How Mau Mau court case exposed hidden Mau Mau papers in Britain

by Julie Ngigi

They were not supposed to be found. But when they were discovered the Mau Mau papers hidden in Hanslope Park, just about the time they were supposed to be destroyed, they exposed the atrocities committed on Mau Mau as they fought for independence.

In 2006, lawyers at Leigh Day, the legal firm representing Mau Mau in court, had sued the British government. The lawyers wanted the ‘final tranche’ of documents relating to the suppression of the Mau Mau revealed.

By then, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office insisted that it had not hidden any papers and that all Kenyan files were held the British Archives in Kew Gardens.

It was only after Prof David Anderson submitted a witness statement using a Library Records listing to show that the UK government was holding about 1,500 files that the records at Hanslope were made public.

On April 2011, the London High Court had, at first, determined that the British government had a case to answer against abuse and torture of Africans during the colonial period in Kenya.

The Royal Court’s decision became a screw that unhinged doors to tightly kept secrets and documents regarding official British involvement in torture of Africans. The court process also revealed the contempt the British government continued to hold over  Mau Mau fighters.

In court, government lawyers tried to stop the case. They exonerated Britain from any responsibility of human rights abuses arguing that the colonial government devolved powers to the Kenyan government at independence.

This argument struck presiding judge, Richard McCombe. He dismissed the argument as “dishonourable” and allowed the court process to proceed. The judge ruled: “There is ample evidence even in the few papers that I have seen suggesting that there may have been systematic torture of detainees.”

The plaintiffs, elderly Mau Mau members, had sought the assistance of Harvard University historian Caroline Elkins to sue the British government.

Days before the case was mentioned, the Mau Mau issue had already returned to international media spectrum thanks to the cache of papers documenting mistreatment of Mau Mau members.

With the Hanslope papers, the Mau Mau question returned to haunt the British government. No media gave the British government more scathing attack than the The Times. The publication primed this revelation on the front pages: “50 years later: Britain’s Kenya cover-up revealed.”

That the Mau Mau case had led to the discovery of these documents is one of the biggest victories it has got since independence.

These papers, stashed at Hanslope Park, could have been destroyed.  For years, Kenya had unsuccessfully tried to access the migrated files by making formal requests in 1967, 1974 and 1980s.

But thanks to Prof. Elkins and Prof. David Anderson of Warwick University the evidence of torture by the British came to light.

This case was unique as it relied on archival evidence and interviews in UK and Kenya. Prof. Elkins and Prof. Anderson were witnesses of the case.

It was a case that pitted historians and scholars against each other. Some even argued that ‘it makes a good story” but the cover up of Britain’s savage treatment of Mau Mau was exaggerated. Yet the suffering that Africans faced under colonial rule remains indescribable.

Foreign Commonwealth Office denied existence of such a tranche stating that all documents pertaining the era were had been transferred to Kenya. But this argument collapsed under the weight of legal pressure. The government finally admitted that it had shipped records from Kenya. Another revelation also came; 37 other colonies had their documents hidden in Britain.

London conceded that Mau Mau had underwent torture during the colonial period. The government changed tact from exonerating itself to a more baffling argument. It had argued that “too much time had elapsed for a fair trial” adding that there “weren’t enough surviving witnesses” for the trial.

 Again, Justice McCombe rejected the defense arguments. The court allowed the case to proceed.

Defeated in court, the British decided to settle the Mau Mau issue.  On 6 June 2013, William Hague, the foreign secretary, announced a decision to compensate 5,228 Kenyans abused during the colonial era.

“The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague said. He added that Britain “sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.”

Scholars opine that Hague’s statement rewrote the history of the Mau Mau war. It was the first admission by Britain that it had committed crimes in Kenya or in any of its colonies.  

The Britain resolved to pay Sh400,000 to each Mau Mau tortured during colonialism.

This case triggered an international debate on the role of British in other colonies. From the court outcome, thousands of documents were declassified at taken to the country’s National Archives.

Speaking to journalists after the ruling an elated Prof Elkins said: “The overarching takeaway is that the government itself was involved in a very highly choreographed, systematised process of destroying and removing documents so it could craft the official narrative that sits in these archives. I never in my wildest dreams imagined this level of detail.”

She termed the revelation as “absolutely seismic.”

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1 comment

James Maina Gichere October 23, 2021 - 4:48 am

A “civilised ” country like britain should have been more careful in how they treated our people, around 1953 my grandfather lost about 3000 sheep and goats on my father’s side and one of my grandfather on my mother’s side was killed , the sheep was to feed the killers of mau mau ,it is disgusting!

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