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!