Supporters cheer after three Kenyans are given the right to sue the British government for abuses by colonial officials. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
The claim by Mau Mau veterans for abuses suffered 50 years ago challenges not only the foreign office, but the British people’s narrative of their imperial past
There was dancing and praying in the streets of Nairobi earlier this month when three elderly Kenyans won an unexpected legal victory in London. They had been granted the right to sue the British government over the horrific ordeals they suffered during the Mau Mau insurgency, although the abuses had been inflicted on them more than half a century earlier.
Even before the judgment had been formally handed down at the royal courts of justice, however, and the claimants and their families informed of their achievement, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had decided on its response: it was going to appeal the decision, one more set-back for those old people who had already been battling through the courts for more than three years.
There was widespread dismay among many who had been observing the case. The FCO’s lawyers had already conceded in court that the accounts given by the three Mau Mau veterans â€“ of castration, rape and savage beatings â€“ had been honest accounts, and that senior British and colonial officials had been aware of the ugly truth about daily life in the prison camps of 1950s Kenya. So why was the government continuing to resist their claim for compensation, and an apology?
Some wondered whether the FCO was, with supreme cynicism, simply dragging out the process, waiting for these troublesome litigants, Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, to die. Already a fourth claimant, Susan Ciong’ombe Ngondi, had passed away, aged 71.
A explanation is to be found in the FCO’s own statements after its decision was announced.
While stressing that they “understand the pain and grievance” felt not only by detainees but also those who suffered the terrible violence that the Mau Mau inflicted upon others, the FCO described the ruling as disappointing. “The judgment has potentially significant and far-reaching legal implications. The normal time limit for bringing a civil action is three to six years. In this case, that period has been extended to over 50 years despite the fact that the key decision-makers are dead and unable to give their account of what happened. Since this is an important legal issue, we have taken the decision to appeal.”
But having already conceded the use of torture during the seven-year counter-insurgency operation in Kenya, what would the FCO have to fear from the legal implications of a ruling that has allowed a claim for compensation from Britain’s recent colonial past?
The three Mau Mau veterans won their case, in part, because last year their claim exposed the existence of the Foreign Office’s secret annals of the end of empire, an archive stuffed with many of the documents that recorded how confused and bloody the withdrawal had been (but not all, as some of the most damning colonial-era papers were destroyed).
The foreign secretary, himself a historian, has to his great credit pledged that every surviving document will be transferred to the National Archives at Kew. But could it be that FCO officials have reason to believe that this archive, hidden from view for decades, may contain more documentary evidence of abuses that could result in claims through the high court?
Is there a realisation at the FCO that the tortures inflicted on the Mau Mau â€“ largely concealed at the time through official secrecy and ministerial lies â€“ then migrated to Cyprus during the Eoka insurgency, where they were brutally applied and always similarly denied? Or that they then travelled to Aden, where they were during the four years of conflict that preceded British withdrawal in 1967?
Perhaps there is an awareness at the FCO that further documentary evidence of British torture in Cyprus can be found in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, where the protective embargo has been reduced from 60 years to 40? Or that a wealthy seam of evidence of British abuses at Aden has already been deposited at the National Archives?
What other arguable claims could be out there, lurking in the memories of ageing rebels, and within documents that have been concealed or withheld for a generation?
And is it possible that such claims could challenge not only the government and its lawyers, but also the British people’s carefully nurtured narrative of the final days of their imperial mission?
For there may be far more at stake here than just a few million pounds of British taxpayers’ money. Already, several historians â€“ a curious number of them American â€“ have begun assembling evidence that demonstrates what a brutal time it , as the British sought to cling on to every “rock or sandbar”, as Franklin Roosevelt put it, or sought to withdraw, but at a far slower pace than the local population wished.
Professor David Anderson has expressed the view on these pages that “squaring up to the seamier side of our empire is long overdue”, while his Oxford colleague Professor David French wrote last year that it was now clear that the British military’s much-vaunted hearts and minds approach to 20th-century counter-insurgency in the colonies had been “as much about creating fear” as about winning a socio-economic battle for the support of colonial subjects.
Perhaps the most far-reaching implication of the high court’s decision could be not that it will result in more claims for damages; but that those claims will throw such harsh light upon a period of Britain’s recent history that that history will need to be rewritten.