1950-1959 | Backing Apartheid | Collective punishments | Concentration camps | Kenya

Thousands of black Nairobians transported to concentration camps

Soldiers search suspect Mau Mau rebels during an unrelated operation. All photos on this website for illustrative purposes only. © IWM (MAU 865).

24 April 1954

On 24 April 1954, British troops, under orders from General Sir George Erskine, started to round up thousands of Africans living in Nairobi and deport them to  concentration camps. The operation was part of a deliberate policy of apartheid and collective punishment aimed at crushing the nationalist Mau Mau insurgency.  Military vehicles with loudspeakers appeared without warning in the streets, commanding everyone to exit their homes immediately. Those who delayed even moments to pack, found their doors to their homes beaten down with kicks and rifle butts.1

During the following five weeks, the operation code-named Anvil, resulted in the forced detention of 50,000 from Nairobi. Of these about 20,000 were identified by hooded informers as suspect Mau Mau activists or sympathisers.  They were taken to Langata Prison where they faced onward transfers to other detention centres, forced labour, torture and years of imprisonment without trial.2 These detainees included Christian Africans who had denounced the Mau Mau but couldn’t even be rescued when Archdeacon Peter Bostock, armed with letters of recommendation, visited Langata and managed to identify several of them after wandering around the overcrowded wire pens.3

For the other 30,000 detained there was no evidence of any collusion but their loyalties were deemed suspect. Many of them were transferred to remote reserves far from Nairobi and other areas of white settlement. Kikuyu inhabitants, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, among whom the Mau Mau rebellion had originated, were regarded with particular suspicion.  Those without an identity card, a permanent place of residence or evidence of long term employment were automatically transported to the reserves, leaving behind their possessions in custody in Nairobi. Thousands, who no experience of rural life, now found themselves forced into large barbed wire enclosures where they were expected to fend for themselves and construct their own homes.4

Conditions in the camps became increasingly overcrowded as Nairobians were joined by hundreds of thousands more herded into them, following ‘collective punishment’ measures against ‘uncooperative’ villages. By the time the camps were disbanded in the late 1950s, many thousands had died from diseases related to poor sanitation and nutrition, such as dysentery, typhoid, pellagra and tuberculosis. Estimates vary greatly as to the total number of fatalities, which were never counted precisely at the time and it is unlikely that we shall ever know how many Nairobians or other Kenyans lost their lives as a result of their internment.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, The Bodley Head, London, 2014, pp. 121-3.
  2. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, Phoenix, London, 2005, pp. 200-205.
  3. Ibid., pp. 206 – 207.
  4. Ibid., pp. 200 – 212.

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