Torture comes cheap for the old imperial powers. Just £2,670 was paid out this month to each of the 5,228 elderly Kenyans judged eligible for compensation as the British government finally settled a case it has attempted to block every s...
Torture comes cheap for the old imperial powers. Just £2,670 was paid out this month to each of the 5,228 elderly Kenyans judged eligible for compensation as the British government finally settled a case it has attempted to block every step of the way (between 2005 and 2011 it insisted that officials had “misplaced” or “forgotten about” a secret archive of 2,000 boxes of files detailing late colonial abuses from all over the world). With characteristic cynicism, the government briefed journalists that there would be an apology, and then never made one. Despite prominent reporting of that phantom apology, there has been merely an expression of “regret” from William Hague, and an insistence that “a line be drawn” beneath this awkward national embarrassment. Unfortunately, at least in the British national consciousness, it looks like that is exactly what is happening.
Our colonial torturers, like those who survived our abuses, are old and dying (like the Scot Ian Henderson CBE, torturer-in-chief in Kenya in the 1950s, later nicknamed the “Butcher of Bahrain”, who died this month). If a meaningful public reckoning with the crimes of our empire is ever to take place while the last of the perpetrators and the victims are still with us, then it has to happen now. Yet even in the face of overwhelming documentary and testimonial evidence of the scale and brutality of our imperial sadism, this reckoning is simply not taking place. Many of us Britain have our heads so stuffed with jingoism that we can’t make any sense of this part of our history, and so choose to ignore it.
We know from our official reports that we roasted people alive. We know that the salient feature of the way that we tortured was our preference for overtly sexual techniques. One of the five who brought the case, Jane Muthoni Mara, had bottles filled with boiling water pushed into her vagina (a technique that was not at all uncommon). Like many of the men awarded compensation, Paolo Nzili and Ndiku Mutua were castrated.
As a society, we have been nowhere near appalled enough by these revelations. I find myself at a loss to know what it would take for us to properly face up to our past. Whether in Kenya half a century ago or in Iraq this past decade (Baha Mousa’s murder bears striking similarities to the kinds of abuse recorded in the Mau Mau files), we just can’t seem to take our history of torture seriously. The national frenzy for vacuous expressions of “support” for “Our Boys” — regardless of who they are fighting or how — has created a public sphere in which anything but the most craven deference for the British armed forces is taken as a traitorous slur. Blair’s wars have somehow deepened and popularised our collective postcolonial melancholia.
We have a national fairytale that Mau Mau was really about the rape of white women and white infants butchered in their beds. That cover story is proving hard to budge from the popular imagination, and somehow “Mau Mau” remains a shorthand expression describing their brutality, not ours (just read the comments). The BBC made an excellent documentary, “Kenya: White Terror”, over a decade ago now, and it deserves a prime-time re-run now that the case has been settled (don’t miss the segment from 32 minutes in where former prison official Trevor Gavaghan silently eyeballs the interviewer when confronted about his abuses).
Cristina Odone’s unpardonable column in the Daily Telegraph (newspaper of middle England, older expatriates, military history enthusiasts and colonial nostalgists, which was also the first to report on the case back in 2005) was typical of the scornful reaction to the compensation claims two years ago. Odone characterized the claimants as ungrateful natives, merely scrounging from the British as usual, and their lawyers as engaging in a kind of historica