Hola Massacre: The greatest British mistake in the Kenya colony?

by Evan Mbugua

Of all established detention camps in Kenya’s pre-independence period, the story of Hola Detention Camp at the Kenyan coast is regarded as a game-changer in the history of the colony.

In 1959, the camp attracted attention from the British Parliament and the international media after 11 detainees were flogged to death – leading to an embarrassing inquiry. Over 70 other detainees sustained serious injuries.

Unlike other detention camps, the Hola Camp was the reserve for the “hardcore” Mau Mau prisoners.  The label was usually used on those who could not compromise on their determination to end colonial rule in Kenya.

With a capacity of 506 by the end of 1958, the Hola Detention Camp was a more than just an incarceration center. It exemplified the British resolve in quelling the Mau Mau, a symbol of government inflexibility in respecting the sanctity of lives of Africans, especially the Agikuyu, Embu and Ameru.

The detention camp had an open prison quarter and a separate closed camp. The open camp accommodated detainees willing to cooperate with the authority while the closed camp harboured the ‘hardcore’. “Co-operative” detainees, the British deemed, could be de-radicalized through a rehabilitation process at the Camp.

Hard core detainees, belligerent and disobedient to colonial orders, including resisting any form of rehabilitation, even under duress, remained isolated. Most of them lived in dark rooms, chained, and subjects of torture and other forms of mistreatment.

According to the British authorities, many of these hardcore detainees ended up at Hola after committing horrible crimes, including murder.  Strikingly, only a few of them had been tried in court and thus the guilt was as a result of extrajudicial process. At the Camp, the guards tortured detainees at will and subjected already emaciated Africans to hard labour. The government, however, did not tire from installing measures that were more punitive. 

When the Commissioner of Prisons in Kenya Mr. Lewis Cowan visited the camp in November 1958, he expressed dissatisfaction with the “level of laxity in discipline.” Upon his return to Nairobi, he discussed the situation with the Minister of Defense and the Minister of African Affairs.

On 20th January 1959, the Camp received new leadership when Mr. Michael Sullivan took up duties as the Camp Commandant. The instructions from Mr. Lewis were explicit: Mr. Sullivan’s central duty was to ensure detainees were disciplined. It was euphemism for “go and increase levels of torture and forced labour in whatever method considered to yield maximum pain and suffering to the detainees”.

The following month, Mr. Cowan made another trip to Hola. This time, in addition to conducting an inventory of new disciplinary levels at the facility, Cowan and Sullivan drew up guidelines for handling non-cooperative detainees. Available records show part of the plan included taking detainees as labourers in an irrigation site that was being developed.

Cowan handed Sullivan these guidelines, later dubbed the Cowan Plan. From the Plan, Sullivan understood that all non-cooperatives detainees, specifically those who declined orders to work at the irrigation farm, deserved manhandling and forced labour.

In shorthand, the Cowan Plan prescribed forced labour to expedite establishment of the irrigation project. It also stamped systematic violation of detainee rights, a move that motivated guards working at the facility heighten cruelty in handling detainees. The plan also limited the number of hardcore detainees at 66 but the Camp administration breached the agreed number and increased it to 88 people.

Sullivan’s ability to execute the Cowan Plan is contested. Some accounts of his leadership ability dismiss him as unqualified for the position he held.   

Therefore, when Sullivan put the plan into action on 3rd March 1959, his failure was epic. He took all hardcore detainees to the field. Taking all the detainees to the field was contrary to the dictates of the Cowan Plan. Emboldened by their big numbers, the detainees revolted all orders. The guards pressed the panic button and descended on the detainees with clubs and other weapons. 

To conceal this cruelty, the government report said the detainees died after imbibing contaminated water from a cart that supplied water to the Camp. This explanation, from the onset, reeked of cover-up.

The House of Commons in Britain debated the massacre while the June 1959 edition of Time Magazine headlined it “The Hola Scandal.”  

Speaking in the British parliament on 27 July 1959, Ipswich representative Mr. Dingle Foot exonerated detainees from any wrong doing.

“What does anyone expect in the circumstances in which the detainees found themselves at Hola? Here were men who had been detained without trial for a very long time. They had no means of knowing when, if ever, they would be released. Their incarceration would not end, so far as they knew, with the end of the emergency,” he said. The august house further blamed authorities in Kenya for neglect and called for prosecution of the prison wardens. The colonial government renamed Hola Detention Camp to Galole.

This killing widely referred to as Hola Massacre led to an uproar and earned the British Government wide negative publicity. After the massacre, the colonial administration closed all detention camps in Kenya and freed all prisoners.  

The detention camp has since been turned into a school- Mau Mau Memorial Girl’s Secondary School. A tombstone on the mass grave where the 11 were buried has also been erected with their names inscribed on it.

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1 comment

Mwangi Kariuki June 11, 2021 - 9:41 am

Enlightening Article


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