An argument which is routinely brought up whenever one asks why Europeans are to be left off the hook for failing to show remorse or offer compensation for crimes just as bad as those they condemn Japan for, is that their particular misdeeds happened further back in time, and therefore some sort of statute of limitations ought to be applied setting British, French, Dutch and Belgian savagery apart from what the Japanese did in China and Singapore. The problem with this argument, however, is that apart from the choice of cutoff date being suspiciously convenient - we are supposed to look just far back enough to be able to condemn the Japanese while leaving Europe out of it, but no further - the reality of European imperialism is that it and the brutalities which were intrinsic to it actually outlasted Japan's empire, and many of the perpetrators of the most outrageous crimes are alive and prospering today in cities like London, Paris and Brussels, and with the full protection and active collusion of the governments on whose behalf they carried out their deeds.
As an illustration of the sheer extent of European selective amnesia and hypocrisy, the extremely poorly known history of Britain's suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya serves as well as any, and as such I've chosen to provide below a few excerpts from this LRB review of two recent histories of the topic. If your image of the British Empire derives from watching "Gunga Din", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Zulu Dawn" and other self-congratulatory whitewashed nonsense, what you're about to read will seem like alternate-history fiction to you, but the fact is that it really did all happen.
First, a little information about the concentration camps set up by the British, and about the large numbers of deaths which occurred in them.
The British declared the Kenya Emergency in 1952, when seven years of restless dissatisfaction with British rule culminated in the full-scale rebellion known as Mau Mau. It was very largely the struggle of the Kikuyu, the country’s majority ethnic group – about 1.5 million in a native population of five million – who had lost much of their land to white settlers and had moved into reservations or continued farming as tenants. The Emergency saw out two prime ministers – Churchill and Eden – and ended in January 1960. In that time, Mau Mau supporters killed at least 2000 African civilians and inflicted some 200 casualties on the army and police. In all, 32 white settlers died in the rebellion. For their part, the British hanged more than 1000 Kikuyu, detained at least 150,000 and, according to official figures, killed around 12,000 in combat, though the real figure, in David Anderson’s view, is ‘likely to have been more than 20,000’. In addition, Caroline Elkins claims, up to 100,000 died in the detention camps."Concentration camps?", I hear you saying to yourself; "Isn't that just overblown PC rhetoric?" The truth of the matter, though, is that herding people into concentration camps to die was nothing new for the British: they'd already employed them to deadly effect on Afrikaner women and children as far back as the second Boer War, and they were to do so not just in Kenya but also in the course of the Malaysian "Emergency" of the same period.
In any case, let us leave this topic aside now and return to our main focus. I quote the following material because it illustrates that the British government was well aware of the illegality of its conduct in Kenya while engaging in it, and as these deeds were occuring in the late 1950s, after both Nuremburg and the Tokyo trials, the British lacked even the defense available to the likes of Hermann Goering and Hideki Tojo that many of the wrongs they'd been accused of did not in fact contravene standing international law ("crimes against peace" being one such example). It was with such awareness in mind that the British government went out of its way to dispose of as much incriminating evidence as it possibly could.
It is the scale of the British atrocities in Kenya that is the most startling revelation of these books. We always knew about the Mau Mau atrocities, of course: assiduously retailed to the British public by the authorities in Kenya through the Colonial Office, and right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail [...] But for years the equally savage abuses by British officers and their African collaborators in the detention camps, controlled villages and courtrooms of Kenya were mostly hidden from people at home. They knew some of it – indeed, did what they could to put an end to it after the scandalous British beatings of detainees at Hola camp in 1959, which left 11 dead and 60 seriously wounded – but nothing like the whole. Alan Lennox-Boyd, colonial secretary for much of this period, and one of the villains of both these books, can take much of the credit. First he denied abuses, then when that was no longer possible he dismissed them as exceptional (‘bad apples’), and appealed to his critics to remember what they were up against in Kenya: not an ordinary policing problem, but an outbreak of atavistic ‘evil’ – a useful word when you are confronting something you don’t understand. ‘Duplicity at its finest’, Elkins calls this. He also had a nice line in discrediting whistle-blowers. Then, when the British eventually left Kenya, they made bonfires of most of the incriminating material about the detention camps [...] Elkins tells us that she was taken in by Colonial Office propaganda at the beginning of her research, as she leafed through the files at the Public Record Office, and realised the extent of their mendacity only when she went out to Kenya to see and hear for herself.And what about the supposed sense of "fair play" and respect for the impartial rule of law which the British Empire supposedly exemplified?
Anderson focuses mainly on the trials of Mau Mau suspects. He has read the trial transcripts and pieced together a picture of systematic injustice. Defendants were poorly represented, convicted on highly dubious evidence, often from dodgy informers, or after having confessions beaten out of them, by judges who were usually highly prejudiced. One judge was (effectively) bribed to reach a guilty verdict: he was paid £20,000 to come out from Britain to put Kenyatta behind barbed wire in 1953. Many defendants were hanged for much lesser offences than murder; often they were innocent. The number hanged, 1090, was a record for any British colony of the time, and more even than were executed by the French in Algeria. The reprieved and acquitted did not go free. Most were sent to camps for interrogation or ‘re-education’ – or just to rot away out of sight of nervous Europeans. Most of the rest of the Kikuyu population (including thousands from Nairobi) were herded into ‘emergency villages’ enclosed in barbed wire. All this turned Kenya into what Anderson calls ‘a police state in the very fullest sense of that term’.Reads like something out of the Soviet Union or Communist China, doesn't it? But wait until you read about what things were like in the "re-education" camps into which these Mau-Mau suspects were herded.
It was a culture of routine beatings, starvation, killings (the hanged represent only a small fraction of those who died in British custody during the Emergency) and torture of the most grotesque kinds. Alsatian dogs were used to terrify prisoners and then ‘maul’ them. There are other similarities with Abu Ghraib: various indignities were devised using human faeces; men were forced to sodomise one another. They also had sand, pepper and water stuffed in their anuses. One apparently had his testicles cut off, and was then made to eat them. ‘Things got a little out of hand,’ one (macho European) witness told Elkins, referring to another incident. ‘By the time we cut his balls off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.’ Women were gang-raped, had their nipples squeezed with pliers, and vermin and hot eggs thrust into their vaginas. Children were butchered and their body parts paraded around on spears.Such nice chaps, such jolly good fellows, these sons of Albion, not at all like the monstrous Japanese ... Then there's the following beauty of a tale.
Anderson quotes the testimony of a European officer in 1962, recalling an attempt to interrogate some ‘Mickeys’ – a slang name for the Mau Mau.Talk about an understatement. I quote one more passage now, this time to put British veterans' incessant whining about Japan's treatment of POWs into proper perspective.
They wouldn’t say a thing, of course, and one of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept right on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. He went down in a heap but when he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped, I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I said something, I don’t remember what, and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys were standing there looking blank. I said to them that if they didn’t tell me where to find the rest of the gang I’d kill them too. They didn’t say a word so I shot them both. One wasn’t dead so I shot him in the ear. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him that the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleared up.’The significant thing here (apart from the refusal of the three prisoners to co-operate) is that the officer had no qualms about describing all this.
In March 1953 a British policeman wrote a letter to his buddies back at Streatham police station bragging about the ‘Gestapo stuff’ that was going on in his new posting in Nyeri. All this happened a few years after the war, so such analogies came quickly to mind. The critics – many of whom had fought against Nazi Germany – knew what they were talking about. One relatively liberal police chief in Kenya claimed that conditions in the detention camps were far worse than those he had suffered as a Japanese POW.Who would know better than one who'd been there? And yet this is the same nation which on the one hand has a sitting Chancellor who can say that Britain has no reason to "keep" [sic] apologizing for its Empire (as if it had ever began doing so), and on the other hand has condemned the Japanese government on any number of occasions for deeds less severe than those it has yet to officially own up to.
The following links are suggested for those readers interested in learning more about Britain's actions in Kenya during the "Mau Mau" period.
- Economist | British Colonial History: Mau Mau and the Bodysnatchers
- Author Details Harsh British Rule in Kenya (NPR Audio)
- Guardian: British Brutality in Mau Mau Conflict
- BBC News | Correspondent | Kenya: White Terror
Now, let me make it clear that my intention in providing the material above isn't to say that the British Empire was an unalloyed evil; it certainly had its pluses - albeit for some peoples more than others - and these must be weighed in the balance when making an assessment of the legacy of British imperialism, but the fact is that to the extent Britain's imperial past is brought up at all these days, only the flattering things tend to get mentioned, as if it were possible to come to rule a quarter of the entire globe without engaging in centuries of killing, looting and raping: men do not voluntarily subject themselves to a foreign yoke except under pain of death, and for going on three centuries no peoples were better at dealing out death or the threat of it than the British, a capacity we see was still fully intact in Kenya in the late 1950s.
By all objective considerations, then, if we are to judge today's Japanese as latent ultranationalists and militarists because of their reluctance to play up the negatives of their imperial past to our satisfaction, and in the face of Japan's long historical record of isolationism outside of Hideyoshi's mad schemes and the 1895-1945 period, then the British people, who have been involved in too many military engagements to count in the last 30 years alone, let alone over the last millenium, must be Satan's personal representatives on Earth, with every UK citizen a Terminator-like specimen of utter ruthlessness and aggression. Only a lunatic would believe that this is in any way a fit description of the average person who sits down to watch "Coronation Street" or "Big Brother" every night, but we are willing to believe the worst of the Japanese on a far flimsier basis, and the only reason I can see for this egregious double standard is that the "Yellow Peril" lives on in many hearts and minds: as reluctant as many are to admit it, the conviction that the Japanese are intrinsically "sneaky" and diabolical is one which still has widespread purchase, and it is for this reason that any number of Japanese apologies are dismissed as "insincere" or "duplicitous" by parties which have never acknowledged let alone apologized for even a minute portion of the evils they've inflicted on others. That is why British opinionists can breezily rationalize away demands for greater recognition of past misdeeds as so much money-grubbing "PC" nonsense, even though the misdeeds occurred after those for which the Japanese are never to be forgiven, and that is why Europeans of every stripe feel free to play up the positive aspects of their past aggressions even while lambasting Japanese public figures for attempting the same (and often with much more justification).
In closing, it would be nice to live in a world in which people everywhere were completely forthright about unflattering aspects of the histories they lay claim to, but until we do, I see no reason to single one nation out from the rest as particularly in the wrong for falling prey to a universal human weakness, and that to a lesser extent than virtually all of its condemners. Nor is the answer, as some apologists for perpetual grievance would like to maintain, that everyone foster the seemingly bottomless resentment towards their former colonizers that the Chinese and Koreans nurture against Japan, but an acceptance that not all past grievances can be settled to the full satisfaction of those who suffered them, and that in any case there are more important things in life than score settling between entire peoples: the alternative to this realization is to go on like the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, still fuming and fighting over humiliations incurred hundreds of years ago, and whose every attempt at vengeance only breeds new resentments waiting to be avenged in the future.