Who is the Savage and Who the Hero?
The almost unanimous presentation of the conflict over the publication of cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad as an issue of free speech, papers over the fact that it’s part of a fairly systematic propaganda campaign against Muslims in Europe and the U.S. in recent years.
This is not new. The assault belongs on a long historical list with the dehumanization of Africans to justify slavery, of Irish Catholics to justify British conquest of Ireland, of Indians to justify the takeover of the “New” world, of Jews and Slavs to justify Nazi conquest, and of various peoples to justify colonialism.
The almost forgotten case of the 1952 “Mau Mau” rebellion in Kenya is an instructive case in point.
The British press was very successful in creating its own “spin” on the rebellion. Historian Caroline Elkins tells us that “Mau Mau was portrayed as a barbaric, anti-European and anti-Christian sect that had reverted to tactics of primitive terror to interrupt the British civilizing mission in Kenya.”
The real story that Elkins manages to piece together (the colonial government destroyed its own documents in giant bonfires as it retreated from Kenya in 1963) is one of a people, the Kikuyu, fighting for “land and freedom” against white settlers who had taken all their best land and forced them to work as impoverished, menial laborers; of British troops and settlers launching a savage counterattack that killed at the minimum tens of thousands of Kikuyu; and of mass detention camps being set up for hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu.
In order to try and make Kenya profitable, the British built a railroad and brought in several thousand settlers to Kenya’s fertile highlands, where they took over and ran giant estates consciously modeled on the American South, expelling the local population and forcing them to live on the fringes of what now officially became known as the White Highlands.
But in order to produce lucrative cash crops, they needed a labor force.
The expropriation of African land was the first step, “freeing” the Kikuyu from their traditional lands and forcing them onto “tribal reserves” where they could not produce enough food for subsistence, and where they were forbidden to produce cash crops. A system of monetary taxation and a pass system were also imposed to compel Africans to work on white plantations.
The British also imposed a system of colonial “chiefs” over the Africans who acted as British collaborators (the Kikuyu had before then had no chiefs), whose rule was enforced by corruption and repression.
The Kenya African Union, led by Jomo Kenyatta, began organizing to fight the injustices of British rule in the 1940s. The movement mushroomed into mass proportions after a group of 3,000 Black squatters forced out of the White Highlands took a blood oath to stand together against British injustice “even if it meant death.”
The oath spread like wildfire through the Kikuyu, who’d had enough. After a group of armed Kikuyu killed a hated chief in 1952, the white settlers launched a massive all-out war against the Kikuyu, which became a protracted, defensive hit-and-run guerrilla conflict.
Many white settlers clamored for the extermination of all 1.5 million Kikuyu. One colonial official said that the Kikuyu had to be “removed” from society. “The only good Kuke is a dead kuke” was a popular refrain.
The London Daily Telegraph called Jomo Kenyatta “a small-scale Adolph Hitler.” The white settlers were portrayed as heroes, the Mau Mau as brutal savages. In short, the genocidal conquerors attributed to anyone who resisted conquest qualities that in truth they possessed in full measure.
In the end, it is possible that the British killed hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu to suppress the rebellion and placed even more in concentration camps. The story of the Mau Mau has chilling similarities with the way the U.S. ruling class portrays resistance to their occupation in Iraq today.
D’Amato is a
contributing writer to
Thanks to Alan Maass