British Terror: The Kenyan Holocaust

Recently, several elderly Kenyans flew to London to sue and seek an apology from the British government for human rights abuses in the early 1950’s. These human rights abuses include the systematic torture, rape, and massacre of tens and thousands of Kenyans -- men, women, and children -- by the British. As many as 100,000 Kenyans were victims of these abuses, but the final number is just an estimate, because Kenyans never had a voice. Rather they were muffled and forgotten about, our story wiped out by the British pen of history.

Simultaneously, a trial began at The Hague to bring Kenyan politicians to justice for violence that cost the lives of over 1,000 Kenyans. The painful irony of the two court cases is that what the British did to my Kenyan people was no different than what the Nazi did to the Jews, yet British perpetrators of the Kenyan Holocaust were never held accountable. The difference lies in the fact that the Jewish community has had greater access to media and voice, to tell their own tragic and horrific story. The Kenyans never did. Our story remains in silence, undocumented and unheard, leaving the British open to deny involvement rather than apologize.

My whole family is from Kenya. My great grandparents were some of the early settlers, brought in to build a railway line that British colonialists labeled “the line from nowhere into nowhere.” Born in Britain, I was raised in full awareness of the atrocities and crimes of the British colonialists in Kenya. At school, I learned about the crimes committed against European Jews by Germans, and British media never failed to show something about Nazi atrocities toward the Jewish people. It was only at home that I learned about the scale of crimes that the British conducted in Kenya. It was in the home with "our people," who sympathized through their own experience, that we spoke about and understood the brutality of the British Colonialists.

In 1952, the British governing colonists declared a state of emergency in Kenya caused by the Mau Mau rebellion. The native Blacks had been suppressed, mass executed, and humiliated for years before this and began to fight back. A small number of white colonists were killed or injured (less than 50). This was in comparison to the hundreds of men, women, and children they had culled and wiped out. Black people were considered underdeveloped and part beast. As a result, the darker your skin, the more barbaric your treatment, with a top Colonial officer declaring, "There is only one way to improve the Wakikuyu [and] that is to wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies."

In a vivid recollection, my father, then a seven-year-old boy, remembers British soldiers breaking down the front door of their house. The butt end of a rifle was shoved in my grandmother’s pregnant stomach, her four other young children lined up near her while an officer screamed in her face, “Where are the Blacks, where are you hiding the Blacks?” They searched the house then left. Had they found the men in the wooden panels lying flat under the guard dogs house, my grandfather would have come home to a house full of the dead. (And I would not be here today.) In another recollection, he remembers a curfew being strictly imposed. If you were out after the curfew, you would be shot. One day, for some reason he was late from school and was petrified that he would be taken away, so he hid behind a tree where he witnessed dozens of Black men, mainly boys, being shoved into two trucks at gunpoint. An old man resisted and his head was stamped on until it melted in with the road. The boys on the truck were driven away, likely to be killed.

Copyright: Caroline Elkins

Hundred and thousands of native Black people were taken to concentration camps. Their villages were set fire to 'gas' them out. Thy were then gathered, sometime mass killed on the spot, other times sent to labor camps. Men were whipped, castrated with pliers, their tongues and genitals and eyes burnt with hot rods. Women and children were brutally and systematically raped. A raped woman would sometimes have a castrated penis shoved into her vagina or sand to prevent her from reproducing if she survived the ordeal. Nipples on women were ripped off with pliers. Blacks were culled on mass and the word on the street was "the only honest Mau Mau is a dead one." Witnesses including my own relatives attest to the continual wail of screams.

Copyright: Caroline Elkins

We rarely talked about this outside of the home because British people thought we were making it up. Convinced that only Nazis were the only people that perpetuated this level of brutality and violence, it was hard to convince the average Brit of the scale of British colonialist torture. Furthermore, we did not have resources to gather the evidence. It was the work of Harvard scholar Caroline Elkins who highlighted, for the first time in the mainstream, what brutality our Kenyan people had been through. We never had a voice and she gave us one. She wrote an objective, evidence-based, and well-researched document. The British never gave her credit for her book and accused her of making up the statistics along with the interviews -- exaggerating the story to aid her research. She didn’t need to exaggerate: It happened.

Copyright: Caroline Elkins

The men and women seeking justice are victims of these crimes. Now in their 70’s and 80’s they attest and have the scars of the beatings, the castration, and the mutilation. They don’t seek millions of dollars but some compensation for the life that was torn by the colonists. The British government claims it is not their responsibility and remains the responsibility of the current government in that country.

Kenya is well-known and visited by many Western tourists, but many who visit are starkly unaware of the history of Kenya, likely because most of that history has never been told. Our country of Kenya needs empowerment and a voice, a break from hierarchy. The USA has helped Kenya form it’s own constitution finally breaking clean from the remaining British rule. Over time, as we build bridges among communities, the Kenyan community will find a place for their history and like the Jewish community be able to build, learn, and educate so that human rights abuses are wiped out or at least kept to the minimum. Nonetheless what happened in 1952 can never be repeated.