»The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.«
— Albert Memmi.
Undoubtedly, Africa continues to live in the long shadows cast by the 1885 Berlin Conference. While the continent had experienced various European spheres of power and influence in the preceding years, this gathering made decisive changes to the autonomy of large territories and communities across the continent. It was motivated by capitalism but couched within a moral argument for »civilization.«
The avaricious colonial project was married with religion and a superiority complex that justified all actions. Consequently, in the 70-year period the mutable territory of Kenya fell under direct British rule, the rights and privileges of the Indigenous communities resembled that of homo sacer. This is a figure in Roman law understood as someone who can be killed without the killer being regarded as a murderer; a person so completely stripped of status and value that even their material form could not be used as a sacrifice.
This reduced view was most apparent between 1952 and 1960, when Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency in the Kenyan colony. Issued merely 14 days into his new posting, this directive sought to tame the guerilla-style insurgency of the Mau Mau, a grassroots anticolonial movement. While political organizations and trade unions had valiantly fought for the rights of ordinary non-African loyalists, all the lobbying, diplomacy, and incidents of civil disobedience were not enough to push the needle toward real change.
Least of which in the eyes of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities, which had been pushed out of their fertile ancestral lands and forced to return as laborers on these same fields now owned by Europeans settlers. By 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyu had been restricted to just 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers), while 30,000 settlers occupied 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometers). It was this quest for ithaka na wiathi (land and freedom) that led to retaliatory attacks on farmlands and administrative posts; against settlers and the tribal police who helped them.
The British response to the uprising was brutal. In 1953, a large-scale system called »The Pipeline« was developed to process suspected Mau Mau sympathizers and fighters. It shuttled prisoners through a network of more than 100 detention camps across the colony. And, used tactics such as starvation, electrocution, and mutilation to try and break their spirits.
In September 1955, an article written by British MP Barbara Castle appeared in UK socialist magazine The Tribune. She stated that »In the heart of the British Empire in Kenya there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder, rape, and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished, and where the authorities connive at its violation.«
»If it is indeed the victor who writes history and counts the dead, then how many continue to go unmourned?«
There are reports of wanton abuse of power, sexual misconduct, and British officers getting a £5 reward for each Kikuyu killed, regardless of the circumstances. They just had to make sure to cut off the victim’s hands for later identification. This underscores an insidious side of the British administration in Kenya; meticulous record keeping. A census conducted in 1960 revealed that more than 300,000 Kikuyu had been killed or could not be accounted for. One thousand and ninety were said to have been hung on mobile gallows that traversed the country. And, there is documented proof that several captured Mau Mau rebels were forced to appear as extras in the 1955 film Simba and executed three days after filming.
It comes as no surprise then, that within a year of the end of the state of emergency, a Colonial Office guidance on the disposal of classified records and accountable documents was made. Known as »Operation Legacy, « it involved colonial officers burning documents in incinerators and using weighted crates sunk offshore. What could not be destroyed was permanently hidden. Perhaps it was an observation that their eight-year season of carnage wouldn’t auger well with the winds of change blowing across the continent. Germany had lost hold of Cameroon and Togo; Congo was taken back from the cruel Belgians, while Italy left Somalia and France had seen Madagascar, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Central African Republic, and Mauritania revert to its peoples. Ghana, another former British colony, had already achieved independence in 1957 amid the horrors happening to their East African neighbors.
It has emerged that a key principle of the Colonial Office guidance was that no documents were to be shared that might »embarrass Her Majesty’s Government (HMG).« In 1963, this meant 294 boxes containing 1,500 files were sent back to England even as Kisoi Munyao climbed Mount Kenya to bring down the Union Jack and hoist the Kenyan flag. In 2022, with the nonagenarian monarch’s passing, this fierce bid to sanitize the image of HMG has manifested as virulent suppression of criticism through intimidation and arrest of protesters and media reports that gloss over exactly how (and why) the royal family has an estimated $28 billion fortune.