1950-1959 | Kenya | Prisoners murdered

Eleven Kenyan political detainees murdered

A memorial to the Hola Massacre –
Photo by Jerome KL – Wikimedia.

3 March 1959

On 3 March 1959, prison guards at Hola, a remote mosquito infested prison in Kenya, were ordered to beat a group of 85 political detainees who had dared to complain that their forced labour assignment was an impossible task.  At the blow of a British officer’s whistle, five hundred askaris, armed with heavy batons, rained blow after blow on to the inmates, killing eleven and inflicting serious injuries on 77 more, of whom 23 were admitted for hospital treatment. Kenya’s colonial authorities issued a press release the following day, endorsed by the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, claiming that the men had died ‘after they had drunk water from a water cart,’ implying that contaminated water had caused their deaths.1

Time magazine commented that the British investigation into the incident seemed to be ‘strangely half-hearted, often clouded by deceit and outright lies.’2  Despite its findings, which acknowledged multiple blunt force injuries, broken teeth and facial bruises on the bodies of the deceased, it was decided that there was insufficient evidence and the case was closed.  ‘It is impossible,’ insisted the coroner, ‘to determine beyond reasonable doubt which injuries on the deceased were caused by justifiable and which by unjustifiable blows, and which injury or combination of injuries resulted in the shock and haemorhage causing death.’3 The Times noted that he also commented that the men killed were ‘an inner core of the hard core’ of the detainees, adding that ‘I sentenced one of them to death myself. They are the scraping of the barrel.’4

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, realising the potential political fallout if all the allegations were proven, decided that it was essential to deny the government’s responsibility and he insisted that neither Alan Lennox-Boyd, the colonial secretary, nor Sir Evelyn Baring, the governor, nor any other official should resign although the camp commandant, Michael Sullivan, who had ordered the massacre, was pressured into retiring early on a full pension.  Naturally, he escaped any legal censure or punishment.5 Governor Baring did, however, decide to change the name of the camp to Galole in the hope that the mass killing might be quickly forgotten.


  1. News report cited by Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, The Bodley Head, London, 2014, p. 344 and p. 347 and ‘Kenya: The Hola Scandal,’ Time, 8 June 1959.  Several reports claimed that the prisoners refused to work but detainee Paul Mahehu gave a detailed account of the incident to Caroline Elkins, claiming that the prisoners had merely complained that it was impossible for each prisoner to dig one hundred cubic feet of earth in the two hours allotted.
  2. ‘Kenya: The Hola Scandal,’ Time, 8 June 1959 cited in Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, Portobello Books, London, 2013, p. 87.
  3. Caroline Elkins, op. cit., p. 348.
  4. ‘Dead Mau Mau Detainess “The Scraping of the Barrel,”‘ The Times, 1 April 1959, p. 8
  5. Caroline Elkins, op. cit., p. 350.

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