Two events that dashed hopes of white settlers

Mau Mau
Mau Mau detainees behind barbed wires, in October 1952, in the Kikuyu reserve. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Having demonised, subdued and defeated the Mau Mau insurgents in the field by 1956, the British forces and propaganda machinery gave fresh hope to right wing white settlers in Kenya of a multi-racial democracy dominated by themselves. Two events, however, demonstrated that the British government held a different and, altogether, more realistic view that independence and black majority rule were inevitable in the very near future.

The first was what came to be known as “The Hola Massacre”. The death of 11 prisoners on 3 March 1959 at Hola Detention Camp would probably have gone unnoticed just like many other gruesome atrocities meted out on Africans at the hands of British colonial forces and their agents.

Hola was a high-level detention facility where the so-called hardcore Mau Mau detainees who had refused to recant the dreaded oath of allegiance were taken and forced to do hard labour in a bid to break them.

On that fateful day in 1959, the detainees refused to work and the guards, acting on the instructions of the Camp Commandant Michael Sullivan and his assistant A.C. Coutts, beat them so severely that 11 of them died while many others were left with serious and permanent injuries.

Realising the enormity of the incident and the very real possibility of a backlash, the white officers, guards and the newly appointed young and inexperienced doctor at Hola put out a cover up story that the prisoners had died as a result of drinking contaminated water from a nearby tanker. But when the nearest District Commissioner, W.H. Thompson from Kipini, visited the camp he immediately doubted the diagnosis when he saw, firsthand, the gashes and bruises on the corpses. He rushed off to see the governor to make a report.

Unbeknown to Mr Thompson, a prison officer had said over his radio that the deaths had been caused by contaminated water and this was picked up by the media. This forced the government to issue a false report resulting in a web of deceit. While the white prison officers closed ranks, the governor put in a call to the colonial secretary in London and told him the truth. However, he was told it was politically unwise to change the story as this would put the office of the colonial secretary in an untenable position in the House of Commons.

As fate would have it, Enoch Powell, a British Labour Party MP, decided to bring the actions of the Kenya colonial government (and by extension the inaction of the British government) at Hola to the attention of the Parliament.

Mr Powell had left the ruling Conservative Party some six months before following differences with Prime Minister Harold McMillan over policy. In her book The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, Caroline Elkins postulates that it is not inconceivable that Powell still had a beef to settle with Mr McMillan. The elections were just around the corner in Britain and it was hoped that this scandal would dent the Conservative Party vote.

The speech by Mr Powell imploring the government to get to the bottom of the truth as to what actually happened at Hola was a rousing success. Sensitised about the cruelty of their own government in colonial territories, the British public started questioning the value and validity of colonial rule especially from a human rights point of view. This led to a turning point for British colonial policy and the white settlers were not at all amused.

The declassification of documents and lawsuits in recent years against the British government by the Mau Mau veterans have brought Hola into the limelight. A small monument stands in present day Hola GK Prison in memory of the 11 men killed, listing each one by name.

The second incident happened soon after in October 1959. Peter Poole married with two children was an irascible and arrogant young man. He had drawn his gun on an Asian shopkeeper for denying him a discount on a torch. Mr Poole had also shot an African plain-clothes constable in the leg after he was attacked by Mr Poole’s dogs. He also featured in several other incidents of violence which he appeared to have got away with lightly.

On 12 October 1959, Mr Poole was charged with the murder of Kamawe Musunge on Gordon Road (near Adam’s Arcade) off Ngong Road. Mr Musunge was Mr Poole’s house servant and as he was returning home he was stopped by Mr Poole’s dogs. He threw stones at the dogs to make way and when Mr Poole came out of his house he drew his Luger pistol and shot Mr Musunge who died on the spot.

Mr Poole was found guilty by a white jury and sentenced to death. The verdict caused an uproar among white settlers who were astonished that, for the first time in Kenya, a white man could be sentenced to death for the simple indiscretion of killing a black man.

About 25,000 signatures, including many of black people, were collected and presented to the Governor, Sir Patrick Muir Renison to grant Mr Poole clemency. The petition failed to move the governor (under pressure from London) and Mr Poole dropped through a trap door at the end of a rope on 18 August 1960. The execution clearly displayed that matters had changed forever in Kenya. One man would be executed for the murder of another human being regardless of colour.

One London newspaper wrote at the time “All men, regardless of colour, became equal at the end of a rope”.

The Peter Poole affair profoundly shocked the white community in Kenya with many Europeans coming to grips with the reality that the days of white supremacy in the colony were, sadly, over at the stroke of a pen.

50 years later, the specter of white supremacy reared its head again in the case of the late Tom Cholmondeley. Tom had shot and killed an African stonemason Robert Njoya on his farm in 2006. He was sentenced to serve three years in jail for manslaughter, in 2009. Because of the similarity with the Poole case and his white aristocracy, many felt Tom got off lightly.