Attempts by British colonial authorities to cover-up the killings of 11 prisoners during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya have been laid bare in previously secret Government documents.
No-one has ever been prosecuted for the deaths even though evidence showed the detainees at Hola detention camp were clubbed to death by prison warders after they refused to work.
But attempts by British officials to blame their deaths on “drinking too much water” rather than violence, and refusals to identify individuals involved, were revealed in the cache.
One of three elderly Kenyans, who last month won a High Court ruling to sue the British Government for damages over torture, claims he was beaten unconscious during the incident in March 1959.
The prison camp was one of many built during the uprising, in which suspected rebels were detained by British colonial forces, often in dire conditions, the Foreign Office files released by the National Archives showed.
Serious concerns about the clampdown were raised as far back as 1953, the second year of the uprising, when the then Solicitor General described reported abuses as “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia”, according to one of the documents.
Shortly before the Hola deaths, a plan had been drawn up by the authorities allowing prison staff to use force to make detainees work if they refused, the files showed.
But one prison officer, Walter Coutts, told the inquest into the Hola deaths that the detainees either “willed themselves to death or had died because they drank too much water”.
Another colonial official, Johannes Ezekiel, said he saw the camp commandant Michael Sullivan moving between groups of prison warders, and could “see perfectly well what was going on”.
But this was discounted by the Attorney General, who was in charge of criminal prosecutions, as it was “strongly suspected” that the official, who was Kenyan, met a prominent opposition nationalist politician in Nairobi shortly after the deaths.
On the day of the massacre, March 3, 1959, the Governor of Kenya, Evelyn Baring sent a secret telegram to the Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, informing him of the deaths.
In it he said there was “not the slightest indication that any force used had any connection with any of the deaths” even though some of the dead had “slight bruises” after “scuffles” with warders.
After post-mortem examinations revealed the deaths were caused by violence, the Commissioner of Prisons, who authorised the plan to use force, wrote to the Attorney General and the Kenyan chief secretary saying he had warned there were risks.
The secret letter said of the plan to use force: “In fairness to the Officers concerned and the Department there was always a risk involved in its operation and this was pointed out by me in writing at the time.”
After the inquest, the Attorney General Eric Griffith-Jones caused uproar in Britain after announcing that no charges could be brought against any individuals. He said the magistrate in charge of the inquest found detainees’ evidence to be “blatant lies” and that of prison staff “unimpressive and evasive”.
The Hola deaths signalled the beginning of the end of Britain’s clampdown on the Mau Mau uprising as colonial authorities began to close prison camps around Kenya in the following years.
Kenya declared independence from Britain in 1963.