30 Pieces of Weregild


It seems that old enemies can become new friends. Old wounds can and are forgiven. But only if a price is paid. Blood money was the old fashioned term, or Weregild if you prefer the Anglo-Saxon term. Today it has fallen into disuse and has been replaced with a more politically correct term: Compensation. The British Government yesterday moved to begin paying compensation to the surviving members of the Mau Mau Rebellion.[1] The Mau Mau, dominated by members of the Kikuyu tribe, had fought for improved conditions for their people and for an end to British Colonial Rule in eastern Africa. In turn, the British had been engaging in a series of low-intensity actions against the Kikuyu and native Kenyans throughout British rule in the region. More than once this culminated in large-scale massacres. Winston Churchill himself once commented that,

160 [Gusii – native tribespeople] have now been killed outright without any further casualties on our side. . . . It looks like a butchery [sic]. If the H. of C. [House of Commons] gets hold of it, all our plans in E.A.P. [East African Protectorate – Kenya] will be under a cloud. Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.


The compensation on offer equates to roughly £5,000 per living member of the insurgent force. As in other colonial ‘police actions’ fought by the British Government, a policy of internment was to feature in Kenya. The Mau Mau and suspected sympathisers were arrested and detained in large concentration camps. In these facilities a level of depravity unfolded that is scarcely possible to comprehend. Official records catalogue numerous instances,

of murder and rape by British military personnel…including an incident where an African baby was “burnt to death”, the “defilement of a young girl”, and a soldier in Royal Irish Fusiliers who killed “in cold blood two people who had been his captives for over 12 hours”.[2]

British colonial authorities not only knew of the extreme lengths which the colonial forces and the British Army were going to, but they also tacitly sanctioned such acts as being a necessary evil. Sir Evelyn Baring [Governor of Kenya],

Was aware of the “extreme brutality” of the sometimes-lethal torture meted out—which included “most drastic” beatings, solitary confinement, starvation, castration, whipping, burning, rape, sodomy, and forceful insertion of objects into orifices—but took no action.[3]

This is not to say that the Mau Mau were innocent themselves; they too committed massacres, such as the burnings at Lari, but any retaliation was always disproportionate. A point to note is that during the rebellion the British reputedly killed over 20,000 Kenyans, including over a thousand executions; to put this in context, David Anderson believes the figure to be more than twice the number of executions carried out by the French during the Algerian War.[4]

This ‘sea change’ by the current British government should be viewed in context. Africa is quickly returning to vogue for the world’s superpowers. The US government has established an African Command for its military forces and is seeking to not only root out Islamic militancy in the continent, but also to counter a noticeable growth in Chinese influence in the region. For the British, the depravity of the Mau Mau counter-insurgency is a painful memory, one which they tried to avoid by hiding official records for decades. However with the British Army still using Kenya as a strategic training location, the rise in interest in African raw materials and the need to head off a problematic and massive lawsuit by survivors, the Conservative led government has chosen to offer compensation to the surviving victims.

What will this mean for survivors of other conflicts with British involvement. It is perhaps too late for the Boers (victims of the first official British internments), or the Volunteers from the Anglo-Irish War, 1919-1921. But what about the survivors of the Malaysian Emergency, Aden, the Jewish Insurgency in Palestine and last but not least the counter-insurgency operations of the British state in Northern Ireland. British counter-insurgency actions in Aden and Palestine are well documented in terms of their barbarity; the Palestinian Gendarmarie and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were lucky that the International Criminal Court had not yet come into being, such was the extremely questionable nature of their actions. Legal challenges have already been taken against the British state by Irish ex-prisoners and compensation has been paid in some cases, however this pales when one considers the tens of thousands of people who could potentially pursue civil actions against the Crown.

Such an action might bankrupt Britain: an initial claim for compensation was lodged at £5 billion![5]

Such an action might forever change the manner in which she engages with the world beyond her shores, making violent counter-insurgency actions simply too costly to bear.

[4] David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).

About eamonntgardiner

Dr. Eamonn T. Gardiner, is a Consulting Historian. He has previously conducted research into links between wartime traumatic-neurosis and evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst veterans of the First World War serving as Auxiliary Policemen, during the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921. He has written extensively on British central and colonial administrative responses to popular insurgencies. In 2009 he published 'Counterinsurgency and Conflict: Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War (CSP, 2009).' Published papers include; 'The training of the Irish Volunteers, 1913-1916' (The Irish Sword, 2017); 'Scattered, Ambushed and Laid Out: War and Counterinsurgency in the greater Tuam area, 1919-1921' (JOTS, 2015). Research interests include De-Colonialisation/Post-Colonialism; Insurgency, Police/Military Histories; Institutional Histories; Modern Irish/World History; History of Conflict, Protectorates and Peace-Keeping; Hegemony; Old and New Terrorism.
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2 Responses to 30 Pieces of Weregild

  1. Hi Eamonn,
    I’m doing some research for an upcoming BBC history series and we’re hoping to cover some of the history of the Irish War of Independence. I’m looking into the murder of an Irish Volunteer in 1920, and it would be great to speak to you a little about it and hear your perspective on some of the evidence we have (the case was never officially solved).
    Would you be available to speak on the phone at some point over the next few days, do you think? My email address is hannah.richards@walltowall.co.uk.
    Best wishes and thanks in advance,

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