British Empire a benign power? Mass killings and gulags in colonial Kenya demonstrate its true nature – Kenny MacAskill MP

A few years ago, I watched the movie Blackhawk Down, a Hollywood action movie where American forces bravely fight off local ‘crazies’, after a helicopter crashes and a rescue mission takes place.

A man said to be a Mau Mau soldier imprisoned in a camp in colonial Kenya in 1955 (Picture: Three Lions/Getty Images)
A man said to be a Mau Mau soldier imprisoned in a camp in colonial Kenya in 1955 (Picture: Three Lions/Getty Images)

The movie makes you sympathetic to the airmen’s plight but as the credits roll you see that, in the real-life event the film is based on, 19 Americans died but also thousands of Somalis.

The situation was far more complex and not just a simplistic case of Americans good, and Somalis bad. A friend who’d been there as a photographer embedded with US forces just prior to the incident told me he knew conflict was coming as marines kicked in doors indiscriminately and local anger grew.

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I was minded of that while reading Caroline Elkins’ book Imperial Reckoning, more tellingly subtitled “the untold story of Britain’s gulag in Kenya”. Now she’s no left-wing anti-colonialist, instead she’s a Harvard history professor and indeed white.

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I can’t swear to the veracity of her book, but it won the Pulitzer Prize and the cover is endorsed by learned history professors, including Niall Ferguson. So, I sense it’s right even though she herself admits that many facts have been hidden – deliberately, it would seem, by the British authorities.

The reason I was put in mind of Blackhawk Down was the real story that was buried not the image portrayed.

I’d heard of the Mau Mau emergency and my initial impressions were of crazy Africans killing law-abiding settlers. For sure, I’ve no doubt there were atrocities perpetrated by the group, but the real repression was against the Kikuyu people who faced torture, rape and murder at the hands of the colonial regime.

Mau Mau suspects were held in crowded conditions in this prison camp in 1952 (Picture: Stroud/Express/Getty Images)

It was something redolent of apartheid South Africa or other colonial regimes such as the French in Algeria. Not only were supposed terrorists rounded up but internment was practised indiscriminately, with men, women and children corralled in villages or gulags even, where disease and hunger were rampant.

As in Blackhawk Down, the death toll told a story: about 11,000 Mau Mau and hundreds of settlers died. But so did upwards of 200,000, and maybe more, Kikuyu.

A benign colonial power Britain certainly wasn’t – that idea is as fictitious as Hollywood.

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