The British Government’s efforts to cover up one of the darkest episodes in colonial history have been revealed by the discovery of a vast cache of documents relating to the bloody Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.
The papers, documenting efforts to put down insurgency, were spirited out of Kenya on the eve of independence and have been held in secret British government archives for half a century.
The files were unearthed only this year after four elderly Kenyans sued the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, claiming they were tortured during the rebellion against British rule in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.
The claimants allege that they suffered “unspeakable acts of brutality, including castrations and severe sexual assaults”, under a system of torture carried out against the Mau Mau fighters by the British colonial authorities.
The case, which opens in the High Court in Britain on Thursday, has led to the discovery of 300 boxes of documents. The files were removed from Kenya in 1963, and secretly brought to Britain days before Kenya’s declaration of independence.
British officials deliberately removed evidence that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government”.
The missing material was thought to have been destroyed or lost, but after the High Court judge ordered the government to produce all relevant evidence, the documents were found in the Foreign Office archives: about 1,500 files.
The “vast majority” of the files relate to the Mau Mau, including the detention and punishment of suspected fighters, according to material released to the National Archives.
The documents appear to have been removed from Kenya as part of a policy of extracting sensitive or incriminating files from former colonies. Historians believe that similar files relating to Cyprus, Nigeria, Malaya, Palestine and other former dependent territories may also be held in secret.
“These documents were hidden away to protect the guilty,” David Anderson, Professor of African History at the University of Oxford, said on Tuesday.
“And it’s not just Kenya. What other colonial skeletons are rattling in the FCO basement? Are there secret files from Cyprus and Malaya, or from Nigeria and Rhodesia? It’s time to know the truth, however uncomfortable that may be.”
For many years, former Mau Mau detainees and their families who sought the official and legal records were told that these had been lost or destroyed, while historians have never been granted access to them.
The Kenyan claimants want a statement of regret from the government and a welfare fund for the victims. There are at least 1,400 other former Mau Mau detainees alive, and if former colonial subjects from other countries follow suit, the government could face claims for millions of pounds.
Some of those allegedly implicated are living in Britain, raising the further possibility of criminal prosecutions.
At least 12,000 fighters were killed, but atrocities were committed on both sides, and an estimated 70,000 Kenyans were held in prison camps as the British tried to quell the uprising.
The four claimants, who arrived in Britain on Tuesday, are seeking “damages for personal injuries caused by repeated assaults perpetrated by employees and agents of the British Colonial Administration in Kenya when they were detained”. (Adapted from The Times)