HISTORY SHORTS: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT HOLA IN 1959?

The  death of eleven prisoners on March 3 1959 at the Hola Detention camp would have most likely gone unnoticed just like many others gruesome acts meted out on native Kenyans at the hands of the British colonial government.

However, something peculiar happened later that year.

A British Labor MP by the name of Enoch Powell decided to bring the actions of the Kenya colonial government (and by extension the inaction of British government) at Hola before the British Parliament.

Powell’s motive for putting the British government to task on this particular issue was not very clear since this was not the first time the Kenya colonial government had been accused of heavy-handed and unequal response to rebellion against its rule.

The Pulitzer award-winning book by Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, tries to shed light on Powell’s “self-serving” motive in  bringing the actions of the Kenya colonial government at Hola before parliament.

Powell had left ruling conservative party six months earlier due to policy disagreements with conservative Prime Minister Harold McMillan. It is therefore not inconceivable that he still had a beef to settle with McMillan.

The speech before parliament by Powell was a rousing success. The aftermath of the relentless push by Powell and the labor party to get to the truth of what happened at Hola was a major turning point for British colonial policy.

Sensitized 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 perspective.

Part of Powell’s speech went as follows:

It has been said — and it is a fact — that these 11 men were the lowest of the low; subhuman was the word which one of my honorable Friends used. So be it. But that cannot be relevant to the acceptance of responsibility for their death . . . In general, I would say that it is a fearful doctrine, which must recoil upon the heads of those who pronounce it, to stand in judgement on a fellow human being and to say, “Because he was such-and-such, therefore the consequences which would otherwise flow from his death shall not flow.”

Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, “We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.” We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere.”

The declassification of documents and lawsuits in recent years against the British government by Mau Mau veterans have also brought the Hola massacre back into the limelight once again.

The controversy and fall-out from the massacre still hounds the British government even to this day.

Ever the meticulous record keepers, a treasure-trove of declassified documents on the handling and cover-up of the massacre by the British government can be found and downloaded for free from the British National Archives catalogue.

The documents reveal in detail, the false public relations counter-argument concocted by the British government that tried to downplay prisoner deaths at Hola by emphasizing the successful rehabilitation over 70,000 prisoners who passed through detention camps.

In addition, the government tried to deflect culpability from themselves to low ranking civil servants including the Hola Detention Camp commandant Mr. Michael Sullivan and his assistant Mr. AC Coutts, claiming that they unilaterally acted inconsistent with the laid out colonial government policy.  (this is despite a well-documented systematic policy of torture during the Emergency period not only at detention camps but throughout the colony)

The following books probably provide the most detailed survivor accounts of what really happened at Hola:

  • The White Spaces of Kenyan Settler Writing: A Polemical Bibliography (Cross/Cultures).Apr 13, 2017 by Terrence Craig. Google Preview
  • Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. Dec 27, 2005 by Caroline Elkin. Pages 344-353. Google Preview.

Early rejoinder by the British government that the prisoners had died as a result of accidental drowning was quickly discounted since injuries consistent with serious torture were clearly found on each man.

Furthermore, it was also clear to an internal inquest commissioned by the colonial government, the death of the prisoners was obviously not as a result of warders defending themselves from a prisoner attack but simply as a result of Commandant Sullivan retaliating on prisoners for refusing to work.

Serious and permanent injury was also inflicted on countless others who were locked behind a special section of the prison with those who died. This section had been reserved for the “worst of the worst” prisoners who had refused to renounce their oath to the Mau Mau movement.

The crimes at Hola were hard to cover up from the onset and as soon as this evidence came into light, it caused great uproar in Britain and throughout of the world.

A small monument (featured photo) stands in present day Hola GK Prison in memory of the 11 men killed during the massacre, listing each man by name.

These are their names:

Kabui Kamau, Ndung’u Kibaki, Mwema Kinuthia, Kinyanjui Njoroge, Koroma Mburu, Karanja Munuthu, Ikeno Ikiro, Migwi Ndegwa, Kaman Karanja, Mungai Githi and Ngugi Karitie.

These Kenyan heroes certainly had not died in vain.