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Kenya: The King Regrets

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Written by John Lonsdale

When in Kenya last year, should Charles III have apologised for the brutality and crimes committed during the Mau Mau uprising there in the early 1950s? Here, Professor John Lonsdale sets out the historical and moral complexities of that colonial ‘emergency’ for which no apology is possible.

This article appeared in The Round Table. The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Nov. 2023, vol. 112, no. 6, pp. 653-4. We are grateful to Professor Lonsdale and Taylor and Francis, publishers of the journal, for permission to republish this piece.

When in Nairobi for his first state visit to a Commonwealth country, King Charles III expressed regret for brutalities committed seventy years ago, when Kenya’s British rulers fought to suppress the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising. Some say he should have gone further and apologised. There are two points at issue here, one moral, the other historical. The first calls for our judgement. Is it morally tenable to apologise for the sins alleged of an earlier generation? If that is ever justifiable, surely in this case the king could take on that responsibility? Were not those past crimes committed in the service of his late mother, the queen? Yes, but one can still hesitate to blame the present for the past.

Kenya The King Regrets

But there can be no hesitation about the history. British forces, including Africans under British command, did commit harsh, often atrocious and illegal, acts when defeating ‘Mau Mau’. The king’s apparently genuine expression of personal regret was fully justified.

The king will have spoken on the advice of Downing Street. Ten years ago, the Conservative government paid £20 m out of court in reparations after ‘Mau Mau’ veterans demanded recompense for the torture they had endured. The Foreign Secretary added his official regrets. Today’s same Tory government, if under a prime minister several times removed, may well have advised that, since Britain had already been forced to own up and make amends, the king need now do no more than add his own regrets.

Did Kenya’s government also offer guidance? The British could not have fought their counter-insurgency war without the help of the grandparents of today’s Kenyan citizens – who served as police, prison warders, or in the King’s African Rifles. Would President Ruto want the king to apologise on their behalf, for being under British orders? ‘Mau Mau’s’ memory divides Kenyans. It recruited almost exclusively from one of the country’s many ethnic peoples, the Kikuyu, about 20% of Kenya’s population. Many non-Kikuyu believe that it was as much a tribal as a nationalist uprising. Kikuyu themselves remember the ‘Emergency’ as an intimately cruel civil war, won by those who fought with rather than against the British. Some Kikuyu, those who opposed ‘Mau Mau’, have done well out of Kenya’s independence; others, ‘Mau Mau’s’ children, feel unjustly forgotten. Was Ruto’s concern for these divisive memories the reason why King Charles met ‘Mau Mau’ veterans only in private?

What else might the two governments have wanted the king to forget? Imperial history as a whole was clearly out of bounds. It would not do for the king to enter that other ‘memory war’, simmering in Britain as well as in former colonies, over the empire’s contradictory record of brutality and benefit. Nor did the king recall, as well he might, Kenya’s own seventy years of colonial rule. Few other white settler colonies excited so much British criticism at the time.

Indeed, in 1942 Harold Macmillan, then a minister in the Colonial Office, even wondered if Britain might do well to repatriate Kenya’s tiny but vociferously privileged settler minority. It would, he thought, be less expensive than the alternative: a future inter-racial war. It is certainly hard to imagine a ‘Mau Mau’ uprising without the losses that Africans suffered in land, human dignity, and racial equity as a result of white settlement. But British Kenyans, children of the few settlers who ‘remained’, constitute another of Kenya’s ethnic groups. The king could scarcely apologise for their presence.

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So King Charles referred only to Kenya’s eight-year ‘Emergency’, one of the wars of imperial succession that in some places made retreat from empire bloodier than its acquisition. Counter-insurgency policy was itself violent, fertile ground for displays of personal anger, revenge, or panic. The colonial regime knowingly employed collective punishment and mass detention without trial while hanging a thousand and more ‘Mau Mau’ fighters. Crucially, the privations of enforced villagisation probably caused more Kikuyu deaths than combat, especially among mothers and children. While white racial contempt was responsible for dreadful savageries, the insurgents themselves invited horrified disgust with oathing rituals easily called obscene and grisly murders of unarmed opponents, most of them fellow Kikuyu.

The most consequential British crime was cowardice in high places. The governor dared not punish his security forces, British or African, for their criminal actions, inherent as they are in all guerilla wars. He had to appease them instead. An official amnesty declared in 1955 pardoned crimes on both sides. This assured the continued loyalty of the Kikuyu ‘Home Guards’ who did more than British regiments to defeat ‘Mau Mau’. It was to these so-called ‘loyalists’ and their electoral allies that the British devolved sovereign power at Independence in 1963. There was much for which King Charles could never apologise.

John Lonsdale is Emeritus Professor of African History, Trinity College, Cambridge.

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John Lonsdale