Monday, 25 April 2011

Yesterday's news

I don’t think that the British Empire was a benevolent institution, or that occupying other people’s land and denying them self-determination, whilst systematically exploiting their resources was morally defensible. I did once believe that the British Empire, although indefensible, was the least worst among recent empires. The Heart of Darkness was inspired by the Belgian King Leopold II’s hideous misrule of the Congo, a nightmare of brutality and exploitation that horrified even Europe’s other imperial powers. Even before his descent into the heart of darkness, Conrad’s Marlow was confident that the British Empire was doing ‘some real work’

Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red -- good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.

The Belgian Congo became slightly less horrific in the Twentieth Century when it became a Belgian colony (as opposed to King Leopold’s personal fiefdom), but some degree of misrule and oppression continued until independence (don't believe everything you read in the Tintin comics). The transition to independence itself was grudging, chaotic and violent, with the departing Belgians conspiring with the CIA to murder the first elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, a secessionist war in the province of Katanga, and a UN peacekeeping force being called in to sort out the mess.

Italy fought a colonial war in Ethiopia in the 19th Century (and were soundly beaten), but came back under Mussolini in the 1930’s, carving out the short-lived colony of Italian East Africa with arial bombardment, poison gas, the execution of prisoners and collective punishment. They were only ousted by the advent of a world war.

German colonists in what is now Namibia exterminated between 30,000 and 110,000 of the Herero and Namaqua people in what is generally considered the 20th Century’s first genocide.

The French in Algeria became hated for systematically expropriating the local’s land.  They withdrew from Algeria not with orderly negotiations, but a vicious war involving torture, attacks on civilians and hundreds of thousands of casualties. There was more colonial land theft in French Indochina (AKA Vietnam). The result? Well, let’s just say that they didn’t get out of that one cleanly, either.

The oldest of the European overseas empires ended badly, too, in the Portuguese Colonial War, a bloody guerrilla struggle that killed thousands in Portugal’s African colonies and left Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau with decades-long legacy of political instability, lack of civil rights, high infant mortality rates, unemployment and malnutrition.

And that’s without even mentioning the horrors of Japanese colonialism in the first half of the 20th Century. So, in comparison, the Brits weren’t all that bad, were they? Historians like Niall Fergusson seem to think so. But that's only half the story.

I didn’t know a great deal about the Mau Mau uprising that took place in Kenya (then British East Africa) from 1952 to 1960. I’d heard snippets from parents, presumably based on contemporary news reports that treated the Mau Mau rebels as vicious terrorists committing atrocities against white settlers.

Those news reports missed out a few things. Firstly the cause of the Mau Mau rebellion – the systematic expropriation of Kikuyu lands in the Kenyan Highlands by force and by legal sleight of hand. The same sort of thing that made the French so unpopular in Algeria and Vietnam. The rebels rebelled (as they do) and the authorities cracked down.

For “cracked down”, read extra-judicial death-squads, collective punishment, sadistic torture and the mass internment of civilians in brutal, disease-ridden camps. 'Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging—all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights' was how one British colonial officer described life in the camps.

In 2011, papers documenting the suppression of the Mau Mau revolt were found and details published in the Times. The British had flown the documents out of Kenya on the eve of independence, because – according to a Foreign Office Official – they might cause embarrassment. ‘Embarrassment hardly covers it,’ a Times editorial drily commented, continuing ‘the covert history of colonial administration in Kenya bears comparison to the methods of torture and summary execution in the French war in Algeria.’ (no link, as the article is behind the paywall). The fact that the father and grandfather of the most powerful man in the world were Kenyans, locked up by the British for being involved in the independence movement* presumably does nothing to make the chaps at the Foreign Office feel any more comfortable. President Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, may even have been tortured by the British.

It’s not as if the British couldn’t have known better – they’d seen foreigners doing this sort of stuff from the Belgian Congo to Belsen. As a Guardian editorial put it. ‘there is something peculiarly chilling about the way colonial officials behaved, most notoriously but not only in Kenya, within a decade of the liberation of the concentration camps and the return of thousands of emaciated British prisoners of war from the Pacific.’

For those with a strong stomach, Gary Brecher has been reading Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, and gives a pithy summary of Britain’s dirty little colonial war

One of the frightening things about the Mau Mau uprising was the way that effective public relations triumphed and buried the truth. People of my parents’ generation read about it in the papers and went away with the impression that the uprising was just a bunch of fanatical terrorists attacking defenceless settlers for no good reason. We were the good guys. Nothing more to see here, move along…

They must have occasionally seen reports of the killing and chaos in the Congo, Algeria, French Indo-China, Angola and Mozambique and felt a quiet sense of pride that the British abroad had been so much more civilized and our exit from empire so much more orderly and peaceful. The British authorities were almost able to airbrush the whole episode out of history. The latest documents, along with some earlier leaks, mean they didn't quite succeed, but it’s already fifty years on, yesterday’s news. Justice delayed is, as they say, justice denied. It makes you wonder how many other stories have been deftly managed until it’s far too late to help the victims or bring the guilty to justice.

*this was befor the Mau Mau uprising but, even so, I’ll bet they’ve been squirming…