The title pops up like a fungus in the forest floor of the television schedules. A Very British this, a Very British that. A scandal, a coup, a murder. What the formulation implies is that beneath the mask of our very British propriety we are capable of very British hypocrisy. And so to A Very British Way of Torture (Channel 4), which cast its mind back to British Kenya Colony and the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion.
Kenya was a late addition to the pink parts of the imperial map. It was colonised in 1920, largely for the richly fertile lands which the white settlers soon claimed, having a jolly good time of it too. “Relations on the farm seemed to be very cordial,” remembered a bemused old farmer whose grandfather had arrived before the Great War. That wasn’t the recollection of Gitu Wa Kahengeri: “If you did not called a settler ‘master’ you have committed a crime and you were liable to be put in prison,” he remembered. “And therefore I said, ‘No, this is not to continue.’”
The rebellion began in 1952. Within a dozen years the Duke of Edinburgh in full fig was all smiles as he ceremonially handed Kenya back to the Kenyans. Meanwhile, we learned, somewhere near Milton Keynes in a manor owned by the Foreign Office, 1,500 documents containing evidence that the colonial authorities raped, tortured and murdered its Mau Mau prisoners, and that the British government knew about it all along, remained top secret.
With plenty of illuminating archive footage, the story revealed in the so-called Hanslope papers was revisited in all its grisliness. In another world – on the radio, say, or in a podcast – the survivors of rape and torture who took part would have had the floor to themselves. But their memories, doled out in short snippets, fed into a wider story about Britain’s vexed relationship with its past, and the unresolved culpabilities of Empire.
The phalanx of contributing historians, British and Kenyan, are at the forefront of this debate. First among equals here was David Anderson, a professor of African history at the University of Warwick who professed his patriotism but declared himself “very offended by the fact that people who represent my country might think it’s OK to torture someone”. There’s something very British about his outrage too.