Alf Young: Time to face up to bloody history of UK

MAU Mau victims are not the only ones to have suffered at the hands of the British, writes Alf Young, and Scots have also played their part

Portraits of some of the Mau Mau veterans. The British government has agreed compensation for their mistreatment. Picture: Getty

William Hague’s admission, on Thursday, of the British government’s “sincere regret” for the torture of thousands of Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule has been a long, long time coming. What the foreign secretary now acknowledges as “abhorrent violations of human dignity” occurred more than half a century ago, in the 1950s.

Legal claims on behalf of a group of elderly Kikuyu survivors were first lodged in the high court in London in 2009. At first, the government chose to deny any liability. In 2011, it had to acknowledge the existence of 300 boxes of secret files, meticulously detailing treatments, including castration, meted out in detention camps like Hola, where eleven men were clubbed to death by guards in 1959. As the colony’s attorney-general, Eric Griffith-Jones, wrote at the time, the maltreatment of some detainees was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or communist Russia”. But he agreed to draft legislation sanctioning more beatings, provided it was all hushed up. “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” he advised his masters in London. Details of these sins stayed out of the reach of the national archives at Kew, and even the courts, until two years ago.

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Now the British government is to pay a total of £13.9 million to 5,228 Kenyan victims whose claims have been vetted. It will also cover £6m in legal costs and a memorial to those who suffered these atrocities. But Hague didn’t quite manage to say an unequivocal sorry.

That would have been interpreted as opening the door to further claims, not just from Kenya, but from other former outposts of empire, like Cyprus, Aden or Malaya, where withdrawal from colonial rule is also still steeped in claims of state-sanctioned brutality. No precedent had been set, Hague told MPs. The government reserves the right to resist future claims.

As it happens, that £20m now being earmarked for reparations to Kenyan victims of one episode of British colonial savagery is exactly the same sum, in cash terms, that a much earlier British government, in the 1830s, committed to expiating another great sin of empire – abolishing slavery. But that earlier pot of £20m from British taxpayers was used not to compensate freed slaves, but to recompense their former owners. That earlier £20m amounts to the best part of two billion pounds in today’s money.

Britain’s role in the slave trade was ended in 1807. But it took until 1833 to emancipate the already enslaved and achieve complete abolition in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. I grew up in a town, Greenock, that was touched historically more by the products of slave labour than by the slave trade itself. There were multi-storey tobacco warehouses across the street from where my gran lived. And there were several refineries processing the raw cane sugar shipped in from the Caribbean, one just down the hill from where we lived. Our local streets had names like Tobago and Jamaica.

According to the historian, Tom Devine, there were only 14 slave ship voyages from Greenock, mainly in the 1760s and another seven from Port Glasgow, between 1717 and 1730 (To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010, page 35). But this wasn’t down to moral repugnance. Rather London, Bristol and other English ports were so well established in the trade in slaves, he argues, that Scottish ports had to find their niches in commercial spin-offs like tobacco and sugar.

Devine dismisses Victorian assumptions about Scotland’s peripheral role in slave trafficking as “largely unfounded”. he argues, “there was full and enthusiastic Scottish engagement at every level of the trade, even if direct trading from Scottish ports was miniscule.”

I’ve only visited the Caribbean once, in the late 1990s. We stopped off at some of the Windward Islands. In Barbados we were taken, by bus, to visit a tropical garden, first planted by a Scotswoman.

Our driver was so proud of his island. “Look at our children coming out of school in their smart uniforms,” he exclaimed. “You know we’ve got 97 per cent literacy and numeracy here now”. And as we passed a field of sugar cane he added proudly, “We don’t cut the cane ourselves anymore. We bring workers in from Guyana for that now.”

In the garden, the paths were formed from old bricks with names like Gartcosh stamped on the clay. As we left and headed through the nearest village, our driver offered his only apology of the day. “This is not a pleasant place,” he cautioned. “In fact, if you’ll excuse me, we call the people who live here white trash. They don’t work. They try to live off the rest of us. All they do is drink all day.”

They were, he told us, descendents of indentured Scots labourers, headed like slaves from Africa for the plantations, brought over in boats in which the Lanarkshire bricks had presumably been ballast, to be replaced by raw sugar for the return journey. But that’s but one of the inter-twinning strands in this story.

Since February, it has been possible to access a comprehensive database, compiled over the past three years by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at University College London, of all those who claimed that vast compensation in 1833 in lieu of their lost right to own slaves. It makes uncomfortable, sobering reading.

In cities, towns and villages across Scotland and the rest of these islands, you will find details of men and women who once lived near you, who were paid by the British state to give up their slaves. I live in West Stirlingshire. There are twelve names on the database, all with addresses in my county.

One merchant who rebuilt Killearn in 1811, later MP for Stirling, was compensated for 628 slaves. Another, together with his two sisters, whose wider family still own extensive estates in the area, was successful in his claim. The sisters were not. A widow from Port of Monteith successfully claimed on an annuity from her late husband. That involved 170 slaves. An advocate who owned a castle near Drymen, was compensated for 196 slaves in Antigua. And a church minister in Callander who, with his brother, was executor for an uncle’s estate in Jamaica, involving 184 slaves.

You can readily check the slave-owning legacy in your area ( There are 1,561 individuals with addresses in England listed. But 359 others with addresses in Scotland. At the time of its public launch, project leader Professor Catherine Hall called the proportion of slave owners in Scotland “very striking”.

The trustees of the estate of George Orwell’s great-great-grandfather are in there. So are ancestors of the novelist Graham Greene and the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed Glasgow University’s main building and St Pancras Station in London. Even David Cameron’s first cousin six times removed, General Sir James Duff, one time MP for Banffshire is in there too. Abhorrent violations of human dignity are, indeed, woven deep into the shared history of these islands.