To listen to some critics of British colonialism, you’d think it was utterly devoid of any redeeming value.
As one who was subjected to it throughout much of his youth, I can attest that this is not so. All one has to do is juxtapose the way education and civil service have floundered in post-colonial countries in Africa with the way they thrived in those countries during colonialism to counter unqualified criticism in this respect.
Having said that, nothing, not even a good education and a competent civil service, can possibly justify the dominion British colonialists exercised over native people from India to the Caribbean – especially since British mercantilism meant raping and pillaging local resources for the benefit of Mother England, as well as racial segregation, which reinforced the dehumanizing nature of colonialism.
‘The right to bomb’
As British journalist and historian Richard Gott notes in “Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt” (2011), British Prime Minister David Lloyd George telegraphed how colonial officers intended to deal with rebellious natives when, at the 1932 World Disarmament Conference, he “demanded the right to bomb for police purposes in outlying places [and] insisted on the right to bomb niggers.”
Colonial officers meted out cruel and unusual punishment to natives whose natural pride and human dignity compelled them to resist. Nowhere was this demonstrated in more poignant and persistent fashion than in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion throughout the 1950s and 1960s. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed; 160,000 were detained in conditions that rivaled those their forefathers were subjected to as captured slaves during the “Middle Passage.”
But where seeking reparations for slavery that ended 150 years ago has always been fraught with obvious (legal) problems, seeking reparations for colonialism that ended just 50 years ago is much less so. This is why the British government is defending itself against claims by Kenyans who say they suffered human rights abuses while being held in detention camps by the British colonial administration during the Mau Mau rebellion.
Lawyers for several victims filed what they clearly hope will be a class-action suit on behalf of all victims demanding an official apology and compensation for pain and suffering from beatings, whippings, canings, castrations and appalling sexual abuse.
The British government admitted last month – for the first time and in a court of law – that Kenyans were tortured and ill-treated as alleged. It was obliged to do so because the British High Court ordered the release of 300 boxes of secret documents recently that not only chronicle the systematic torture and ill-treatment colonial officers meted out, but also expose a conspiracy among British officials to cover up these human rights abuses.
Despite all this, the government is attempting to avoid compensating the direct victims of the Mau Mau rebellion by using the same argument governments have used to avoid compensating the descendants of the victims of slavery: that “too much time has passed for a fair trial to be conducted.”
Lawyers can raise all kinds of issues as to why, ironically enough, the British government cannot get a fair trial, not least among them the age and fading memories of both perpetrators and victims. Lawyers may even question whether detention during the Mau Mau rebellion was in fact the proximate cause of their injuries.
Still, if the British government has any regard for what little redeeming value its legacy of colonialism retains, it would consider it a moral imperative to move post-haste to negotiate a victims’ fund with the Kenyan government from which all victims can seek relatively fair compensation…in Kenya.
This would (and should) not absolve the government of the categorical imperative to pursue and prosecute every British official implicated in these human rights abuses – from the secretary of state in London to the camp guard in Kenya – and not just those who executed them, but those who participated in the conspiracy to cover up these abuses. Those British officials should be pursued and prosecuted with the same dogged zeal with which officials who collaborated with the Nazis are still being pursed and prosecuted to this day.
If the High Court were to establish the precedent that victims of colonial-era abuses could seek damages in British courts, I have no doubt that thousands of claimants would show up in London to seek redress from every place on earth that was subjected to British dominion. That’s why the British government would be well-advised to initiate government-to-government settlements of all such cases, instead of allowing any of them to proceed to trial – especially with all of the opening of old wounds (on both sides) that would entail.
Even if the High Court were to rule that victims of colonial abuse have no recourse in British courts, the reputational damage to Britain of such a ruling would far outweigh any amount the Kenyan and other post-colonial governments could reasonably demand be placed in compensation funds for colonial abuses.
Accordingly, I fully expect Britain, at long last, to do the right thing: apologize and pay, pursue and prosecute!
Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian native with an international law practice in Washington, D.C. Read his columns and daily weblog at www.theipinionsjournal.com.