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‘A Very British Way of Torture’: Researching for a TV documentary

Published: 19 January 2023 - Niels Boender

Earlier this year, Professor David Anderson and I took part in researching the Rogan Production’s documentary ‘A Very British Way of Torture’. It aired on Channel 4 in the UK in August, and internationally on Al Jazeera in December. The documentary considers the brutalities committed by the British state during the counterinsurgency campaign against the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960). It presents never-before-broadcasted evidence, drawn from the 2013 Hanslope Disclosure. These files were only revealed after a High Court case was lodged by Kenyan survivors of the State of Emergency against the British state. Since the Government settled this case out of court, the contents of the files were never openly aired. This documentary reveals their striking contents publicly for the first time to a general audience. In particular, it highlights the way in which the colonial government, with the full knowledge of the Colonial Secretary in London, suppressed evidence of atrocities and went so far as to institutionalise a regime of torture in Kenya’s detention camps. This augments the work of a generation of historians who have sought to elucidate the reign of terror which took place in Kenya during the 1950s. Besides these documents, the documentary also draws on testimony of Kenyan survivors of the violence, who movingly tell of their experiences in the camps at the hands of British forces.

A Very British Way of Torture

Figure 1. 'A Very British Way of Torture'. Image courtesy of Rogan Productions.

The producers were very open to telling a story focussed on the documents, that shed light not only on the actual atrocities, but also the bureaucratic obfuscation that accompanied it and continues to hamper historical inquiry to this day. Through Al Jazeera’s global distribution, Kenyans themselves can now see their own history, in the form of these documents, which were illegally removed before independence. The hope is that now the British National Archives will repatriate these documents to their home countries.

For the documentary, I personally helped supply the documentary evidence which I had copied during my own research at Kew. The documentary has provided an excellent opportunity to short-circuit the otherwise longwinded trickle-down process whereby detailed archival research percolates into public history. While as historians me and Professor Anderson supplied the raw historical material, it is the producers then take these to craft a narrative suitable for an hour-long historical program which supplies enough context for the uninitiated. After this scaffolding was constructed, they moved to interview a handful of commentators and survivors in Kenya, and a small set of historians in the UK. Personally, I spent a day being interviewed at a small studio in South London. You quickly find out that television producers want you to say things a lot snappier than a historian is used to! Thankfully this never detracted from the historical nuance or simply echoed some preconceived notion. Much of this material naturally ended on the cutting room floor, but I was very glad to see how they had pieced together a web of evidence and diverse voices into a comprehensive whole.

It is also worth noting where the documentary also sits among contemporary debates. Any historian of colonialism now naturally wades into a febrile ‘culture war’ where British culpability for past atrocities is magnified, mitigated, or denied altogether. The documentary itself faced allegations of unfairly treating the colonial camp commandants (although these complaints were formally dismissed by the television regulator Ofcom). As the documentary illustrates, it was in fact the “civilising mission” itself, now, as then, held up in right-wing circles as the principal motivator for British colonialism, which was used to authorise extreme violence in Kenya’s Emergency. New evidence such as we present in the film illustrates this logic of colonial violence, but also how brave individuals within Britain and Kenya tried to stand up to it at the time. As Professor Anderson states in the final peroration of the documentary, isn’t it principally unpatriotic to stand idly by while your country covers up torture? Is it not far more patriotic, and better for Britain’s standing in the world, to acknowledge past injustice?

Niels Boender is a third-year PhD Student at Warwick, working with the Imperial War Museum on a Collaborative Doctoral Project. His project concerns the legacies of the Mau Mau Uprising in colonial Kenya, investigating the interactions between colonial counterinsurgency and post-colonial politics.