleanor Hobhouse


The recent High Court case brought by three elderly Kenyans against the British government for abuses suffered under the colonial government’s suppression of the Mau Mau Rebellion has shone a light on the British concept of Empire. Following last year’s release of the Hanslope papers, revelations regarding the colonial administration’s culpability compel us to re-examine the notion of the British Imperialist. This essay looks at the process by which the British Imperialist self-image was shielded from the brutal realities of colonial rule and what the future holds for British Imperialism, specifically in its relations with Kenya.


The Empire remains a source of great pride for the British, as demonstrated in the words chosen by Prime Minister David Cameron for a 2011 speech. Appealing to British tenacity and strength, as epitomized in the British Imperial past, he recalled, “Britain never had the biggest population, the largest land mass, the richest resources—but we had the spirit.”1

The factors that informed this contemporary imperialist self-image are varied and include both moral (racist and paternalistic attitudes) and economic and political elements. Some fifty years since Britain withdrew from its colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa, each of these elements has undergone dramatic change--most significantly a global revision of racial attitudes and the emergence of universal human rights as a legal concept. The Empire, however, is still upheld as the zenith of British civilization.

The Macmillan version of the “White Man’s Burden” has proved its longevity, whereby the achievements of Western civilization were magnanimously bestowed on the colonies: “the pushing forwards of the frontiers of knowledge, the applying of science to the service of human needs, in the expanding of food production, in the speeding and multiplying of the means of communication, and perhaps above all and more than anything else in the spread of education.”2

This paternalistic attitude continues to characterize Britain’s relations with the British Commonwealth.  This vision of imperialism, however, “draws its power from a remarkable national ability to airbrush and disregard our past” and has met a serious challenge in the form of the recent High Court ruling allowing three elderly Kenyans to sue the British Government for abuses they suffered during the colonial government’s brutal suppression of the Mau Mau Rebellion.3

These details of the case and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s release of the Hanslope papers, which demonstrate the violent reality of Britain’s last days in Kenya, and, most significantly, the complicity of the British government in these acts, have revealed some very uncomfortable truths and forced a re-examination of our imperialist past. The question now becomes, what impact will the ruling of the High Court and the opening of the Foreign Office archives have on the future of British Imperialism and the British self-image?

In response to the disclosures of the Hanslope papers, I intend to explore the process by which British Imperialists, both then and now, have attempted to square their concept of Empire and self with a reality that is no longer possible to deny. The Mau Mau trial demands a long-overdue revision of the Imperialist self-image. What remains to be seen are the implications these revisions may have on British relations with Kenya.

Contemporary British Imperialist Self-Image

Though the Imperialist self-image was governed by various factors, the most significant determinant was an inherent sense of racial superiority that underpinned the primary notion of a civilizing mission. Western society was not simply more civilized but more evolved and it was the Imperialists’ duty to bestow the hard-won benefits of Western civilization on the savage populations of Asia and Africa, which were characterized as infantile. This was a paternalistic world-view, typified by Lennox-Boyd’s expression of pride following a visit to the colony in 1952, “the Europeans’ sense of their responsibility to their African fellow citizens.”4

“Englishmen in the past had been used to thinking that their empire was based on a wider and higher morality than the morality of national self-interest, or power.”5

 Fundamental to the Victorian concept of “Empire” was that it was open to all—free trade lay at the heart of the Imperialist vision and in this way the Victorian Imperialists provided a moral justification for their expansionism; they were running the world, but for the sake of all who would use it. Perhaps the most telling contemporary portrait of British Imperialism was the one espoused by Baring’s own father, the First Earl of Cromer, who insisted that “relations with whatsoever races are brought under [the colonizer’s] control must be politically and economically sound and morally defensible.”6

 Indeed, he describes this as the “keystone of the Imperial Arch,” going on to state: “if once we have to draw the sword, not merely to suppress some local effervescence, but to overcome a general upheaval of subject races goaded to action either by deliberate oppression, which is highly improbable, or by unintentional misgovernment, which is far more conceivable, the sword will assuredly be powerless to defend us for long, and the days of our Imperial rule will be numbered.”7

It is ironic that it was the Earl’s son who became the author of the “deliberate oppression”, of which he was so disbelieving, though it proved an accurate prediction that this ‘use of the sword’ would invoke the end of the Empire. Indeed, it was the 1959 Hola Camp incident that provoked the decisive Commons debate, which saw Enoch Powell, himself a Conservative Imperialist, declare “that Britain had no right to an empire if it could not show moral leadership of a higher order.”8,9

Despite popular claims to a laudable, and altruistic ideology, as Albert Memmi concisely articulated in his work The Colonizer and the Colonized, “Colonization is, above all, economic and political exploitation…the mere existence of the colonizer creates oppression.”10 With the dawn of a new era of international diplomacy following the Second World War, the fundamental contradiction between this intellectual position and the more brutal reality was increasingly acknowledged by a more liberal public, both at home and on the world stage.

In the wake of the Second World War and the Atlantic Charter, the 1950s saw a shift in the nature of British anti-colonial organization as a visible and vocal minority made clear their disgust at the continued British colonial occupation. This shift in attitude was demonstrated by the formation, in 1952, of the Africa Bureau by the Reverend Guthrie Michael Scott, which brought together a “group of diverse individuals interested in advising and supporting Africans who wished to oppose, by constitutional means, British colonial rule.”11 The Africa Bureau precipitated the concerted efforts of particular Labour MPs, most notably Barbara Castle and Fenner Brockway, which culminated in 1954 with the establishment of the “Movement for Colonial Freedom”.

The contemporary British Imperialist self-image was evolving but this was juxtaposed with the very un-liberal policies implemented in Kenya during the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion. A “policy-lag” existed between the shifting current of public opinion in Britain and the attitudes held and then projected by the largely conservative colonial officials in Kenya clinging to an antiquated concept of Empire. We must, however, recognize the distinction between the British Imperialist, as characterized by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of African Affairs, Thomas Askwith, who resisted some of the more brutal aspects of the detention process, and the white settler community whom the colonial government served. During the period of “State Emergency” (1952-1960), one such community that made up a significant part of the colonial government helped implement Emergency Regulations. This group represented the old vanguard of antiquated, racialist British Imperialism, a consequence of their immediate confrontation with the day-to-day realities of colonial rule. This conservatism was exacerbated by the threat that the liberalist attitude represented to their society, property, and way of life. As the decade progressed, this distinction became more entrenched and culminated in the ultimate “betrayal” of the settler community by the British Government in the acquiescence to Kenyan Independence and majority rule.

Rather than superseding the traditional Imperialist self-image, the increasingly liberal imperialist view was co-opted into the conventional narrative, according to which, Britain characteristically demonstrated “an enlightened and sympathetic response to the aspirations of colonial populations…[and a] dignified understanding that Britain’s role must change with the times.”12 In this way the traditional narrative was able to accommodate a changing imperialist attitude by retrospectively imagining a historic acknowledgment of the rights of the native population, existent within the paternalistic framework founded, as we have examined, on a notion of racial superiority that was not swept away as rapidly as we might like to imagine.

The retention of this paternalistic attitude, as perceived by the Kenyan government at least, has ensured that the “special relationship” between the UK and its former colony has proved “an uncomfortable legacy”--a tension that culminated in the 2003 prevention of British Army Training Unit Kenya operations (active since 1964) in response to apparent imperialist intervention by the UK government after the Kenyan Minister for Transport, Murungaru, was barred from the UK over allegations of fraud.13

“Creating Slaves and Monsters”

The Reality of British Imperialism in Kenya: Response to the Uprising

The British Empire was, fundamentally, an engine of economic gain and, in response to the boom in demand during the Second World War, Kenyan agricultural production was transformed into a profitable venture. A venture, that was, however, kept almost entirely under settler control--with legislation from London encouraging land-alienation of the African population to satisfy land and labor demands. Moreover, the white settler community numbered approximately 80,000, similar to the size of the British colonial community in India, a country three times the size of Kenya.14

The Mau Mau uprising represented a very real threat to the colonial economy and community. As a result of mounting pressure from the settlers, the Colonial administration was compelled to declare a State of Emergency (from October 1952 to January 1960), which awarded the administration unilateral powers and impunity from the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Britain was, very recently, a party. In essence, the move licensed “the colonial government [to treat]…Mau Mau detainees as prisoners of war.”15

This position was formalized in the establishment of a War Council in Kenya, allowing the government to execute wartime strategy, including detention without trial. This policy was further justified by the inherent racialism that underpinned colonial rule. Colonial rulers deemed the Africans and Asians not yet deserving of the same rights and freedoms associated with a post-war concept of international citizenship as they were not yet “civilized people”.

The morning following the signing of the order establishing the State of Emergency, the colonial administration launched Operation Jock Scott, which saw the mass arrest of 180 prominent figures associated with the Mau Mau movement, most notably Jomo Kenyatta. The operation was designed to decapitate the movement; instead, it radicalized it as “leadership passed into the hands of younger men, the same men, who for months had been pushing Kenyatta and others to adopt a more radical, revolutionary course” and created, in Kenyatta, a powerful and unifying symbol.16 An escalation of violence followed, starting with the brutal murder of the prominent loyalist chief Nderi and subsequently a series of gruesome attacks on the settler community.

The ensuing outcry from the settlers provoked the government to install five battalions of British troops in the country and to begin the first wave of Kikuyu deportations, which sought to contain the Kikuyu population. According to this practice all Kikuyu living outside of the reserves were “repatriated” to Kikuyu districts in the Central Province. Baring had undertaken to break the Mau Mau allegiance of well over a million Kikuyu and to achieve this goal, launched a full-scale “assault against the Mau Mau civilian population.”17

The show-trial, beginning in December 1952, of the six most prominent detainees from the Jock Scott Operation, which featured a bribed judge “who apparently had no qualms about selling his verdict long before the trial began” and a makeshift courthouse in a remote outreach, was similarly designed to placate the settler community but did nothing to improve the security situation.18 On the first night of adjournment, January 24, 1953, the Ruck family was hacked to pieces in their beds, which marked a sea change in colonial attitudes towards the Uprising. Any hopes of a brief, nonviolent military campaign were resolutely dismissed with a double-pronged attack launched by the Mau Mau insurgents. First, a large and well-organized group of Mau Mau guerrillas successfully executed a raid on Naivasha police station, seizing a substantial supply of arms and freeing close to two hundred Mau Mau suspects in the process; hours later the Lari massacre occurred.

The second stage of military operations followed with the arrival of General Sir George Erskine, who spearheaded targeted campaigns to drive out and eliminate the loyalist forces that had fled to the forests. On 24 April 1953, the administration launched Operation Anvil, which saw Nairobi purged of 20,000 Mau Mau suspects, who were taken to Langata prison, and a further 30,000, who were deported to detention camps.

With the mass deportations of Kikuyu began also the process of “screening”, which was designed to extract “information from the Mau Mau suspects and, as the Emergency wore on, to persuade him or her to confess Mau Mau affiliations.”19 This process grew increasingly barbaric during the course of the counter-insurgency and its practices form the principle grounds for claims of reparative damages by the Mau Mau claimants. It was during this process that Jane Mara was brutally raped with a heated glass bottle and Ndiki Mutwiwa Mutua and Paulo Nzili were castrated by Home Guards.20

Even the Pipeline Programme, originally conceived of as “rehabilitation” and “reeducation” that would see a “detainee’s movement down the Pipeline [of detention centers] and eventual transfer to an open camp in his or her home district,” was used as a means of exacting further punishment on the Mau Mau community.21 Many compared the use of forced communal labor “to the slave labour policies of the Third Reich.”22

Despite the military war between the British security forces and the Mau Mau guerrillas reaching its finale as early as late 1954, the State of Emergency was not lifted until January 1960, allowing for the Baring administration’s campaign of abuse to come full circle. The Pipeline Programme proved the ultimate means of “punish[ing] debilitat[ing], and even exterminat[ing] the Kikuyu population.”23 It was these “wired-in work camps” that saw the greatest proportion of the estimated 50,000 deaths during the period of detainment, as a result of hunger, disease and abuse, “with children under 10 comprising approximately half of that number.”24

Attitudes Towards the Mau Mau

In light of the bare facts of British colonial policy during the last stages of the British Empire in Kenya, it is hard to imagine the process of justification that must have underwritten the administration’s approach. We must look to the concept of racial hierarchy inherent to Imperialism and the attitudes within the colonial administration towards the Mau Mau.

A paternalistic worldview helped to justify the imperialist mission but it also entrenched racialism. As Alfred Memmi explains, “Accepting his role as a colonizer, the colonialist accepts the blame implied by that role…the more the usurped [colonized] is downtrodden, the more the usurper [colonizer] triumphs and, thereafter, confirms his guilt and establishe[s] his condemnation…[which pushes him] to wish the disappearance of the usurped.”25 As a consequence, he begins a process of dehumanization, which transforms the natives, in the eyes of the colonizer, from a “sly-boots, a lazybones and a thief ” to “beasts of burden”.26

The Mau Mau were dehumanized both in the minds of the British colonial administration and the community they served. It was, however, the distinctive quality of Mau Mau “oathing ceremonies” that “transformed the virulent racism that had been the cornerstone of settler racial attitudes for over half a century into something even more lethal.”27,28

Articulated by Governor Baring, the minds of the Mau Mau had been “degraded by savage ceremonies” and thus actions against them were not only prudent, but also just: “The British colonizers continuously defined themselves and their Mau Mau antagonists as polar opposites. How better to save Britain’s civilization in Kenya than to eradicate the elements who threatened the colony’s very foundation? Like the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Mau Mau had few defenders…Detaining these subhuman creatures amounted not only to saving Africans from themselves but also to preservation of liberal democracy.”29,30

Such arguments had been presented before, most recently by Stalin’s Soviet Union, but now the British government found themselves in the peculiar position of using these same arguments in their battle to preserve British colonialism. We must also recognize that the large expatriate community did not consider themselves British settlers but Kenyans, and the Mau Mau insurgency was a threat to their society, community and nation. The psychological process of “dis-association from the self ” implicit in the role of colonizer may explain, if not excuse, the settler attitude towards the Mau Mau insurgents, but we must not ignore the reality of the very particularly nationalistic consciousness of the white communities in Kenya and, more particularly, Rhodesia. For many in these communities, they had ceased to be colonizers during the process of nation-building, and, though they remained “more British than the British”, and had become “proud of being Rhodesian…[and of ] our country…which we loved and cherished.”31,32 For many of the white Kenyans, including those that remain even today, this was their country, built by their hands (and a little sweat from the African population).

When unpacking the British colonizer’s attitudes toward the Mau Mau, we must address a key psychological factor: the mentality of a minority facing a rising tide of resentment and violence—a community under siege. The Ruck family murders, in January of 1953, marked a turning point in the settler community’s attitude toward the Mau Mau insurgency.

The attack, graphically recorded and widely publicized by the Kenyan and British media, captivated the settler community, not least as a result of the role played in the murders by the Ruck family’s trusted family servants, whose now savage behavior stood in stark contrast to their formerly devoted service. The settler community, conscious of their vulnerability--largely settled on remote farms--feared for their lives. Many formed armed vigilante groups, barricading women and children in their homes; no one was deemed safe from the Mau Mau threat and this “ushered in a critical change in the settlers’ already racist hierarchical segregation of humanity. There was a shift in language and belief, from simply white supremacy to one that was overtly eliminationist.”33

One settler was reported by Blundell to have remarked, “Michael, you’ll never cure this problem, you’ll never cure it. You put the troops into the [Kikuyu] villages and you shoot 50,000 0f them, women and children.”34

For the Mau Mau (most notably those driven to squatting on white-settler lands, and amongst whom the practice of ‘oathing’ originated), the stripping of their livelihood, cultural identity, and dignity, had left them little alternative to violence. As Memmi put it, “Only complete liquidation of colonization permits the colonized to be free…the liquidation of colonization is nothing but a prelude to complete liberation, to selfrecovery.”35 There was no longer room for compromise, for “this new man begins his life as a man at the end of it…he has seen so many dying men that he prefers victory to survival.”36 Moreover, for those who had not come to this conclusion on their own terms, the Lari massacre of 97 Kenyan loyalists on 26 March 1953 , made supporting the Mau Mau expedient. For both sides, then, it was a matter of “them or us.”37

Preserving the Self-Image: An Exercise in Creative (Re)Writing

From the outset, the colonial government vehemently denied any wrongdoing in Kenya, and when the wrongdoing was undeniable, Governor Baring and Colonial Secretary Lyttleton pleaded mitigating circumstances. For the settler community and the colonial government acting in Kenya, actions were not couched in terms of guilt or responsibility at the time of the uprising: “Their crimes in the screening centres, police stations, and Home Guard posts were not crimes as far as they were concerned: Mau Mau forced them to fight violence with violence.”38

According to a member of the Kenya Police Reserve, “[The Emergency] was a state of anarchy, in which the book did not work. It was as simple as that.”39

The reprehensible actions of the British colonial government were painted into the Imperialist narrative as unfortunate, but necessary, consequences of wartime strategy. Moreover, “the final lasting image of Britain’s moral war in the empire was not going to be revealed by thorough investigation into the torture, murder, and starvation of Kikuyu men, women, and children.”40Instead, with the critical shift in colonial policy heralded by the Hola Camp incident and the move towards decolonization culminating in formation of the independent Kenyan Republic in 1964, demands for an independent investigation began to subside.

The suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion was quickly transformed into a heroic effort on the part of the colonial administration to maintain stability whilst preparations were made for the secure self-governance of the colony—a goal that had been planned from the very inception of the Empire. In adopting this perspective, the careful reconstruction of the British Imperialist enabled “decolonization [to become] not a symptom of defeat and decline but a crowning achievement of British rule.”41

We are reminded of Memmi’s Usurper, who, unable to accept his illegitimate role, “endeavours to falsify history…rewrites laws…[and] would extinguish memories—anything to succeed in transforming his usurpation into legitimacy.”42

Through a careful redaction of history, the benevolent imperialist was preserved and the stage set for a continuation into the post-colonial era of the paternalistic relations that characterized British colonial attitudes. For many, “Britain never left the country” —an estimated six million acres of Kenyan land remains in the hands of British settlers, after only 1.2 million acres were eventually redistributed to Kenyan landowners under the Settlement Transfer Fund Scheme, which wound up in 1971.43 Indeed, “political independence in Africa did not mean economic liberation for the people and that the blood-sucking vampire…Empire…[remains] intact.”44

"The Future of British Imperialism: "The Implications of the Hanslope Files”

What is remarkable is the success of this imaginative re-drafting of our colonial past, most particularly this conceivably darkest period. Even when individuals such as Emily Hobhouse (during the Boer War) and Barbara Castle (in Kenya) made public the “seamier side” of our colonial history, these indiscretions have been wiped from the collective memory, or, where the mud has stuck, have been dismissed as an unfortunate but inevitable “reward” for our efforts overseas:45

 “Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need…

Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard”46

As Anderson notes, “The British empire, so the story goes, brought progress to a primitive and savage world. Education, hospitals and improved health, steamships, railways, and the telegraph—these were the tools of empire, brought to colonised peoples by the gift of commerce and good British government.”47 What this portrait fails to mention is the systematic exploitation and inherent racism on which this “benevolent empire” was built, as well as the violence and coercion by which it was sustained.

Perhaps this perception is testament to British patriotism and the innate desire “not to give up the correspondence between reality and self-image in order to be a ‘civilized’ society.”48 Certainly, the argument for the portrait’s durability finding its origins in patriotism is substantiated by the pride we take in the favorable comparisons this redacted vision allows us to make with other European powers. Certainly, France and Belgium’s “baser motives” for both colonization and decolonization are gleefully upheld as the root causes behind the Algeria and Belgian Congo catastrophes. The Hanslope papers, however, reveal the British imperialist to be no different from any other: “Perhaps the most far-reaching implication of the high court’s decision [then] could be not that it will result in more claims for damages; but that those claims will throw such harsh light upon a period of Britain’s recent history that that history will need to be rewritten.”49

By taking ownership of the atrocities enacted by the colonial government, the paternalistic framework, which forms the backbone of the “special relationship” between Kenya and Britain, begins to crumble—built, as it is, on the ultimate notion of British benevolence. The Hanslope files and the High Court case have opened a new chapter in postcolonial relations, but it remains to be seen whether a new dynamic will emerge that encourages a lateral rather than hierarchical exchange, and, in this event, whether Kenya, against the backdrop of historical relations, will be willing to recognize this shift—particularly as any substantive acknowledgement on the part of the British government (for instance, the redistribution of British owned land) is a legal and political impossibility.


In Kenya, the long-term cultural and political consequences of British colonial policy toward the Mau Mau have not yet fully emerged. Certainly, in addition to the approximately 50,000 deaths and the trauma suffered by individuals subject to detention and abuse, there are the very real consequences of the cleavages these policies inspired within the Kikuyu community. The effects were manifest in the violence surrounding the 2007 elections, in which issues of ethnicity, and specifically the Kikuyu political constituency, played a central role.50

The 150,000 documents released as part of the Hanslope disclosure make denial of the British government’s culpability in these atrocities impossible. They implicate the British government in the further crime of attempting to deny the Kikuyu their own history. Crucially, the files also point to revelations concerning the process of colonial dismantling across the whole of the Britain’s vast empire, opening the door for similar claims originating in other corners of the British Commonwealth. With the stark facts of British Imperialism’s more sinister aspects now in the public domain, how can we persist in offering this period in our history up as an example of laudable civility and paternalistic benevolence? As Memmi observed, “colonization can only disfigure the colonizer” —whatever the legal implications of the Mau Mau hearing, it has provided a mirror in which this disfiguration can no longer be concealed.51

Though legally contested, the election in March of Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Jomo Kenyatta) to the Kenyan presidency promises further complications for Kenyan-British relations not simply in Uhuru’s personal connection to the Mau Mau, but as a result of his indictment by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in the program of ethnic violence that followed the 2007 election. During the election campaign, both Uhuru and his running mate, William Ruto, were skillful in capitalizing on Kenya’s painful colonial history, tapping into the deep well of anti-British and anti-Western sentiment by accusing “‘foreign powers’ of being behind the I.C.C. prosecutions [with] ‘Reclaiming sovereignty’ bec[oming] a much-used phrase, code for throwing off the colonial yoke.”52 Any sanctions brought by the British in response to Uhuru’s election will likely be viewed in this light, thus the legacy of British Imperialism, preserved in the British consciousness, proves to be diplomatic poison. The question remains, will self-reelection and a revision of the cherished image of Empire, on the part of the British, be enough to change Kenyan attitudes? With the increasing influence of China in Africa, Britain will have to hope contrition is enough.

Having graduated from Oxford University with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Theology, Eleanor Hobhouse went on to complete a Graduate Diploma in Law.After working with various not-for-profit organizations, including the National Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty), she returned to tertiary education and is currently completing a Master of Arts in International Relations and International Economics at SAIS, with a concentration in African Studies.