Narratives created by the State, the media or individuals can have a powerful and long-lasting influence on the mindsets of people.
The concept of “Pax Britannica” (British peace) describes the period between 1815 and1914 when there was relative peace in “the empire where the sun never set” and Britain became the global hegemonic power assuming the role of “world policeman”.
Upon critical examination, it was a form of biography “of the means whereby ideas are formed by men, are applied to their daily affairs, and are changed in that process of application”. It had no currency in its most formative years.
Only when well into the game, so to speak, did the British become conscious of the unique state of affairs that they possessed in regard to world power and world influence. At that stage they were able, on the basis of hard-earned experience and success, to laud and magnify their rule of law.
They were in a position to preach resoundingly about legal trade, to advance human and civil causes, to preach the end of slavery and piracy, and to advance a system of peace they hoped would endure forever. For the latter, they were sadly mistaken.
In October 2012, the High Court in London ruled that former Mau Mau detainees had established a proper case against the British government for compensation and allowed their claims to proceed to trial despite being filed out of time.
When the matter went to full hearing, the British government pleaded to settle out of court.
In June 2013, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Kenyan victims tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising would receive payouts totalling £20 million (Sh2.6 billion), including legal fees.
“I would like to make it clear now, and for the first time on behalf of Her Majesty’s government, that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved in the events of the emergency in Kenya”, he told the Commons.
“The British government recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.
“The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress towards Independence.”
Mr Hague said the 5,228 victims would receive the payments following an agreement reached with their lawyers who had been fighting for compensation for a number of years. The compensation amounted to £3,000 (Sh360,000 at the time) per victim and applied only to the living survivors of the abuses.
The British government still did not accept responsibility for the actions of what was a colonial administration in Kenya.
Gitu Kahengeri, secretary-general of the association, said it was “the beginning of reconciliation between the Mau Mau War Veterans Association and the British government”.
Martin Day, of law firm Leigh Day representing the victims, said it took “courage to publicly acknowledge for the first time the nature of Britain’s past in Kenya”.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who backed the case, said “It sends a signal to the world that no matter how human beings behave towards one another, good ultimately prevails.”
While the compensation of £3,000 per victim may be a modest sum in comparison to the crime, the concession that British officials tortured, sexually abused and killed their colonial subjects was a historical milestone of great significance.
For a long time, Britain had been reluctant to concede that the British Empire was violent.
British imperialism was seen as exceptional in its civilising and developing missions abroad and was portrayed as relatively benign as “pax Britannica”. This popular narrative was highly distorted and historians have increasingly demonstrated that violence, or the threat of violence always underpinned British colonial rule.
In establishing “pax Britannica” Britain engaged in a series of wars in southern Africa, Nigeria, India, Burma, New Zealand, Sudan and elsewhere, euphemistically minimising them to “little” wars or skirmishes in colonial rhetoric.
After conquest, the maintenance of colonial authority rested on potential deployment of more violence, economically, through legal or military systems, or by individuals; the kind of violence Frantz Fanon famously argued “ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for destruction of native social forms”.
The Mau Mau trial revealed deliberate attempts to sanitise historical records.
After the end of the emergency period in 1960, civil servants were ordered to destroy all incriminating records relating to the Mau Mau.
Historians Carol Elkins, David Anderson and former colonial District Officer John Nottingham called to the court as expert witnesses, argued that disclosure of relevant records was incomplete, forcing the British government to admit to the existence of an enormous secret archive of more than 8,000 files from 37 former colonies.
But beyond this deliberate disclosure is a far more insidious process of “forgetting” of colonial violence in typical British amnesia.
Violence in the British Empire has long been screened by benign images of colonial progress in British territories and displaced onto horrific images of violence in other empires such as the Belgian and Portuguese.
As part of the compensation for the Mau Mau victims, the British government agreed to fund the construction of a memorial in Nairobi to Kenya’s victims of colonial era torture.
A statue of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi was erected on Kimathi Street in Nairobi in 2015 in fulfillment of this obligation.
While this was a small step in making the past visible, there were no plans to erect such a monument in Britain itself.
The reaction to the landmark decision in Britain was largely hostile judging from the various comments on social media.
Incorporating the memory of torture into Britain’s national history is a long way off and would certainly be going against the narrative!