1950-1959 | Concentration camps | Detention without trial | Kenya | Torture

Colonial detention camps in Kenya worse than Japanese POW camps

16 June 1959

Today in 1959, the Labour MP Barbara Castle read out a letter in parliament she had received from the former assistant commissioner of police in Kenya, Duncan MacPherson. He had attempted to clear up some of the human rights abuses committed by colonial police and prison guards ‘until in despair, disgust and disillusion, he decided he could no longer waste his time in Kenya.’  Castle declared that the letter’s contents added weight to demands for an independent inquiry into the detention and treatment of suspect Mau Mau rebels and that they were a shocking admission of the wholesale brutality of the detention system which Britain operated in its colony.

‘I know,’ MacPherson had informed the MP, ‘that hundreds were just listed and detained on the whims of various clerks with no authority whatsoever and who acted from their likes and dislikes,’ adding that ‘I would say that the conditions I found existing in some camps in Kenya were worse, far worse, than anything I experienced in my four and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese. I was horrified. I could never satisfy myself as to why violence was being used, although it appeared that unless a person admitted Mau Mau activities, he was subjected to it until he did.’

‘What shocked me about the camps I saw,’ he concluded, ‘were the general conditions, the methods of interrogation and the appalling number of deaths I investigated in these camps which were as a result of violence… I had to investigate the deaths of several unfortunate inmates. I know that I was told by the Commissioner of Police to stop investigations into such things. I know that I refused and that is why I left Kenya a disgusted man.’1

The letter’s contents were shocking but succinct. They didn’t touch on any of the gruesome specifics of torture, some of the details of which have only become known recently.  Special Branch, who were nicknamed ‘Kenya’s SS’, were particularly adept at extracting confessions through the carefully calculated infliction of pain while unregistered screening centres, operated by settlers and tacitly approved of by Kenya’s Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, incited even greater fear. According to Professor Caroline Elkins, who’s book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya exposed the extent of colonial brutality, one such camp was run by a settler doctor known as ‘the Joseph Mengele of Kenya’, who is said to have burned the skin off detainees and made them eat their own testicles.2


  1. Barbara Castle MP cited in ‘Opposition Censure of Colonial Secretary,’ The Times, 17 June 1957, p. 4.
  2. Caroline Elikins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, The Bodley Head, London, 2014, p. 67 and Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007, p. 560.

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