|The Coat of arms of Kenya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
An item of news widely reported yesterday, that the British government has agreed to pay compensation to Kenyans who suffered abuse, torture, and other barbarities at the hands of the British forces opposing the Mau Mau uprising among the Kikuyus in the 1950s, comes as a welcome light in the generally dark aspect of global events.
For me, it brings a retrospective, too-late justification to my friend Henry Munene, who was hounded to his death by the British Colonial Office for absolutely no reason when he was my fellow-student at an adult education college in Scotland. I’ve never been able to think of Henry’s fate without saying to myself, bitterly, “the bastards, the absolute bastards.”
Although I have aways known that both sides commtted atrocities in the uprising in Kenya, my sympathies have always been rather with the men who conducted their campaign of rebellion from the bush, without benefit of any modern technology (not even the wheel, according to some accounts), than with the overlords who used Lancaster bombers to decimate their technologically-backward opponents.
In the 1960s I remember reading, and reviewing for The Montreal Star (many of whose readers took great exception to my review), a remarkable account of the rebellion from within, written by a Kikuyu who, being able to read and write, acted as secretary to Dedan Kimathi, the leader of the rebellion (to whose memory as a great warrior a statue was recently erected in Kenya). One figure that stuck in my mind was that the British executed (many of these were public executions, I believe) more than 1,000 people. Many thousands died, many tens of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps, and I discover, in looking for the title of the book I mentioned, that dozens of books have appeared analysing the cause, nature and suppression of the rebellion, and that in these books are revealed, in the words of survivors from both sides, examples of the most horrendous cruelties visited on the people in these concentration camps.
For me, the British behaviour in its suppression of the rebellion put paid to all suggestions of the benefits brought to subject peoples by the British colonial regime, or, to be more specific, to the often-repeated claims that British “civilized” savage people around the world. More likely were they to have murdered, tortured, killed and violated them than to have civilized them.
Well, back to Henry and his fate. I was one of 16 adult education students who enrolled at a college called Newbattle Abbey in 1953 to take a non-diploma course of study designed to increase our knowledge in four subjects: history, literature, economics and philisophy. I was 25 at the time, had gone directly from four years of high school into the work force, and it was my great good fortune to find myself enrolled under the leadership of the great Scottish poet and writer Edwin Muir, who, for almost a year, acted as my personal tutor in the writing of English.
The beautiful house which lies in the countryside a few miles outside Dalkeith in the Scottish Lowlands, had been given to the nation for use in adult education by Lord Lothian, a former British ambassador in the United States, but it had never attained much success, as proof of which in the year of my attendance we 16 students had four teachers.
Still, the student body was worth knowing: two Kenyan Africans, one a Luo, one a Kikuyu; a Norwegian girl, daughter of the owner of the country’s biggest newspaper; two middle-aged working class Scotsmen, one a Communist, one an anarchist; a similarly fiery working-class scottish socialist, direct from school, without benefit of higher education; a brace of Englishmen of what might be called lower-middle-class origin; two Yugoslav English teachers, sent from their country to improve their skills; one French trades unionist from Lyon. And me (with my schoolteacher wife along, permitted to live in the college as she was teaching in a nearby mining village.) The year I spent with these people was one of the most rewarding of my entire life.
To make up the lack of numbers, the College had a contract with the National Coal Board to send in every week a group of Scottish miners for what was described as “refresher” courses. These people left every Friday, and every Thursday night throughout the school year they presented a farewell concert at which they were never shy to get up and sing sentimental ballads like “My Ain Wee Hoose”, and recite endless verses of the great Robbie Burns.
On our side we never had much to offer in the way of entertainment, but we were able to take pride in the folk tales told every Thursday night by Henry. He kept all of us, miners included, in gales of laughter with his stories about hyenas, of which he had an endless supply.
Henry was one of the most amiable, charming people I have ever met in my life, full of laughter, jokes, and eagerness to learn everything the teachers could tell him, and I know he was loved by everyone of his fellow students.
I think it was in February that Jomo Kenyatta went on trial as the supposed leader of Mau Mau, and evidence given at the trial said that a Henry Munene, a student leaving for Britain, was taken into a room and administered the Mau Mau oath before he was allowed to leave the airport. As soon as this was reported in Britain the Colonial Office arrived at Newbattle Abbey with a demand that Henry disavow this supposed oath.
Henry, though ebullient and spiritual by nature, was no softie, and he refused to collaborate with the Colonial Office, who were providing him with all the funds he needed to continue his education. We were getting towards the end of the school year, and after I left I had a letter from James D. Young, the fiery young socialist working class boy mentioned above (who, I discovered many years later became the author of no fewer than 14 published books about the working class and its struggles in Scotland), telling me that he had taken Henry home to his home in Grangemouth, halfway between Edinburgh and Glosgow, “and they will need a ruddy army to get him out of here.” He told me Hnry was not in great spirits, that he was wilting under the strain of the Colonial Office’s attack.
From London I wrote to Fenner Brockway, the renowned socialist Member of Parliament, asking if he could look into Henry’s case, and he replied that he would do so, and I later heard from a woman who had been alerted by Fenner, who had made contact with James and Henry.
Although I knew that Henry had been cut off all support by the Colonial Office, I thereafter lost touch with him and his fate, as well as with other students from Newbattle of my time. On a visit to Kenya many years later I looked up the other Kenyan student, Timothy Ramtu, a different type from Henry, a strong Christian with very conventional views, who had become after his return to Kenya a senior civi servant and had done a veritable circuit of many government departments, always in senior positions. He was heading an Aga Khan company when I met him, and when I asked about Henry, he said that, like e, he had heard he had a breakdown of some kind, but he had lost touch with him after his return, and had no idea what happened to him.
More years later I ran across on the Internet an account of James Young’s activity as a writer and tracked him down through his publisher. He was, apparently, in terminal illness, but I did have the pleasure of talking to him by phone, and discovered his thick Scottish accent was undiminished, as were his fiery socialist beliefs. He told me, when I inquired, that Henry had had a mental breakdown and had eventually committed suicide.
Another great triumph for Colonialism, and for British standards of fair play.
The bastards, the absolute bastards.