On 3 March 1959, eleven Mau Mau detainees were beaten to death by their British guards amid an attempt to force the prisoners to undertake manual labour. What is now known as the Hola Camp Massacre has widely been seen as a seminal moment, one that undermined the legitimacy of the British Empire. In a celebrated Commons speech on the affair, Enoch Powell declared that it was not possible to have ‘African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home […] We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.’
Yet it is intriguing to ask why this particular episode of colonial violence became a cause célèbre when previous comparable episodes of imperial violence (such as the Batang Kali killings in Malaya in 1948) had not.
Historians have portrayed the massacre not merely as ‘the decisive event in Kenya’s path to independence’, but also as a moment ‘which signalled the moral end of the British Empire in Africa’. This was, it is said, the juncture when everyone realised that Britain’s imperial game was finally up. Certainly, the death of the detainees at the hands of their warders was acknowledged, even by the colonial authorities in Kenya and the British government in London, to have been absolutely regrettable. The Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, admitted that the deaths were ‘tragic and shocking’, adding: ‘It is a terrible thing to have happened under British rule.’
But even if everybody could agree that the deaths should not have happened, there was no consensus as regards the episode’s implications. From the point of view of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, the incident was extremely unfortunate, but needed to be seen in the broader context in which it had arisen: that is, that of an allegedly successful programme to rehabilitate former Mau Mau, a programme that had seen the numbers in detention camps fall dramatically, leaving behind a hard core of difficult-to-manage irreconcilables. For the Labour Opposition, by contrast, the events formed a terrible indictment of British colonial rule, and demonstrated a disdain for the lives of Africans, of which the Tory efforts at contextualisation were merely additional evidence. This attitude, it was claimed, threw into jeopardy the entire future of the Commonwealth.
But did the debates thus reflect a genuine clash of world-views? Or were they merely the quest for party political advantage? Or perhaps damage limitation? And what can the contemporary arguments surrounding the massacre tell us about the relationship between rhetoric and imperial decline?
In his defence of the government, Lennox-Boyd drew upon longstanding discourses about the allegedly redemptive power of forced labour. ‘The Hola camp affair has at least highlighted the tremendous amount of good rehabilitation work being done in Kenya’, he told the Daily Mail, in an interview published at the height of the political crisis. He thus presented a broader picture of a successful, progressive and humane Kenyan regime, against which backdrop the events at Hola were simply an appalling aberration. At the same time, by labelling the massacre as a highly regrettable disaster that had been caused by minor misunderstandings and mistakes, in spite of the authorities’ best intentions, he and his supporters helped ensure that the scandal was successfully surmounted in the short term.
A general election was held in October 1959, a few months after the massacre. A contemporary survey of election addresses found that 32% of Labour candidates and 20% of Liberal ones mentioned Hola, whereas no Conservatives did. The Conservatives did, however, react to a powerful indictment by James Callaghan, Shadow Colonial Secretary, in a TV election broadcast.
The Tory response the next evening featured an interview with Lennox-Boyd. Reiterating the standard line about the rehabilitative purpose of the camps, he added: ‘and sometimes of course when you take positive steps like that, tragedies occur, because the African warders – in this case African warders murdered these men – African warders may lose their head’. Undoubtedly the Conservatives felt defensive about the issue, but there is no evidence that it worked seriously to their disadvantage. When the votes were counted, they won a substantially increased majority.
Today, the Hola Camp massacre and its domestic reception have taken on a renewed significance as symbols simultaneously of what was wrong with the British Empire and right with the British national conscience. At the time, however, there was no clear agreement about what the massacre represented. Indeed, the moral meaning of Hola could only be comprehended within existing understandings of the colonial system within which it took place; and many contemporary British interpretations of that system saw it as essentially benign. Even an episode of mass murder cannot be understood in isolation from its context, and the question always remains, which context should be applied? No wonder, then, that within the heavily contested zone of decolonization, British power, and party politics, these eleven brutal deaths led to rhetorical polarisation rather than consensus.
This is a digest of a paper that Professor Toye will deliver at the Rhetoric of Empire conference on 22 May 2014
 David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2005, p. 326.
 Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, p. 263.
 D.E. Butler and Richard Rose, The British General Election of 1959, London, Macmillan, 1960, p. 132.