BEING ON HUNGER STRIKE was torture enough. But suffering comes in levels, and Dolours Price was about to experience the next level.
They came on a cold morning in the winter of 1973. As Patrick Radden Keefe recounts in the recent book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, doctors and nurses of the London prison strapped Price to a chair that was bolted to the floor and secured her to it with bedsheets. Hands wrenched her mouth open and forced a wooden bit between her jaws, preventing her from biting down. At the center of the bit was a hole just large enough to jam a rubber hose through. A puree of eggs, orange juice, and a vitamin blend coursed through the tube as she gasped for air, fighting to free herself. Before they could remove the tube and bit, she vomited up the food—a victory, feeble as it may have seemed, for the hunger strike her captors had decided to break by force. So they came in the very next morning and did it again. And the next morning. And the next. For one hundred and sixty odd days, they came. It was a grueling battle of wills between the Belfast-born Irish republican and the authorities who served as the enforcing arm of British rule.
How many such stories are there in the annals of empire? Two decades earlier and thousands of miles south, like-minded British enforcers in Kenya were inventing the counterinsurgency strategy that was later used to ensnare and torture recalcitrant republicans like Price. Josiah Mwangi “JM” Kariuki was one of many forerunners of the resisters in Northern Ireland.
In August of 1954, Kariuki had just been transferred to a new concentration camp. Here, he and his comrades were ordered to kneel in lines of five, put their hands on their head, and repeat phrases by an officer who was less than fluent in the captives’ native language of Kikuyu. The room had filled with nearly as many captors as captives, each of them savagely beating any captive who did not repeat the phrases, or who did so without sufficient energy and gusto. The militaristic drills were a novel aspect of that day’s torture, but the violence was not—in these camps, random and indiscriminate beating and flogging were commonplace. Other forms of grisly violence were as well: untold numbers of Kenyan men and women alike were raped with bottles and the barrels of rifles; men were castrated with pliers.
Kariuki and Price were insurgents, members of groups waging armed revolutionary struggle against the empire. JM Kariuki had taken the oath of the Mau Mau, a largely Kikuyu organization aiming to end white settler domination of Kenya. Dolours Price had distinguished herself as a member of “The Unknowns,” an elite military unit of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, waging an armed struggle against loyalists in Northern Ireland and the British army alike.
Their battles were, from the start, impossibly lopsided. At its height, between the first and second World War, the British empire was the largest empire in human history. It controlled territory amounting to about a quarter of the planet’s surface area and claimed colonial dominion over the same proportion of its population. It is unsurprising, then, that the phrase: “We Englishmen will rule this country forever” was among the phrases that Kariuki and his fellow detainees were coerced into chanting on pain of torture.