Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

How Barbara Castle Fought to Expose the British Empire’s Shame in Kenya

During the 1950s, Britain's brutal suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya led to thousands of deaths – but Barbara Castle's campaign to expose its crimes showed that the Empire's violence did not have to go unchallenged.

‘In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation.’

That was the opening of an article in Tribune from 30 September 1955 by Labour stalwart Barbara Castle. At the time, the future First Secretary of State and one of the most senior female politicians in the party’s history was just the fresh-faced backbench MP for Blackburn. The article was the culmination of months of campaigning by activists in Britain like Castle to bring justice to the victims of colonial atrocities during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya.

The Rebellion

The Mau Mau Uprising, also known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, was an insurrection in Kenya during the 1950s by Kikuyu nationalists who had been forced from their land into cramped reservations by white settlers. In response to the revolt, the colonial government built a brutal system of prison camps.

Over eight years, up to 150,000 Kikuyu people were detained without trial in a series of over 100 camps riddled with endemic torture and disease. An official death count is unknown—as thousands of records have disappeared—but it’s estimated that over 20,000 Kenyans died at the hands of British authorities. Just 32 white settlers perished.

The British prison ‘pipeline’ has drawn comparisons from many historians to the brutality of Soviet gulags. At its core was the ‘dilution technique’ – the idea that the backwards minds of Mau Mau sympathisers could only be broken through ‘overpowering’ force. Detainees would be beaten with clubs, whips, and fists, made to do back-breaking forced labour, and even force-fed dirt, all in an effort to ‘break’ them into confessions for crimes many never committed.

In one of the worst cases, the Hola massacre, 11 detainees were beaten to death by guards. In the aftermath, authorities covered it up – claiming they had died from poisoned water, scurvy, or even willed themselves to death to spite Britain. Emergency laws gave the violence a legal justification, and when cases did come to court, magistrates would convict individual guards for reduced crimes. They were just ‘bad apples’, as is so often the excuse.

But the abuses were more than just individual: they were widespread, orchestrated, and controlled by colonial authorities all the way up to the Colonial Secretary in London. Under official oversight, the detainment system became a well-oiled machine that sucked the humanity from its victims.

Thousands of ethnic Kikuyu people would be targeted at once in mass incarceration missions like Operation Anvil and arrested for reasons as flimsy as the denunciation of a neighbour or the fact they were related to a suspect. Simply being Kikuyu was often enough to prove your guilt.

After being arrested, groups of detainees were dipped in cattle pools of disinfectant, before being stripped of their names and assigned numbers. Even the beatings were a controlled part of the regimen. Victims of the Hola massacre described how British officers controlled the length and intensity of assaults with a whistle, with the whole affair planned by the commanders the night before.

Exposing the Injustice

In the face of this, there were those in Britain fighting to expose the truth and find justice for the victims. Foremost among them was Barbara Castle.

She joined the Movement for Colonial Freedom in 1954, which pushed for independence for nations in the empire. After meeting former officials and hearing the stories of victims like Kamau Kichina, who was flogged to death in police custody, Castle headed to Kenya herself in late 1954 to find the truth. She met with victims and whistleblowing officials, before next visiting the prison camps.

Unhappy with the choreographed government tours, she secured one-to-one interviews with detainees, away from the prying eyes of officials, to hear the truth of the experience in camps. (One guard told Castle a woman wouldn’t be safe with the prisoners, only for her to quip, ‘I am not a woman, I am a Member of Parliament.’)

Having returned home, she worked to expose the injustices happening in Kenya and bring about their end, inside her own party, through parliament, and in the press. Pressure from her and other backbenchers helped force Labour’s National Executive to pass a resolution calling for an inquiry and pushed anti-imperialism to the top of the party’s agenda. This was the same party that in government five years earlier had exiled Seretse Khama, leader of what would become Botswana, for the crime of marrying a white woman.

Castle made countless speeches to parliament and tabled motions to ensure the situation was not forgotten. She pushed for resignations and inquiries, revealed statistics, and shared the stories of the victims who she had met or who had managed to smuggle letters to her from camps. In one of her first contributions in 1956, she castigated the government for not ‘treating Africans as human beings’.

Her work culminated in a famous speech on the Hola massacre outlining the government’s lies and calling for ‘justice for all’, regardless of race, wealth, or position. That speech helped push the government towards eventually admitting the truth about Hola.

Why it Matters

Castle’s campaigning not only reshaped the attitudes of the Labour Party and helped expose the truth of the situation in prison camps. Alongside countless others, she also helped reveal enough of what happened to support a court case brought by survivors of the camps in 2013.

That case reached the High Court and led to the government paying reparations to survivors. It’s no coincidence Castle’s name comes up time and again in the legal documents. But more than anything, her work built awareness: it made the case for independence on a public stage and helped expose the brutal truth behind the empire as a whole.

Despite millions of British people being old enough to have lived through the Mau Mau Rebellion, it’s hardly a part of our national consciousness. The first time many people even encountered the term ‘Mau Mau’ was in the short flurry of headlines that accompanied the trial in 2013, until even that fled their memories.

Like most imperial history, there is a collective national amnesia about what happened in our former colonies. The Mau Mau Rebellion, remembered in Kenya as one of the most significant events in national history, ends up as barely a footnote in the UK. Without the work of campaigners like Barbara Castle, it may have been even less than that. Awareness is important – it’s no coincidence that the independent review into the Windrush Scandal cited a lack of knowledge of the empire as a factor.

Castle and her handful of MPs were hardly alone. Colonial officials like Eileen Fletcher and Arthur Young resigned in protest at the abuses being committed and worked to bring the issue to light, and in London, publications like the New Statesman and the Guardian called out the ‘Old Pals Protection Society’ in government that covered up abuses. What is interesting about all these campaigners in the British imperial centre is that they prove the imperial mindset wasn’t universal.

When looking at history, we’re often encouraged to avoid judging the attitudes and beliefs of those who came before us by our standards – in the words of LP Hartley, so often thrown around: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ Too often in extreme this idea is used as an excuse, suggesting that the generations of our grandparents and their grandparents never had a choice. The work of Castle and her colleagues show that this was simply not the case.