Kenya and the end of empire: myths and facts

I am proud to have played a modest part, as a junior civil servant working in London and as a young diplomat at the United Nations in New York, in the great enterprise of decolonisation carried out by Britain, mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, following the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.  This self-divestiture of a great empire was virtually entirely voluntary, almost all of it achieved, with remarkably little violence, in co-operation with the political leaders in the former colonial territories.  Such violence as occurred was in most cases generated by fierce competition between different groups of local people — tribal, political, geographical — to inherit dominant power from Britain on independence.  Sometimes minority or backward groups were afraid that with Britain's withdrawal they would come to be dominated by more numerous, sophisticated and better organised fellow-countrymen — that when the former referee left the field, the rule-book would be torn up and the strongest would prevail.  All too often their fears proved to be well founded.  Such minority groups would often seek to resist or retard the inexorable movement towards independence, supported by conservative voices at home who would always claim that each colonial territory in turn "was not ready", "needed more time to prepare".  In general the British Colonial Office, the small department responsible for managing decolonisation, stoutly resisted such siren voices, recognising that once there was a critical mass of local opinion desiring early (but not necessarily immediate) independence, progress towards it developed its own momentum and that trying to resist it would be likely to end in tears.  In any case, after six years fighting a savage global war to preserve our own right to govern ourselves, British people no longer had any appetite for denying the colonial people for whom we had previously been responsible that same right. 

In many cases the transfer of power to local hands involved a massive and complex diplomatic negotiation with representative, usually democratically elected, local leaders, to determine how power should be distributed after independence, what safeguards there should be for minorities, how fundamental human rights should be protected in the independence constitution, and what package of development aid should be put in place to give the new state the best possible send-off.  The greater part of the conflict that occurred over all these key issues was between different local groups, not between local leaders and the colonial power.  In the great majority of cases the extent of the goodwill and spirit of cooperation that existed between those transferring power and those receiving it was quite remarkable.  The majority of the exceptions to this were in territories where independence entailed the surrender of privilege and power by white settler communities, most of whom (rightly or wrongly) perceived the advent of "black majority rule" as a threat to the political and economic position they had enjoyed during the colonial period.  In other territories, where Britain had never permitted white settlement on any scale, the transition was generally accomplished in a friendly and mutually cooperative spirit, and without bloodshed.  

So having seen a good deal of this at first hand during the height of decolonisation (but never as a Colonial Service officer at the sharp end), I'm naturally sad that a new generation of British people has been led to believe in a quite different version of events:  a version according to which in each territory local freedom fighters had to fight and spill their blood in a struggle to the death with their savage and repressive colonial masters, finally achieving their freedom literally over the dead bodies of the British imperialists, following decades or centuries of incessant racism and brutal exploitation.  Of course what we now perceive as racism and exploitation did take place in many of the British colonial territories and protectorates, often in ways that seemed to most people at the time part of the natural order of things;  just as racism and exploitation have continued to occur in many of the independent countries formerly under British rule, as well as here in Britain.  But the idea that British colonial rule also brought many benefits to local people, especially in the latter period of colonialism during and after the second world war, is now regarded as heretical and self-serving, the province of Blimps, reactionaries and fascists:  colonial rule is seen as indistinguishable from 'imperialism', riddled with racism, contaminated by exploitation, just a barely disguised continuation of slavery by another name.  In this simplistic and self-congratulatory way the great achievements of the colonial era, and especially of the process of voluntary decolonisation, are in imminent danger of being wiped from the history books; and generations of idealistic, hard-working British colonial administrators, often deeply and emotionally committed to the local people whom they served, frequently in extreme and dangerous conditions, are daily betrayed by those who have come after them.

Many of these knee-jerk perversions of what actually happened permeated an article about Kenya by the Guardian correspondent Chris McGreal on 7 February 2008, under the give-away heading 'Who's to blame? It depends where you begin the story' .  So it was a real pleasure to read, a week later on the 14th, a spirited refutation of the McGreal version, lavishly supported by facts, written by Ian Buist, an old friend and colleague from my own decolonisation days and subsequently.  Ian is a man with, probably, more extensive first-hand experience of Kenya both before and after independence, gained both in Kenya itself, elsewhere in east Africa, and in two government departments in London, than almost anyone else now alive.  The whole rebuttal should be compulsory reading for the anti-imperialism brigade, but this extract may give the flavour:

Chris McGreal traces the origins of the unrest in Kenya to the alleged wrongdoings of British colonial policy (Who's to blame? It depends where you begin the story, February 7). He says the Kikuyu people "were robbed of almost all their land … mostly from fertile areas beyond Nairobi that the colonists called the White Highlands". He quotes one source saying that the "struggle for independence and … Mau Mau" were based on a situation where "the best land" was in the hands of a very few, and "the rest of the population was driven on to dry, rocky, waterless areas".

I was in charge of Colonial Office policy towards Kenya at various levels for most of the 1950s, and spent two years there working for its multi-racial government. I was involved in the great agricultural revolution we brought about in Kikuyuland, and in legally scrapping the White Highlands.

The Kikuyu were not "robbed of almost all their land". There were disputes around Nairobi and the borders of adjoining Kiambu district. Some were settled by compensation, and the Native Trust Lands Order of 1939 protected all Kiambu people from any further alienation. The White Highlands were never part of Kikuyuland. They were occupied by Masai nomads who agreed to turn the highlands over for settlement under two formal treaties in 1904 and 1911.

Anyone who saw Kikuyuland, even before the land reforms of 1959, would laugh at the idea that it was "dry, rocky and waterless". Those reforms involved consolidating each occupant's fragmented land into viable holdings; planning them; issuing freehold title; and helping their development with cash crops such as coffee, tea and modern dairying. Assessment of who owned what was done by large Kikuyu committees, to avoid corruption.

And there's more, equally fully documented, in the same vein.  Full marks to the Guardian for publishing it, almost entirely undoctored. 

I hope that readers of this, and of Ian Buist's magisterial rebuttal, who may be offended, even enraged, by what they will see as an attempt to defend the indefensible, will resist the temptation to fill the comments spaces below with indignant examples of the many nasty things done in the course of our imperial history, from the response to the Indian mutiny to the Hola camp massacre.  No-one is denying that these things happened, as they happened elsewhere in the world in both similar and different circumstances — and indeed as they continue to happen long after that once mighty empire has been systematically and enthusiastically dismantled.  But cataloguing the evils of that long-ago era can't erase the many good and brave things that were also done, not only in the heyday of empire, but especially in the decades, still just about in living memory, of deliberate and astonishingly peaceful decolonisation.  Lest we forget!


6 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    There is an obvious tension in your position. If the empire was the essentially good natured enterprise you paint it as, what was so great about decolonisation? If there was nothing wrong with the empire, what moral imperative sanctified our generous giving back of political power to the people over whom it was exercised?

    Brian writes:  I would never describe the empire as a good natured enterprise.  It was motivated by a raft of conflicting purposes, some disgraceful (by 21st century standards anyway) and some genuinely altruistic.  It did both good and harm to both colonisers and colonised.  Until the first world war, or later, the accepted view in Britain and elsewhere in the then developed world was probably that the continued functioning of empire was justified by what the French called its mission civilisatrice, not by any means an ignoble concept, although obviously this was mingled with the less noble calculation of the self-interest of the colonial powers.  By the time of the second world war the contrary ideals of self-determination and national freedom, including freedom of peoples to govern themselves even if others could theoretically govern them better, had become paramount and it had become impossible to justify the view that we or other colonial powers had the right or duty to govern other peoples if they preferred to govern themselves.  At this point decolonisation became a moral as well as a political imperative.   To have given up our colonial responsibilities overnight and simply scuttled away (as some other colonial powers effectively did — no names, no pack drill) would have been a betrayal of our duty to the peoples for whose good government we had assumed responsibility, and it was right to transfer power to them in an orderly, deliberate and generally amicable way, as we conscientiously tried to do.  However, of course these remarks involve some pretty wide generalisations:  much of what I say wouldn't apply to, for instance, either India or Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, which were both sui generis in very different ways.

    Incidentally, you speak of "giving back" political power to the people over whom it had been exercised, but in very many cases there had been no identifiable or single 'people' exercising political power over themselves in pre-colonial times

  2. Andrew Milner says:

    Keeping in touch in case I should drop off the map. Fortunately there is a temporal drag between image and reality. So while Empire is very much last season, the English gentleman image still has some life in it. On the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, off-the-wall experience is the name of the game. And a bit of Jane Austen speak goes a long way towards getting preferential treatment. However here in Vietnam all I really have to do is make it clear I’m not American. At least Britain only the third most hated nation in the world. Quick tip, be sure to get the Eire flag the right way up. And knowing the words to "The Wearing of the Green" can help.

    Mui Me, Vietnam

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    Political power was given to the people over whom it had been exercised. If it was not given back, at least in the case of Africa, that was because the boundaries of the colonial territories as decided at the Congress of Berlin bore no relation to the areas over which political power had been exercised before colonisation. Pre-colonial Africa had perfectly identifiable political power structures, some of which were not only identified but were conned ruthlessly in the race for mining concessions. Nelson Mandela’s great grandfather was Inkosi Enkhulu or King of the Thembu people(Wikipedia).

    In  the early nineteenth century the Zulus did for Southern Africa what Bismarck did fifty years later for Germany! Whatever good intentions there may have been for Africa after independence, the nationalism, despotism  and autarky that inevitably ensued as politicians tried to hold socially-disparate countries together for fear of catastrophe if they didn’t made any kind of real advance impossible for many years.  In the case of India, it is true that Britain walked into the power vacuum caused by the decline of the Moghul Empire. However, there were still power structures in existence, and through a series of tactical alliances (aka divide and rule) with local power-holders a small number of technologically advanced people was able to overcome a much larger number. This is also how Spain managed to conquer large swathes of America with a small number of people whose supplies were so precarious.

    I find it difficult to imagine any number of people living in a society without 'exercising political power over themselves'. To do so is the essence of human behaviour.

    Brian writes:  All I am saying is that in many cases pre-colonial 'power structures' (a fairly inappropriate name for often, but not always, warring and anarchic groups) no longer existed in any recognisable form by the time of decolonisation, so that giving "back" power to them didn't arise.  By that time new power structures had grown up, some by organic process, some deliberately created by the colonial power, some inherited by the colonial power and co-opted into government but much changed in the process.  I made, and make, no value judgements of these developments, which had both positive and negative aspects in most of the relevant countries, as indeed do most human organisms.  It's worth remembering that large parts of the British empire were acquired against fervent opposition from the Treasury in London, which feared the costs of administering and defending the new possessions and deeply mistrusted the activities of British generals, trading companies and in some places missionaries, whose objectives were often limited to denying territory to rival colonial powers, securing bases from which to trade and bringing Christian enlightenment to pagans (although in some territories colonial administrators regarded missionaries as trouble-makers trying to undermine stable local cultures and thus bring instability, consequently banning them from all proselytising activity).  Thus for example Lugard's introduction of the dual mandate in large parts of Africa involved respect for pre-existing local government and cultural institutions and traditions which he refused to allow to be overturned or challenged, instead governing through and with them — not just because this was cheaper and could be done with far fewer British expatriates being needed to establish peace, stability and a degree of prosperity.  He was prepared though to intervene in local customs to curb practices which he deemed incompatible with Christian civilisation.  Although this was a genuinely enlightened (if also self-interested) approach to colonial government, its long-term effects were sometimes negative since the preservation and protection of local regimes and customs often proved to be inimical to social and economic progress, leaving the areas concerned backward and under-confident in the face of greater material progress in other areas.

  4. chris says:

    need some clarification on the Kenyan land issue. How much of Kikuyu land was actually settled on by the British settlers? And where? for example I am made to believe that originally even areas like Limuru and Naivasha were Maasai land. Wasn’t the white highlands predominantly in the rift valley, mostly maasai and kalenjin land?

  5. John Miles says:

    You’re quite right to think the Raj, for all its faults, wasn’t all bad.

    It seems to me its best work was done in colonies where there were next-to-no British settlers: eg India, Ceylon (as it used to be called, my birthplace), Malaya, perhaps even Burma, and the less climatically attractive parts of Africa.

    Some of these colonies had their own able and dedicated civil services – so did the Sudan, even though it wasn’t actually a colony. Most of these men dedicated their lives to the colony they were working in and did their very best, according to their lights, to act in the interests of the people they were governing. They also tended to despise mere members of the Colonial Service whom they thought flitted from one country to another before they properly understood the one they were in.

    In colonies where Brits fancied settling, eg Southern Rhodesia, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand and America the picture is less rosy. The interests of the indigenous populations were much less often given the priority they should have been.

    Hardly surprising.

  6. Malcolm McBain says:

    Hearty congratulations for speaking up for truth, or as near to it as one can get.  I must interview Ian Buist, if possible for my oral history programme.  I have one interview, unfortunately under a long embargo, by a Colonial Service officer, who was asked to stay on for years after the  independence of his West African territory in order to continue to run it. He was much loved by the African political leaders and in return he was devoted to them.  Alas, by the time his embargo runs out there will be nobody left to credit his account. In the case of Kenya, Nairobi was a malarial swamp when the British arrived.  There was no pressure of population because regular wars between the Kikuyu and the Masai kept the numbers of young men down.  Nairobi was selected as a suitable place to change locomotives on the railway to Uganda. The railway was built to get cotton out to the coast.  While the railway builders were there, the highlands, virtually empty, were recognised as good places for White settlement, ranching, coffee etc, activities that none of the native tribes were interested in until it was demonstrated that a good living could be derived from them.  While going ahead with the development of Kenya, whites were attracted to come by the prospect of land to convert from bush to crop or livestock production.  When Kenya  independence came, land settlement of Africans on the former white owned farms was financed by the UK. Incidentally,  Kenya’s very considerable tea production was a largely post second WWII development and it was undertaken because of the spiteful actions of the Indian post independent government towards the tea planters in Assam. Same goes for Ceylon. It is a complicated story all right and the prevailing ignorance in Britain is both shameful and degrading.