This battle over how Britain's military and colonial history is taught is also a battle for Britain's future

From the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya to the human catastrophe of World War 1, the UK wilfully edits out the dark, unholy, inconvenient parts of the national story

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 10 June 2013 00:00 BST
A composite image shows 24 Mau Mau veterans who posed individually for portraits at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, during a press conference by the British High Commission, the law firm Leigh Day, and the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association on June 6, 2013.
A composite image shows 24 Mau Mau veterans who posed individually for portraits at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, during a press conference by the British High Commission, the law firm Leigh Day, and the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association on June 6, 2013. (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The Government has just agreed to pay £20m to over 5,000 Kenyans tortured under British rule during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. William Hague, in a commendably sober speech, accepted that the victims had suffered pain and grief. Out rode military expert Sir Max Hastings, apoplectic, a very furious Mad Max. Gabriel Gatehouse, the BBC Radio 4 reporter who interviewed survivors, “should die of shame”, roared the Knight of the Realm. Kenyan Human Rights organisations and native oral testimonies could not be trusted; the real baddies were the Mau Mau; no other nation guilty of crimes ever pays compensation and expresses endless guilt and finally there “comes a moment when you have to draw a line under it”. Actually Sir, the Japanese did compensate our PoWs in 2000, and Germany has never stopped paying for what it did to Jewish people.

The UK chooses to relive historical episodes of glory, and there were indeed many of those. But we also glorify those periods which were anything but glorious, and wilfully edit out the dark, unholy, inconvenient parts of the national story. Several other ex-imperial nations do the same. In Turkey, it is illegal to talk publicly about the Armenian Genocide by the Ottomans. France has neatly erased its vicious rule in Arab lands; the US only remembers its own dead in the Vietnam War, not the devastation of that country and its people. Britain proudly remembers the Abolitionists but gets very tetchy when asked to remember slavery, without which there would have been no need for Abolition. The Raj is still seen as a civilizing mission, not as a project of greed and subjugation. Not all the empire builders were personally evil, but occupation and unwanted rule is always morally objectionable. Tony Blair was probably taught too much of the aggrandising stuff and not enough about the ethics of Empire. The Scots, in any case, in spite of being totally involved, have offloaded all culpability for slavery and Empire on to the English. Their post-devolution history has been polished up well. But it is a flattering, falsifying mirror.

Indian history, as retold by William Dalrymple and Pankaj Mishra, among others, is very different from the “patriotic” accounts Britons have been fed for over a century. The 1857 Indian Uprising, for example, was a violent rebellion during which British men, women and children were murdered – so too was the Mau Mau insurrection – but the reprisals were much crueller and against many more people, many innocent. Our War on Terror is just as asymmetrical.

Today we get to hear plans to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. The Coalition Government wants to spin this terrible conflict into another victory fest in 2014. Brits addicted to war memorialising will cheer. Michael Gove will have our children remembering only the “greatness” of the Great War and David Cameron will pledge millions of pounds for events which will stress the national spirit and be as affirming as “the diamond Jubilee celebrations”. I bet Max Hastings won’t ask for a line to be drawn under that bit of the nation’s past.

A group of writers, actors and politicians, including Jude Law, Tony Benn, Harriet Walter, Tim Pigott-Smith, Ralph Steadman, Simon Callow, Michael Morpurgo and Carol Ann Duffy has expressed concern that such a “military disaster and human catastrophe” is to be turned into another big party: “We believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded”. After 1916, soldiers were conscripted from the poorest of families. The officer classes saw them as fodder. Traumatised soldiers, as we know, were shot. In school back in Uganda, I learnt the only words of Latin I know, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. His poems got into my heart and there they stay.

Let’s not expect the Establishment keepers of our past to dwell unduly on those facts and figures; or to acknowledge the land grabs in Africa in the latter part of the 19th-century which led to that gruesome war; or to remember how it played out on that continent. With the focus forever on the fields of Flanders, forgotten are those other theatres of that war, in East Africa, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere.

In Tanganyika, where my mother was born, the Germans played dirty and the British fought back using over 130,000 African and Indian soldiers, thousands of them who died horrible deaths. Her father told her stories of, yes, torture by whites on both sides, trees bent over with strung up bodies, some pregnant women, and fear you could smell on people and in homes. Edward Paice’s book Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, finally broke the long conspiracy of partiality.

The historical truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth matters. It is hard to get at and forever contested, but the aspiration still matters more than almost anything else in a nation’s self-portrait. With incomplete verities and doctored narratives, younger generations are bound to repeat the mistakes and vanities of the past. There will be a third global war because not enough lessons were learnt about earlier, major modern conflicts. And then our world will end.

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