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Erskine: The General who came to stop colonial abuse of Kenyans

By Hudson Gumbihi | Dec 17th 2021 | 2 min read

General George Watkin Erskine arrived in the country in June 1953. [Courtesy]

The stint of General George Watkin Erskine was a moment of reflection for the colonial military in Kenya.

Erskine arrived in the country in June 1953 to take charge of the military, which had notoriety of torturing Mau Mau insurgents.

As much as Mau Mau were rebelling, Erskine believed that unless they were fought professionally, the counter-insurgency war was lost.

Even though British officers blamed the excesses on home guards and African police, Erskine found the contrary - it was the white security agents who were the perpetrators.

“Among the Kenya police reservists and Kenya regiment, the bullyboys, thugs and racists were having a field day, unconstrained and ill-disciplined. They had become brash and proud in their excess, disregarding possible consequences,” wrote David Anderson in his book Histories of the Hanged.

The hatred for Africans was so blatant that some regiments, like one code-named Devons, had a price tag on the head of insurgents captured or killed. At the Devons camp, there was a scoreboard on killings and soldiers received a ‘bonus’ for each Mau Mau rebel accounted for.

Within some platoons of the King’s African Rifles (KAR), discipline appeared to have broken down completely. Mistreatment and shooting of prisoners was the norm.

Enraged, Erskine moved to put an end to these inhumane acts by first dispatching the brigade commander of the KAR back to Britain. The general then issued a warning letter to all officers of the army and police.

“But I most strongly disapprove of beating up the inhabitants of this country just because they are the inhabitants. I hope this has not happened in the past and will not happen in the future. Any indiscipline of this kind would do great damage to the reputation of the security forces and make our task in settling Mau Mau much more difficult,” read part of the letter.

Despite the warning, the problems persisted. But Erskine had succeeded in bringing notable improvement in the behaviour of army regiments.

After the dismissal of the KAR brigade commander followed a court-martial of Captain Gerald Griffiths.

Griffiths, a Second World War veteran, was a sadist accused of shooting two prisoners with a Sten gun at close range. Before the murders, Griffiths and his platoon had subjected the men to torture and humiliation, including cutting off an ear.

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