Priyamvada Gopal: Mau Mau Verdict ... Britain Must Undo Its Imperial Anmesia

Roundup: Talking About History

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.

The high court will shortly issue a verdict in a case brought before it by three elderly Kenyans who are suing the British government for damages. They, like many other Kikuyu people, suffered internment and torture during the brutal emergency rule imposed in the 1950s by Kenya's colonial government as it attempted to repress a violent uprising led by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army or "Mau Mau". Tens of thousands were killed while others endured systematic abuse including long internment, rape and castration. Given the recent emergence of "lost" documents pointing to the Foreign Office's awareness of these abuses, the British government does not deny the abuse but argues it is not liable for out-of-date claims against a past colonial administration.
Public arguments about this case have focused on whether present-day governments and taxpayers should be legally and financially accountable for the misdeeds of past regimes. Critics argue that judicial discretion to allow such cases to proceed will create a slippery slope of blanket entitlements. In fact, given the time elapsed, only a limited number of living victims would be eligible to bring direct personal injury claims: a fourth Kenyan claimant also died recently. It is true that the perpetrators of specific crimes will go unpunished by virtue of being dead. But should there be no collective national recognition in relation to British imperial misdeeds? It is odd that political leaders repeatedly call on this nation to take pride in what they regard as Britain's imperial achievements but want nothing doing with the injustices also intrinsic to imperialism.
Whatever the high court's verdict, this landmark case asks larger questions of Britain, the answers to which go beyond apologies and monetary reparations. How should Britain and Britons deal with the (not all that distant) imperial past? From racial hierarchies to artificial national borders and a deeply inequitable economic system which enshrined as a core principle the devastating profiteering we see around us, imperial history still shapes all our lives within Britain and beyond...

comments powered by Disqus