Wednesday, October 18, 2006


This week it has become clear that there are really only two people left in the world who still labour under the delusion that invading Iraq was a good idea. Only George Bush and Tony Blair (and their coteries of advisors) believe that imperial adventures can be executed via the same formula as 80 years ago : invade on a pretence of democratisation, quietly subdue any resisters, and reap the rewards.

The pretence of democratisation has not changed, but the nature of the resistance has. Just as markets have been globalised, just as the sovereignty of the nation state is waning, so the resistance to empire has been globalised. By invading Iraq , Britain and the US have stoked fires well beyond that country’s borders. Britain , in particular, has been slow to grasp this point. Even General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of Britain ’s armed forces and the most prominent of Blair’s recent critics, misses the point. His objection to the situation in Iraq is that it is a distraction to sorting out Afghanistan : we need troops to sort out the terrorist problem there, not in Iraq , he says. But as the BBC’s programme on Suez the other evening demonstrated, occupying a sovereign country is the most foolproof way of creating terrorism. This is why neoconservatism is logically, as well as morally, deeply flawed. I will talk about this in more detail soon in a separate post.

Perhaps the reason that Britain has been slow to grasp the link between empire and terror is that it has hoodwinked itself over the nature of its imperial past. The idea that empire was a force for good still prevails in this country because we perceive that the British Empire introduced civilisation to backward countries, and exited at the right time and in the right manner. France had its Algeria , but we had nothing similar to blot the imperial landscape.

In the week that Gillo Pontecorvo has died, we should look at this perception more closely. 50 years ago, British troops were trying to quell an uprising of Kenyan Mau Mau rebels who were bitter about having their land appropriated by European settlers, and by a situation of poverty, starvation, unemployment and overpopulation which had resulted from imperial rule. Mau Mau rebels killed 32 people, and Britain responded with brutality. The most authoritative study of the uprising, by Dr Caroline Elkins, suggests that at least 50,000 Mau Mau were killed by 1960.

Those rebels who were not killed immediately were placed in detention camps, which were openly compared by British authorities at the time as akin to Nazi slave labour camps and Stalinist gulags. A recent Guardian report about Kenyan detainees who, 50 years on, are suing the British government, tells the story of Jane Muthoni Mara:

Jane was 15 when she was arrested for supplying Mau Mau fighters with food and taken to Gatithi screening camp. There she says she and two friends, including a young boy, were beaten with the butts of guns. Her interrogators demanded to know the whereabouts of her brother, who was a member of the Mau Mau. Mara says she was ordered into a tent by a white army officer. There was a black soldier from her area she knew as Edward. He ordered her to lie down and asked her where her brother was. When she did not answer, he picked up a bottle. "He filled the bottle with hot water and then pushed it into my private parts with his foot. I screamed and screamed," she says.

Mara says other women were also tortured by having bottles thrust into their vaginas. "For older women, Edward would use bigger beer bottles, but for us younger girls it was smaller soda bottles," she says. "The next day we were forced to sit with our legs in front of us, and the African guards marched over them in their army boots. We were often beaten." … She says she never recovered from the sexual violence and for years was frightened of sex with her husband.

Beatings and sexual molestation were only a small part of Britain ’s torturous armoury. Other “punishments” included being thrown in a pit of disinfectant, being forced to carry a bucket of overflowing excrement on your head, castration and blinding, and rape.

Indeed, papers which became open to investigation earlier this decade revealed a sinister similarity with the abuses meted out to prisoners at Abu Ghraib : mauling by Alsatians, indignity featuring human faeces, forced sodomy, sand being forced into prisoners’ anuses, genital mutilation etc. Women were routinely gang-raped, had their nipples squeezed with pliers, and had vermin thrust into their vaginas.

Contrary to the “few bad apples” claim which always follows revelations of torture, these abuses were carried out largely with the consent of the British government. An 11-page memo sent in 1957 by the Governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, to the Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, states:

“The detainees... are particularly ugly customers and there is no doubt that the use of orthodox methods of non violent persuasion and normal camp punishments for disobedience would be, and indeed have proved to be, useless and ineffective. With possibly a few exceptions they are of the type which understands and reacts to violence."

There is no doubt that the Mau Mau were themselves guilty of perpetrating abuses, but the idea that they were a bunch of savages who only understood the language of violence, is a myth driven largely by respective government propaganda machines. Voyeuristic rumours of “cannibalism, ritual zoophilia with goats, sexual orgies” etc, remain utterly unsubstantiated. They were lies invented by the British Foreign Office to justify their own crimes. In fact, many of those who joined the Mau Mau had fought for the Allies during World War II and had been rewarded by white settlers turning tenant farmers into agricultural labourers.

Colonialism produces all sorts of material consequences – exploitation, poverty and terror are three obvious ones. But what colonialists hold dearest is its symbolic power : any attempt to erode this power is crushed with a sadistic brutality seen in few other situations. Psychotic individuals see the Law as a charade and assume there must be another, even bigger Other which really pulls the strings (often God). Likewise, psychotic groups, movements or administrations (the British in the 1950s, the Americans in the 2000s) do not see the Law as the profound guiding influence that non-psychotic groups do. The language of brutal violence which these psychotic groups employ becomes especially acute the more isolated they become : just like the sadist, America ’s solitude and omnipotence means its sole aim is absolute domination.

Britain, the absolute sadist during its own heyday of Empire, is now the junior partner to America . One suspects that there is a feeling in Whitehall that Britain is also the more intellectual partner : the brains of the outfit. Because of its military inferiority, it does not have to get its hands dirty with as much overt violence as its stronger, more powerful ally does. It can oversee the violence, defend it, and privately delight in it. One could claim that this makes Britain far more psychotic than the US .

Njero Mugo, a veteran detainee of the Mau Mau camps, has the following to say about British occupation:

“The British see themselves as good. But from the day the first missionaries arrived we never believed that the British stood for the rule of law. They stole our land. They treated us as though they had more right to be in our country than we did. Did you know that if you were walking down the street and you met a white person you had to remove your hat?"


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