Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘legal history’

Reckoning with Britain’s Colonial Past: The Mau Mau Detention Camps and Dedan Kimathi

By Lauren Brown @LaurenBroon

Britain has a complicated colonial history. Sadly, thousands of descendants from former colonial territories, still face the legacies of Britain’s hegemony. This is true for the Kikuyu, Embu and Neru people of Kenya. During the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952-1964, the British colonial government placed some 80,000 people from these ethnic groups in a ‘pipeline’ of detention camps after a series of violent attacks on British settlers and ‘loyalist’ Africans. Camp inmates were subjected to brutal interrogations, whippings, sexual assault and even castration.[1] Detainee letters cited a lack of food and poor sanitation, whilst David Anderson’s ‘Histories of the Hanged’ detailed the systematic hangings of many ‘hardcore’ prisoners.

Since Kenyan independence in 1964, the truth about the camps had been hidden. However, in 2011, a series of court cases, brought by survivors of these camps against the British government, finally highlighted their brutality and the true nature of the British colonial state. The former prisoners were immensely successful. The Foreign Commonwealth Office conceded and provided the ex-prisoners with compensation, a public apology and the erection of a memorial in Nairobi. The court cases also prompted the release of thousands of colonial documents, which the British Government had supposedly ‘lost’ at its Hanslope Park warehouse.[2] Later, it was revealed that Hanslope Park was home to 20,000 undisclosed government files from 37 former colonies.

Initially, these court cases seemed to herald a new era of post-colonial apology and recognition for the unfiltered history of empire. However, such a revolution was swiftly stopped in its tracks. In 2018, 40,000 more ex-detainees took to the English courts seeking justice. Files in the National Archives at Kew highlight the horrific conditions of the camps, with prisoners writing to local government representatives complaining of squalor, food shortages and corporal punishment. Yet, the case was dismissed under the notion that a fair trial was not possible because of the 50 year delay. High Court Judge Justice Stewart J pointed to a lack of ‘clear’ evidence, despite the swathe of files which live in the archives.[3]

Here lies the crucial issue – until this point the ex-prisoners could not have filed the case as the documents were hidden. Now they are available for consultation and could be utilised in a trial. Nevertheless, the damage has been done, as no further legal action will be entertained.

Entwined in the history of the Mau Mau camps, is the story of field marshal Dedan Kimathi. Kimathi was executed by the British after a short career of anti-British ‘terrorism’. The government was so desperate for his capture, that they embarked on an unrelenting campaign to ‘eliminate’ him.[4] In 1957, Kimathi was hanged. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Kamiti Prison, where he is believed to have lain ever since. Kimathi quickly became a martyr of the movement. His family – leaders of the Dedan Kimathi Foundation, have campaigned for decades for his body to be exhumed.

On October 25th last year, the foundation announced that Kimathi’s body had finally been found.[5] However, Kenya’s Interior Ministry dismissed the claim.[6] Evelyn Manjugu Kimathi, Kimathi’s youngest daughter and the chair of the foundation, said she would seek an order to exhume his body. On the 3rd of July this year, she said she had ‘fresh evidence’ that Kimathi is buried within the prison, but the Kenyan Government has not approved his excavation.

The British Government has also proven unhelpful in the quest for his body, refusing to conduct an investigation into the matter. It would seem that no further efforts towards securing justice for the Mau Mau veterans will be entertained. Evidently, the previous Mau Mau settlement was the only compensation and apology the ex-detainees would receive.


[1]Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, p.209.

[2]David M Anderson, ‘Mau Mau in the High Court and the ‘Lost’ British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?,The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 39,Issue 5, (Routledge: London and New York, 2011)

[3]Casemine, Kimathi & Ors V The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Casemine.com, https://www.casemine.com/judgement/uk/5b6401a42c94e04659e5effc, ND, accessed: 08/03/2020.

[4]The National Archives, WO276/431, ‘Special Forces’, ‘GHQ Operation Instruction No: 35’, 9/12/1955.

[5] Hillary Orinde, ‘62 years after hanging: Dedan Kimathi grave found’, Standard Media, 25th Oct 2019.  https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001346853/dedan-kimathi-grave-found. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

[6]Steve Njuguna, ‘Govt dismisses reports that Dedan Kimathi grave found at Kamiti’, Nairobi News, 26th Oct 2019. https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/editors-picks/govt-dismisses-reports-that-dedan-kimathi-grave-found-at-kamiti. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

Image Credit:

Figure 1. Author’s photograph of Mau Mau Propaganda Poster, National Army Museum London.

Figure 2. Q1 building at The National Archives, Kew, 9 March 2007. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Q1_building_at_The_National_Archives.jpg#/media/File:Q1_building_at_The_National_Archives.jpg

Victim Personal Statements: Are We Restoring a Wrong Right?

By Kevin Bendesky

Beginning in the 1960s, the Victims’ Rights Movement had profound impacts on English law. One result, Victim Personal Statements (VPS), raised the important question of whether the victim should have the chance to say how the crime affected them. A VPS happens after the adjudication of guilt, but before the sentence is determined. It is not supposed to influence the sentence, yet judges often refer to the VPS in their sentences.[1] Some studies demonstrate that the statements do not harshen penalties; but still, victims report that they sometimes hope their VPS will affect the sentence.[2] Clearly, then, the VPS is still a topic of debate. The Victims’ Movement was grounded in the common desire to “restore” the rights of crime’s many victims.[3] But what was there to “restore”? A careful retracing of the victim’s role in English history complicates this effort.

Read more

Researching with English Legal Records: some tips on getting started

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

The vast archives produced by the English legal system are some of our most valuable materials for legal, political, social, and family histories.  Issuing from national and local courts, from common, ecclesiastical, and equitable jurisdictions, and covering civil and criminal law, they offer a window into the lives of ordinary people and the principles that governed their societies.  Yet to the first-time researcher – and even to more experienced scholars – they can seem idiosyncratic, impenetrable, and daunting.  As someone who is still on the steep learning curve that comes with reading these records, I have put together some basic advice for those new to working with them.

Read more

Treason law in England from 1351 to the present

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)

In 1305, William Wallace was hanged, drawn, and beheaded. Notes from the court state that ‘his heart, liver, lungs and all his entrails be cast into the fire and burned’ and ‘his body be cut into four parts.’ His head was to be placed on London Bridge, with each ‘quarter’ of Wallace hung at Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick, Stirling, and the town of St. John ‘for the terror and punishment of all who pass by’.[1]

Crimes against the monarch or realm have often been treated harshly under English common law. Owing to Wallace’s role in the Scottish wars perhaps this severe punishment was to be expected. Legal historian, Sir John Baker, suggested that absence of legislation on treason was a risk to liberty and justice.[2] A tyrannical ruler could choose to inflict the greatest punishment for the slightest offence. This is the likely reason why in 1351 the Commons and the Lords petitioned King Edward III to outline treason, resulting in it being the first major offence to be defined by statute.[3]

Read more

Experiencing the law in sixteenth-century England

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. [1]

This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem.  It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period. Read more

The Case of Betty John – gender ambiguity in a late eighteenth century small-claims court

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

Alex is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of History. His thesis is entitled “Imprisonment for Debt and Women’s Financial Failure in the Long Eighteenth Century”.

Before the eighteenth century, it was potentially possible to stand at the window of an English townhouse and gaze out across the milieu of different classes, ages, and ethnicities crowded in the streets below and immediately understand what an individual person was and where they belonged in society. People dressed their status, not simply out of choice, but in accordance with law. Sumptuary laws were regularly enacted from Edward III’s reign into the early modern period though they weren’t always as regularly enforced. These laws listed with varying degrees of specificity the type, cut, colour, and style of dress for various members of society. Read more

Elizabeth Sculthorp and the Embodiments of Unbelief

By Patrick Seamus McGhee

Patrick is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. He is currently researching atheism and unbelief in post-Reformation England.

In 1519, Elizabeth Sculthorp was brought before the church courts in the diocese of Lincoln to explain her faltering religious belief. The court book reports that:

“First she says that since Whitsunday last she has not had perfect nor steadfast belief in God, nor since that time she had no manner good mind to come to the Church nor to serve God, and for the most part she has not come to the Church, and she has not believed in the holy sacrament of the altar, nor in any other sacrament of Holy Church. And since Candlemass last she has betaken herself and all her children to the devil and clearly forsaken God and the Church. She says she had never counsel of no manner hereunto, nor she never saw nor heard no evil spirit unto her. And she says she has not done any great offense to bring her into despair, nor her husband has not evil entreated her, but only this false belief was put into her mind, she knows now how, but only by the devil.” Read more