Oxford and Colonial Atrocities: the Mau Mau Rebellion

Content warning: colonial violence and atrocities In 2011, four elderly Kenyans brought a celebrated legal ...

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20th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Oxford and Colonial Atrocities: the Mau Mau Rebellion

Content warning: colonial violence and atrocities In 2011, four elderly Kenyans brought a celebrated legal ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion
Content warning: colonial violence and atrocities

In 2011, four elderly Kenyans brought a celebrated legal case against the British government. They alleged that during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1957), they had suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of the British imperial forces, including rape, castration, and beatings. David Cameron’s government rejected these allegations, arguing that not only did they fall outside of the statute of limitations, they were technically not even perpetrated by the central British government, but instead by the Kenyan colonial government which had been disbanded on independence. However, in 2013 the High Court sided with the Kenyan plaintiffs and Britain went on to provide compensation to 5,288 living survivors of British torture.

Bronze statue of a Kenyan rebel leader.
Statue of Dedan Kimathi in Nairobi, Kenya. w:Dedan Kimathi Waciuri (truly, Kimathi wa Waciuri), Field Marshal, (October 31, 1920 – February 18, 1957) was a Kenyan rebel leader who fought against British colonization in Kenya in the 1950s. He was convicted and executed by the British colonial government. By Murungaru at English Wikipedia – Photo taken in July 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya. Wikimedia Commons., Public Domain

How then does this relate to Oxford? Oxford University graduates are notorious for making up a disproportionate amount of British government employees, a state of affairs that was no different in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The colonial administration was full of Oxford alumni who enforced imperial rule in all corners of the globe. Oxford graduates were therefore often to be found at the centre of some of its worst atrocities.

The key turning point in the case was the discovery by historian David Anderson of over two thousand boxes of files which had been smuggled out of Kenya days before its independence. These files were then hidden in a secret Foreign Office outpost at Hanslope Park, not far from Oxford, for almost fifty years. The Foreign Office refer to this strange repository of hidden files as “Up North”, and the government used it to illegally keep out of reach of the public those files which detailed the extent of the abuse suffered by Kenyans under the British regime.

So how did these atrocities come to be covered up so successfully? The answer lies in part in the actions of a small group of British officials with a shared background: they were all Oxford graduates.

The first in this network was Evelyn Baring, who was Governor of Kenya at the height of the Mau Mau uprising. Baring had graduated from New College with a First Class Honours in Modern History, and subsequently joined the Colonial Office. Becoming the Governor of Kenya in 1952, he declared a State of Emergency in response to the Mau Mau insurgency, and went on to preside over the brutal repression of the Kikuyu people. Furthering the Oxford connection, Baring had actually succeeded Sir Philip Euen Mitchell as Governor of Kenya, who had attended Trinity College, Oxford, on a classical scholarship, but lost it after two years due to his allegedly ‘wild’ behaviour.

Evelyn Baring in an elaborate military uniform, surveying a line of soldiers.
Evelyn Baring, governor of Kenya

Oxford men were not just involved in events on the ground in Kenya. On 17th January 1955, Baring sent a telegram to a man named Alan Lennox-Boyd. Lennox-Boyd was the Secretary for the Colonies in the British government, and was therefore responsible for overseeing all of Britain’s colonial possessions. Lennox-Boyd had himself graduated from Christ Church College, Oxford, and was in office throughout the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

Baring was therefore obliged to keep Lennox-Boyd informed. In this 1955 telegram, Baring described to Lennox-Boyd how some Mau-Mau prisoners had been burned alive by his forces. Two years later, in 1957, Baring sent another secret memorandum detailing the myriad abuses committed in the effort to suppress the uprising, and conveying Baring’s belief that a ‘violent shock’ was the only way to subdue the rebels.

Baring was aware that what he had presided over was so extreme that it could ruin his career. He wrote to Lennox-Boyd about the “political difficulties” which their use of coercive tactics could create, and so Lennox-Boyd in his capacity as Colonial Secretary closed ranks to protect his fellow Oxford alumni.

Lennox-Boyd denied any knowledge of these atrocities. He even used his elevated position to denounce whistle-blowing colonial officials who attempted to lift the lid on Britain’s actions. When evidence became so overwhelming that he could no longer flat-out deny them, he altered his narrative to ascribe the crimes to a few “bad apples”, rather than the systematic, state-sanctioned abuse that is clearly was.

However, this cover-up went further than Baring and Lennox-Boyd. In February 1956, a provincial commissioner in Kenya known as “Monkey” Johnson, wrote a letter asking the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, to block any enquiry into methods used to suppress the Mau Mau. He warned that “it would now appear that each and every one of us, from the Governor downwards, may be in danger of removal from public service by a commission of enquiry…” Manningham-Buller himself had graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a Third in Law, before being called to the Bar. No such enquiry took place while he was in office.

The Oxford connection ran yet deeper. MI5 held over-arching responsibility for surveillance in colonial territories like Kenya. Sir Dick White, who was head of MI5 during the height of Mau-Mau, took a first-class degree in history at Christ Church College, Oxford, and then spent ten years as head of MI6. His successor at MI5, Roger Hollis, who was Director General of MI5 at the end of Mau Mau, was also an Oxford man. He read English at Worcester College, and although he left without completing his degree, he did gain entry into the hard-drinking “Hypocrites Club” whose members included Evelyn Waugh. And who were the prime ministers who presided over the repression of the Mau Mau? They were Anthony Eden who was at Christ Church, Oxford, followed by Harold Macmillan who studied at Balliol.

Armed British soldiers stand guard over a group of men who are squatting with their hands raised.
British soldiers aiding in the search for Mau Mau members, Kariobangi, Kenya, 1954

In the light of all this, it is ironic that the man who uncovered the evidence of these horrific deeds, Professor David Anderson, did so while in post at Oxford. The role of Anderson’s research in the 2011 court case forced the British government to admit that it had a secret archive which provided a record of colonial transgressions. The British government did so only because Anderson had proved the existence of these hidden files – despite official denials – and was forced to hand them over by a judge in the High Court.

Overall, Oxford alumni not only knew about, sanctioned, and carried out these horrific acts, they were also intimately involved in covering them up. The actions of Oxford graduates ensured that not a single European perpetrator was ever prosecuted for their actions. While not necessarily a cohesive network, Oxford provided a point of connection for British officials across the globe. Even today, Oxford alumni such as David Cameron have carried on this tradition by attempting to deny the realities of our colonial past, continuing Oxford’s legacy in preserving the myth of British imperial benevolence.

Written by Harriet Aldrich