Exile in Late-Colonial Kenya: Inventing a System of Permanent Exclusion

by Niels Boender

At the very moment Britain began giving up formal political control of its African possessions, it sought to retrench control in other parts of the continent using aggressive policies of detention and permanent exclusion. In Kenya, while tens of thousands of Mau Mau detainees were beaten and tortured into confession and eventual return to their ravaged homes, special measures were taken to permanently exclude a cadre of the ‘hardcore’ anti-colonial activists. New laws were drafted, and plans made to turn the desert into a ‘land of milk and honey’ to house the exiles. Their exclusion was to be permanent, leaving Central Kenya politically lobotomised and safe for a gradual transition to majority rule. This piece explores this racialised scheme of exile, indicative of an Empire-wide story of political management, leaving significant debris for the post-colonial present.

This Museum of British Colonialism series specifically draws attention to how practices of colonial detention were invented, exported, and implemented; rooted in anti-blackness. The British Empire, wherever it went, was marked by a dual legal regime. Biological, psychological, and ethnographic reasoning were front and centre when alternative regimes of crime and punishment were devised. Mahmood Mamdani describes the persistent colonial binary as one between subject and citizen, often but not always a racialised binary, each facing a distinct regime of control and punishment. [1] The former was treated with less (and sometimes no) judicial protection and more prone to being subject to physical violence. However, this central division was always complicated by local experience. This means it is particularly valuable to engage in specific examples of colonial punishment. European colonialists’ anti-blackness remained at the heart of punishment and detention throughout the decades and centuries. The causes for this can be found rooted in scientific racism, the so-called ‘civilising mission’, and Europe’s desire for economic exploitation, Exile was devised as a tool to stabilise the body politic through the expulsion of particularly subversive elements, a practice well-tested in the British metropole. What was unique in its application to racialised colonial subjects was its persistence into the twentieth century, and especially after the Second World War, with its proliferation of human rights discourses, anti-racism, and political decolonisation.

Now what is meant by exile? In essence it is a form of social control, which physically removes individuals from a society, often across a real or imagined political boundary. This is inevitably accompanied by the individual losing their rights and privileges associated with membership in their home community. It is thus fundamentally incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights, purposefully distinct from regular judicial conviction by its emphasis on revoking political and civil rights. A cursory look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) makes this palpably obvious, violating Article 12’s protection from arbitrary interference, 13’s ‘right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state’, 17’s protection of property, as well as 19 and 20’s protection of freedom of expression and assembly where exile comes with political silencing as it did in both Kenya and South Africa.

Although exile can be imposed judicially, in many cases (such as the one discussed here) it is often done through extrajudicial emergency powers. Another key component is the formally non-institutional nature of the place to which the banished are exiled, i.e not a detention camp or a prison. This latter component means that only particular places are suitable for exile; namely those deemed to be physically and politically separate from the exiled home. This often takes the form of particularly isolated, barren, and distant regions. In the Soviet Union this was the steppes and tundra of Siberia and Kazakhstan, for France the malarial Devil’s Island, and in Kenya the arid northern half of the Coast Province. As legal systems were reformed in Europe, and global settlement meant less places were marked as ‘empty’ for European penal settlement, the practice lapsed in the metropole. Yet in the colonies themselves, which were subject to the grand developmental thinking of the colonial theorists and persistent anti-blackness at the heart of judicial systems, exile persisted and expanded in the latter years of colonial rule. The particular set of colonial beliefs which conceptualised African society as communal rather than individual, and easily manipulated by leaders employing witchcraft and traditional superstition, meant that exile was believed to retain the symbolic and political value it once had in Europe. Moreover, the grand projects of the late-colonial era required  a great deal of labour, and exile was an effective way of moving large groups of people into place to conduct this work.

In the British Empire, prisons were often porous places not wholly distinct from the society in which they were located. Physical punishment like caning, and in the most extreme cases execution, was meant to inculcate moral lessons. This as a policy however could never neuter political opposition, or ‘subversion’ in the parlance of the colonial mind, and the physical removal of individuals and groups was deemed necessary. This was made more difficult by the British tradition of habeas corpus, which meant that exile in fact relied on the ‘royal prerogative’ without resort to the legal system. Persisting to this day in the case of the Chagos Islanders removed from Diego Garcia, the Crown (or in local cases the Governor) retained powers of detention without trial and exile. The system was first formalised in the Indian context, Britain’s colonial petri dish. Since 1818, the Bengal State Prisoners Regulations allowed detention-without-trial “for reasons of State” and the “preservation of tranquillity.” It was under such regulations that 108,000 Indian, Burmese, Malay, and Chinese convicts were sent to penal settlements around the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean from 1789 to 1949. Especially the Andaman Islands (which received 83,000 exiles), regarded as ‘empty’ by the British state, was a site of exile, where a spell in prison would be followed by technically ‘free’ labour (a system closely reflecting what would happen in Kenya). Targeted for exile were those groups deemed to be ‘criminal tribes’ as well as more generally the subaltern peasant rebels which revolted against the British, for example those who took part in the 1921 Malabar Rebellion. [2]

The language of the 1818 Bengali regulations was directly copied in East Africa, where the 1897 Native Courts Regulations allowed anyone “dangerous to the peace and good order in the Protectorate” to be “removed or interned in such place within the limits of the Protectorate as [the Governor] may direct.” Specific individual ordinances were also issued, such as the one exiling Kabaka Mwanga II of the Buganda to the Seychelles. In Kenya specifically, anti-colonial fighters from the early period were also exiled. Most famously the Gikuyu leader Waiyaki wa Hinga was deported to the Coast, and died en route, an event universally recalled by the Mau Mau who would be deported there in the 1950s. Like in the period under discussion here, his deportation was in part done on the advice of local, African, colonial collaborators. Elsewhere in Kenya, individuals and communities who described themselves as prophets (such as the Luhya prophet Elijah Masinde and the Kipsigis orkooik) were deported away from their home region. What was lacking however was the fundamental principle of permanent exile for the purpose of political control, while using exile labour to make the desert bloom. These were the innovations British colonial officers would make during the 1950s Emergency.

In the post-war Empire, exile persisted in various forms, now backed by a corpus of formal Emergency Powers meant to deal with the threat of war and rebellion. Emergency regulations (used in the Second World War to detain men like the fascist Oswald Mosley) were used thereafter in Palestine and Malaya. Many of the men who would design Kenya’s counterinsurgency and penal regime from 1952 had served in those campaigns, importing its legal repertoires and violent mentalities. What necessitated this counterinsurgency was the Mau Mau Uprising, a movement of Kenyans (but predominantly those from Central Kenya) against the colonial state, desiring the end of colonial rule, and in particular, the return of land alienated to white settlers. Seeking in part to protect those Kenyan informers, chiefs, and others who were still loyal to them, the colonial government declared a State of Emergency and detained key political leaders. Over the coming years, while a shooting war was fought in the forests of Kenya, eventually (mostly) defeated in 1956, a broad and punitive civilian counterinsurgency also took place. As has been well documented by MBC in various initiatives, tens of thousands of men and women were committed to detention in a wide range of detention camps across the country. However, in these camps, with all their torture and brutality, the intention was that most of these men and women would return to their homes: ‘rehabilitated’ in the parlance of the time. Yet in the colonial mind there was always a group for whom release was never an option; because they challenged the hold local loyalists had on an area due to their embittered nationalism, influence over local citizens, or atrocities they had committed. For them, exile was the colonial state’s only option.

Beyond trying to support local loyalists, a particular psychological framework used to explain the Mau Mau Uprising dictated the need for a certain population to be committed to exile. British colonial officers did not see genuine socio-economic grievances in the Uprising. Instead, they blamed an anxious imbalance produced by modernisation. Essentially, the British believed that their colonial subjects were caught between traditional pre-colonial ways of living, and full Western-style modern life.  This view was supported by a cadre of anthropologists and psychologists who claimed to know the ‘African mind’. [3] It was thus a coherent corpus of anti-black thought which lay at the heart of the exile policies. The anxiety which colonial officers claimed had crept into African communities, which could be counteracted by Christian education and confession, had however been activated by a group of hardened radicals. These semi-westernised miscreants, in the mind of the colonial state, had supposedly manipulated the population into taking up arms and had to be permanently removed from the political scene for normality to return. This policy of detaining Kenya’s political leaders was enacted as early as October 1952, when the Emergency was declared.

It took several years for the exile policy to be ironed out and formalised. In 1954, top colonial leaders were still considering the Red Sea island of Kamaran as the site for exile fed by the Colonial Office for being impractical. Instead, over the coming years, they settled on Hola, on the Tana River in Coast Province, planning for it to become a settlement for 7,000 people on 25,000 acres of land which still needed to be irrigated. A colonial government Working Party assessing the scheme in 1960 said the initial vision was to turn ‘an arid desert into green pastures and a land flowing with milk and honey in order to accommodate those Mau Mau detainees’. [4]The premise would be that only ‘rehabilitated’ (confessed and cooperating with authorities) but ‘unacceptable’ (rejected by officials in their own district) detainees would be eligible for the exile settlement. These ‘unacceptable’ detainees were told, when they were marked fully rehabilitated by their jailers, that they would not be returned until ‘those who resisted Mau Mau and remained loyal to the Government are prepared to have [them] back’.

Thousands of detainees would eventually be sent to Hola from 1954 to 1959 in order to dig the irrigation ditches and construct the buildings necessary for the exile scheme. To that end a condensed version of the larger ‘Pipeline’ of detention camps was built, with a prison for convict labour, a closed camp for the ‘hardcore’, and an open camp for the partially ‘rehabilitated’. Labour in these camps was supposed to prepare detainees for eventual ‘release’ onto the exile scheme, which they themselves were constructing. According to Governor Baring, ‘the relative liberality of the agricultural settlement and the village side of Hola depends . . . on our ability to maintain some detainees under conditions of confinement in the Closed Camp’. [5] By 1958 however, the number of detainees marked for exile was dwindling, in part due to British imposed release targets but more especially due to the grave use of violence in the camps to force confession and cooperation. Detainees nevertheless continued to resist their imprisonment. It was precisely at Hola where this came to a head, where officials were desperate to complete the scheme with detainee labour. Chronic beating was reported in late 1958 but it was in March 1959 that violence exploded. A plan was devised to force a large group of closed camp detainees to work by manhandling them. This plan, perhaps unsurprisingly, got completely out of hand, escalating to the death of eleven detainees and a political crisis back in the UK which threatened the whole moral basis of the Empire.

This did not however end the exile scheme at Hola, which had already settled the first dozen detainees. Far from abolishing the plan, the Kenyan colonial government was in fact encouraged to push ahead with a scheme for 500 men on 2000 acres. The Fairn Committee, tasked with avoiding such violence from reoccurring, described the exile scheme as a “social adventure” which should continue. Three villages were established: Nyakiambi (first village), Kiarukungu (dusty village), and Munyaka (good luck village); those remaining at Hola were encouraged to take up plots. These villages, well-guarded and tightly-controlled by colonial officers, were reminiscent of the Emergency Villages which had mushroomed across Central Kenya. Like in their home districts, conditions were tough and resistance persisted.  Many who had been prominent nationalist leaders lived on the scheme, including future MPs like John Kali and Anderson Wamuthenya, as well as Mau Mau General ‘China’ Waruhiu Itote. They pleaded to be returned to their homeland even when their families were sent out to Hola. These hardened nationalists wanted to be involved in the early 1960s political struggle and wanted to take up opportunities to buy-up white settler land which had been opened for Africans. They took vows of silence, wrote multiple petitions, and agitated for return to their homes.

With parliamentary uproar in Britain over Hola putting pressure on the colonial state, new laws had to be drafted to allow the scheme to persist beyond the Emergency. This produced a flurry of legal drafting in both Kenya and the Colonial Office in order to permanently allow a settlement in which fundamental political and civil rights were to be restricted. The settlements were intended as highly controlled spaces, requiring cotton production to be sold directly to the colonial state. Moreover, punishments were imposed for the smallest infractions, including not tending their plots assiduously enough. Inhabitants were restricted in their capacity to run for office, travel beyond the settlements, or publish any statements. Kenyan lawyers acknowledged domestic exile after the Second World War was “unique in the Commonwealth,” and was complicated by the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which prohibited detention without trial (Articles 5–6) and enshrined freedom of assembly, press and expression (Articles 9–11).

Lawyers were confronted with the same legal questions that British government lawyers face today in terms of the Rwanda scheme. They resorted to a great deal of euphemism in the legislation, admitting some ‘casuistic law stretching’ in their correspondence with the Colonial Office. [6] They investigated and borrowed legal language from the procedures used against the Malabar and Burma rebellions, lamenting that these rebellions did not have the EHRC lying “as an incubus on the shoulders…as it does on ours in the 1950s.” [7]  Beyond legal reasoning they also resorted to racial logics. They believed that the ECHR’s regard to “local requirements” could be stretched to the “backwardness of the inhabitants, primitive customs and ways of life,” especially witchcraft. When the Colonial Office pushed back, the Kenyan Attorney-General wrote it would be “better surely to let the thugs rot among the tsetse than to let them contaminate the better types.” With this racialised language the schemes were formally legalised after the end of the Emergency. Their presentation came with propaganda accounts of “murders, atrocities (e.g., slicing off babies’ heads), bestialities, witchcraft, and similar illustrations of subhuman fanaticism” requested by the Colonial Secretary. [8]

Despite the passing of this legislation in early 1960, by 1961 the scheme was wound up. The colonial state simply found it impossible to continue holding nationalists in exile as the country began steadily moving towards independence. Vast sums of money had been spent on the scheme, long being economically viable, which had now become politically impossible also. However, this did not mean the end of detention-without-trial or even exile in a Kenyan framework. The legislation which had allowed for continued restriction, the Preservation of Public Security Act, was kept on the books and even expanded in the following years. Ex-Mau Mau dissidents, along with opposition politicians, were among those detained without trial far from home in post-colonial Kenya. More systematically, Emergency powers were unleashed in the Northern part of Kenya where most of the Somali population is resident. Against the so-called Shifta rebels the same legal powers, counterinsurgency techniques, and discriminatory mentality which the colonial state had once used, were employed. An exile scheme like that once imagined by the British was no longer possible, but due to the continuation of extra-judicial killings and wanton detention, many Kenyans took themselves into exile abroad. The most famous among them, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose early writing was deeply intertwined with the Mau Mau Uprising, used his exile as a productive intellectual space to continue criticising the postcolonial regime. This parallels precisely the physical and intellectual resistance of those Mau Mau detainees sent into exile at Hola.

A memorial stone for victims of the Hola Massacre, Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

To conclude, exile ought to be considered a distinct and significant part of colonial penal practice. Although intensely intertwined with extra-judicial detention without trial, it relies on a uniquely anti-black attitude which tolerates the wholesale suspension of social, political, and civil rights. It was this attitude which allowed exile to persist into the twentieth century, beyond its lapse within the metropole. What is remarkable reading the files in which colonial officers are discussing these schemes, is the manner in which they see Kenyan individuals as units, demarcated by codes like Z1 and Y2, to be brusquely shunted across the territory. Notably, this dehumanisation was deemed to be in the service of the British ‘civilising mission’, protecting the political program for gradual, and pro-British, decolonisation. It was black resistance, both physical in the form of the disobedience which led to the Hola Massacre and political in opposition to their exile, which sank this vision. Yet a set of politicians, who had physically experienced the power of the state to crush opposition, decided to keep these powers in place. Neither did they dismantle the royal prerogative logic which underpinned such policies. It is now up to activists, using this history as guide, to continue the struggle to dismantle colonial penal logics.

  1. Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  2. Clare Anderson, ‘The British Indian Empire, 1789–1939’, in A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies ed. by Clare Anderson (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).
  3. John Lonsdale, ‘Mau Maus of the Mind: Making Mau Mau and Remaking Kenya’, The Journal of African History, 31 (1990), 393-421.
  4. TNA/FCO/141/6285, Meeting of Working Party on the Tana River Irrigation Scheme (3/18/1960). 
  5. TNA/FCO/141/6306, Kenya Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies (4/29/1959).
  6. TNA/FCO/141/6264, Note by Kenya Chief Secretary on Colonial Office Memorandum on Draft Security Settlement Ordinance (4/19/1956).
  7. TNA/FCO/141/6293, Kenya Attorney General to Kenya Minister of African Affairs (11/6/1958).
  8. TNA/FCO/141/6293, Secretary of State for the Colonies to Kenya Governor (5/22/1959).

Niels Boender is a Dutch PhD Student at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. He is working on the Legacies of Mau Mau in post-colonial Kenya, on a Collaborative Doctoral Project with the Imperial War Museum in London. Boender is particularly interested in the late- and post-colonial history of Kenya, Africa more generally, as well as ways in which to do public history in and of Africa.

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