It has been over a year since the war in Ukraine began, a year ago the heir of the King of England remarked upon it as the sort of thing which is alien to Europe. Such a comment reminds us that the conduct of Imperial violence is perceived as something that takes place ‘over there’, rather than that which happens at home. The amnesia of colonial violence is persistent because it has been distanced from national memory and erased as a source of conscientiousness which might prevent further meddling in the affairs of other nations. 

64 years ago, within living memory, on the 3rd of March, 1959, eighty-eight people suffered violent injustice at the hands of security forces employed by the British colonial administration in what has been memorialised as the Hola massacre which led to decisions which brought the colonial administration of Kenya to a close. Eleven of them were beaten to death and over 60 seriously injured following the recommendations and report of a senior superintendent of prisons, JBT Cowan, who was an individual deemed to be effective at getting oath confessions from the Kenyan native communities. The oath was a pledge that was taken in secret under African spiritual ceremony by the Kikuyu communities, securing to support the resistance against British occupation in Kenya. So effective was this oath that the colonisers decided that confessions had to be followed by processes of de-oathing and the adoption of Christianity by the natives as a means of purifying them and was supported by Louis Leakey, a paleo-anthropologist born in Kenya to missionary parents. The process of extracting confessions or recanting, followed by purification before release back in the community is what they called rehabilitation. 

During the state of emergency that was declared in 1952, and which lasted until 1960, new laws were passed amongst them restricting movement of Kenyan indigenous communities and making oath taking an offence. During that period, about 80,000 detainees were held without trial.The oath was a ritual ceremony of solidarity conducted by Kenyan natives, particularly the Kikuyu community, in which each vowed to support the endeavours of the anticolonial movement and to resist white colonial settlers and occupation on their ancestral lands that they had been displaced from. Individuals who had taken the oath were considered dangerous by the colonial government, so most were tortured and many others killed.

A confession included revealing the liberation movements secrets. Rehabilitation was performed to try to counter the oath and de-radicalise them and then make Christians of them. However, this cleansing process was slow and the conservative government in Westminster were becoming impatient and wanted it accelerated and suggested other means be tried. This is why the tried and tested methods of prisons senior superintendent, JBT Cowan were shared and encouraged for use by others responsible for colonial repressions. Those Kenyan liberation fighters captured and suspected of having taken the oath, according to the new military edict, would have these new methods imposed on them until confession. At this time, there were cash incentives offered to the British military for killing natives. Captain Griffiths went as far as to offer a reward of 5 cents for each dead Mau Mau, with hands cut off for identification, to increase his platoon’s killing score, he himself ended up being court-martialed and then acquitted, for cutting off the ears of two Kenyans and shooting them at close range. 

Amidst the violence, harms and dehumanisation towards Kenya Land and Freedom fighters at the time and those who were supporting them, included public hangings using mobile gallows. Even though hanging had been outlawed in the UK, it was being used abundantly in Kenya at the time. The hangings were done to punish and deter others: to keep the colonised in check. Professor Lonsdale shared that even though they were done behind a screen, one could see the people climbing to the gallows and hear the body dropping. Between 1953 and 1956, 1000 Kenyans were publicly hanged for alleged Mau Mau offences. After the hangings, their dead bodies were displayed publicly in market places, at crossroads, villages and so forth. Their confessions were recorded and played out on mobile radio, vans with loud speakers that were driven around the villages. All this for intimidating the Kenyan population with the hope that it would cause them to betray their cause of obtaining victory over colonisation. Freedom fighter John Maina Kahihu who was a political prisoner, detainee at Hola and survivor of the massacre indicates the movements’ non-waivering resilience, stating that the deal was they could go home if they confessed. ‘We refused to work because we were not guilty. We were here because we were fighting for our freedom and liberation. We hadn’t come to prison to make money.’ 

Years after the massacre at Hola, Superintendent TBT Cohen was interviewed by the BBC about his actions in Kenya. In the programme, John Cowan, Senior Superintendent of Prisons in Kenya from 1957 to 1963, calmly explains the rationale behind one of the most brutal episodes in the war against the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA)—the Hola Massacre. “I think that Christianity had been tried and hadn’t succeeded with them. And they needed a sort of moral compulsion … to confess their oaths. In one of my camps there was a small faction of ‘Mau Mau’ detainees who were difficult. There was a procedure implemented there, which was successful. We had to coerce them into confessing. We used a little bit of force on them…. I never saw a man, in all the time I was there, having had force used on him in any worse condition than an amateur boxer getting out of a ring.”

It was this skill at downscaling the violence that led to him being invited to share with others on his force’s success. It also led him to writing a report ‘the Cowan plan’ that would be utilised by the British authorities when creating a plan of action on how to deal with the Kenya Land and Freedom fighters who had refused to confess and to try to get them to submit to authority on that fateful day in March of 1959.

The Kenyan freedom fighter suspects held at Mwea, Kandongu, Manyani and Hola camps were deemed by the British authorities to be hardened detainees. This was because they refused to confess to oathtaking and refused to perform manual labour, declaring themselves political prisoners, who had already served sentences. John Maina Kahihu narrates how the 88 political prisoners were forced to walk about 500 metres to a nearby farm to work under duress. There were 200 officers. 170 stayed outside the fence with guns. 30 armed with batons – njuguma – came inside. The political prisoners were shown tools and ordered to work by digging trenches. They peacefully refused to cooperate, stating they had served their sentence, and that they were not enslaved captives but people fighting for the liberation of their country.  After this refusal, one white officer then blew his whistle signalling for others to join in beating the 88 prisoners continuously from 8.00am to 11.30am. The prisoners did not retaliate, they simply rolled on the ground, trying to protect themselves. When the officers were done and exhausted, different officials were called in. DC Willoughby Thompson recalls arriving at a place full of bodies on the ground, some dead, some alive but with exhausted and shocked officers who did not know what more to do. Realising the political dynamite that lay on his hands and what might happen as a result of what had taken place, the officials decided to take the dead bodies to Malindi via aeroplane. They reported back to the British government that there had been a water contamination incident and the 11 people had died from drinking contaminated water. 

However, the massacre eventually became exposed and the cover story was blown. JBT Cowan was asked about the need to use excessive force and the Hola Massacre. His response was, ‘the prisoners were not violent but they were insolent and their demeanour was arrogant. None of them was going to do anything at all’. Cowan’s remarks, looking back on those terrible events, are chilling. ‘I didn’t feel guilty, I don’t think. I don’t think that’s quite the word…. I felt extremely sorry that it had gone wrong, but not actually guilty.’

After this cover-up and distortion, the intolerably violent situation became more exposed by the media and the British MP Barbara Castle , who had been following up on the whole situation became infuriated. This led to the matter being addressed at the British Parliament’s House of Commons Debate on the 27th of July 1959. The Hansard debate took place from 10.30 in the night until 2.38 in the early morning. The massacre had come as a disappointment to the British government, even the racist MP Enoch Powell expressed his distaste for the whole affair. The Members of Parliament debate led to demands for action towards the rehabilitation process being stopped in camps and to the release of political prisoners who were held at the time, being released within weeks. It eventually ended British colonial rule as it was structured at the time.  Kenyatta and other political prisoners were released within a couple of years and Kenya gained its independence within 4 years. Those involved in the authorisation and participation in the Hola massacre and its cover-up, including Mr. Lewis, the commissioner of police, were reprimanded and asked to take early retirement. Mr. Sullivan, who had been caught three times with misconduct, was asked to retire without loss of gratuity. 

It is clear that the period of colonisation matured into coloniality which are those legacies of colonialism that we live with today. Yet it is worth acknowledging key moments and incidents, including the suffering of those who were colonised, how colonial violences were exerted upon innocent peoples and to document their resistance and fighting for liberation. Remembrance of the Hola massacre highlights the hypocrisy of colonial power which seeks to ‘civilise’ through the force of brutality. Hola massacre was a key moment that turned the wheel of change and brought this hypocrisy to light. It is an ill wind that blows no good, but let it be that remembrance of these past winds of change keep us all vigilant to ensure that positive lessons are learned from histories such as these and keep us moving in the direction of the decolonial good.

Written by Peninah Wangari-J of Racial Justice Network and University of Manchester, edited by Mama D of Community Centred Knowledge and Dr. Christine Kahigi of University of Nairobi

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