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Freedom by any means necessary

Published Mar 16, 2005 1:20 PM

Book review: “Imperial Reckoning” by Caroline Elkins and “Histories of the Hanged” by David Anderson

In 1947 in Murang’a, women led a revolt against being forced to build thousands of miles of terraces that often washed away in the rain.

Kenyan African Union leaders went to the countryside. Jomo Kenyatta spoke to 30,000 people in Nyeri, 60 miles north of Nairobi, on July 26, 1952.

Oath-taking campaigns united people in demanding land and freedom. Most historians have smeared the so-called “Mau Mau oaths” as “savage” and “barbaric.” What was barbaric was colonial occupation.

Throughout history oppressed people have taken oaths to fortify themselves. The “Tolpuddle Martyrs”—English farm workers who dared to form a union—were banished to Australia in 1834 for taking an oath.

Kenyans boycotted buses in Nairobi. Preparations were made for armed struggle. People’s justice got rid of the biggest collaborator of the white settlers, British-appointed “Senior Chief” Waruhiu, on Oct. 9, 1952.

Eleven days later Kenya’s colonial governor, Evelyn Baring, declared a state of emergency. His family controlled Barings Bank, founded in 1762 by the slave dealer Francis Baring. His father was Lord Cromer, the British dictator of Egypt and India.

A battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers was flown in from the British-occupied Suez Canal. Authorities rounded up more than 80 Kenyan political leaders, trade unionists and school administrators. Most of the independent schools were shut down.

Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai and three other defendants were put on trial for allegedly leading the Mau Mau. There was no jury. Their conviction was guaranteed. Judge Ransley Thacker received a bribe of 20,000 British pounds, worth several hundred thousand dollars today.

The London Daily Telegraph called Kenyatta “a small-scale African Hitler.”

Baring hoped Kenyatta’s frame-up would demoralize Africans. Instead, it ignited years of guerilla warfare.

Mau Mau fighters stole weapons and ammunition from settlers’ farms and military depots. Kenyan blacksmiths made hundreds of guns in the liberated areas.

Ten more British battalions had to be rushed to Kenya. The Royal Air Force bombed guerilla strongholds in Aberdares Forest and on Mount Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya).

A total of 55,000 soldiers and cops, including thousands of British draftees, were mobilized to fight the Mau Mau.

Mass beatings, hangings

The British hanged 1,090 “Mau Mau suspects.” As with Kenyatta, none of these martyrs had a jury trial.

Like those tortured in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, captured Mau Mau soldiers were not protected by the Geneva Convention. Being found in possession of a single bullet brought a death sentence.

Some 54 people were executed just for administering oaths. Supplying food to guerilla fighters—labeled “consorting” by British justice—sent 207 to the gallows.

By this time, the Conservatives were in office in Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was Adolf Hitler to the people of Kenya.

Elkins estimates as many as 300,000 Kenyans were put through concentration camps to be “screened.” Prisoners had to confess to taking the Mau Mau oath in order to be released.

Author Elkins and her assistant, Terry Wairimu, a researcher at the Kenyan National Archives, interviewed 300 survivors. Every one of these heroes had been beaten and starved. Their harrowing testimony is reminiscent of “The Theory and Practice of Hell,” Eugen Kogon’s account of surviving Buchenwald concentration camp.

Torture, including sexual mutilation, was routine. Detainees at the Manyani camp were clubbed on arrival. Alsatian dogs mauled women inmates at the Athi River camp. Inmates could be killed just for trying to smuggle a letter to the outside.

In Kamiti camp alone, 600 children were confined. Almost none survived.

“Hard-core Mau Mau supporters” would be selected to bury them. “They would be tied in bundles of six babies,” recalled former camp inmate Helen Macharia.

The Githunguri Teachers’ Training College was turned into a concentration camp equipped with a pair of gallows. Some of the slaves who built a 37-mile irrigation canal at the South Yatta camp were buried alive.

The biggest of the 55 main camps was located outside Nairobi, where thousands of inmates built a seven-square-mile airport at Embakasi with their bare hands. U.S. “foreign aid” helped pay for this atrocity.

British authorities burned almost all their records about these camps when finally forced to leave Kenya.

U.S. and British media alleged that Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army was just a “tribal struggle” conducted by the Kikuyu—just as, 50 years later, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair claim the Iraqi resistance is confined to the “Sunni Triangle.”

Concentration camps were set up for Kamba and Maasai people, too. Ole Kisio died in combat leading Maasai fighters. Luo political leaders Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga demanded Jomo Ken yatta’s release. Fitz de Souza and other lawyers of Asian origin defended prisoners.

Stymied by their failed attempts to defeat the Mau Mau, the British military decided to starve them out, cutting off their supplies. This was real “ethnic cleansing.”

Over a million Kikuyu were forced out of their homes. They were driven into 800 “emergency villages” built by their own slave labor—a tactic also used by the British in Malaya and the Pentagon in Vietnam. White settlers and Kenyan mercenaries called the “Home Guard” brutalized Kikuyu in these fenced-in areas.

“Operation Anvil” swept nearly half of Nairobi’s Kikuyu population into the camps on April 24, 1954. Anyone found with a union card was picked up as well.

The world was shocked when 11 prisoners were beaten to death in the Hola camp on March 4, 1959. Colonial authorities claimed at first that they had died from drinking “contaminated water.” The United Nations did nothing.

“You had to knock the evil out of a person,” explained senior prison officer John Cowan, in charge of Hola and other camps. Cowan later got a plush job with the Bank of England.

Cut off from its support network, Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army was finally overcome by British planes and tanks.

But 20,000 Mau Mau guerrillas didn’t die in vain. Neither did hundreds of thousands of other Kenyans, whether murdered in concentration camps or killed by hunger and disease in the emergency villages. An independent Kenya was born on Dec. 12, 1963.

The last of the Mau Mau leaders—Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi—had been captured on Oct. 21, 1956. He was hanged on Feb. 18, 1957, in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison outside Nairobi.

Tony Blair and George W. Bush shed crocodile tears for Africa, but Tony Blair’s government refuses to even reveal where Kamathi’s body is buried. None of the bodies of the hanged Mau Mau martyrs was returned to their families. Oppressed people aren’t even supposed to mourn their heroes.

But Africa remembers. The date of Kimathi’s execution is commemorated annu ally. Streets are named for him. Mau Mau veterans have filed a lawsuit for reparations.

They are being avenged wherever people fight for land and freedom.

“Imperial Reckoning” and “Histories of the Hanged” can be purchased from Leftbooks.com.