The Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive is a remarkably rich source, comprising over 33,000 recordings relating to conflict since 1914. These mostly consist of interviews, several hours long, and provide a granular, rich, and often emotional oral history of Britain’s involvement in military conflicts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For a wide range of enquirers - from professional historians looking for primary sources to enthusiasts looking for first-hand accounts of specific battles - the Archive is unrivalled.

Oral histories need careful treatment as historical sources, on account of being the creations of the interviewer, as well as of the interviewee. Where a written archival source is frozen in time, interviews conducted at different points in an interviewee’s life may get an entirely different response, based on the questions asked, and the environment in which the interview is conducted. The interviews themselves, therefore, are products of the passage of history itself and changes of circumstance, reflecting the interests and prejudices of the interviewer and their wider context.

This is exemplified in the IWM interviews that deal with Britain’s late-colonial conflicts: Aden, Malaya and, the subject of my own studies, the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, which lasted from 1952 to 1960. The latter is documented in roughly sixty interviews in the IWM’s Archive, which range over several different respondents, from British privates to the colonial government’s Commissioner of Police Richard Catling and the Minister of Defence Anthony Swann. The interviews were conducted in the 1980s and 90s, when these men and women (now mostly deceased) had retired and were living in Britain.

Listening to these interviews one is struck by the narrowness of the questioning, and its deference to the sensibilities of the 1950s. Interviewees are repeatedly pressed to recount their memories of the enigmatic Jomo Kenyatta, alleged Mau Mau leader and first President of independent Kenya, whom most of those speaking had not in fact met. What we are left with, therefore, is opinion and speculation, often drawing on the established collective memory, which individuals tend to resort to if unable to provide detail based on their own personal experience. Remarkably, an interview with Terence John Image, who commanded several detention camps during the Kenya Emergency does not include any information about discipline or violence ‘behind the wire’.

Even in 1991 when the interview was done, there was widespread public knowledge of the brutality of the ‘Pipeline’. Parliamentary questions from Labour politicians including Tony Benn, Fenner Brockway and Barbara Castle, who received dozens petitions from Mau Mau detainees, had made brutality in the camps an unavoidable focus of public debate in the 1950s. While Image mentions the riots at Mageta, a detention camp on Lake Victoria, and the hanging of those who escaped this place of ‘rehabilitation’, the interviewer does not press him for any deeper reflection on what happened. What we are left with is the idealised image of British colonialism, the ‘stiff upper lip’, rather than a textured reflection on the experiences of a British young man who had grown up in the Blitz and who, in his first job overseas, with no prior experience, was sent to manage a prison, whose harsh practices were surely open to reflection. 

Obviously, these interviews do not reflect the entirety of the story, but this is not just the fault of interviewer and interviewee, trapped in the colonial discourse of their early adulthood, but also of the scope of the IWM’s project in acquiring these histories. While the museum was modernising at the time, unspoken constraints would have guided the interviewers’ questioning. For example, they would have been, at the very least, courteous to elderly veterans, and evidently held back from upsetting them with ‘difficult’ lines of questioning.  It is important to reflect on how far societal reflection on the colonial past had at that stage arrived within the IWM and if it had, which seems likely in an organisation which had a broadly young and politically aware staff, whether it was simply ‘set aside’ when it came to interviewing veterans of colonial campaigns.

There are though gaping absences in the Sound Archive: the voices of the civilian victims and the colonial state’s allies, and, most obviously, their Mau Mau opponents. The Uprising, as with all colonial wars, was marked by mutual misunderstandings and mistranslations, and the former soldiers and colonial civil servants continuously diagnosed the guerrillas’ motives. Racist myths predominated: guerrillas were ‘complete animal savages’ whose lives were looked on ‘very cheaply’. What one is left with is the package of ideas that the historian Dane Kennedy, writing in 1992, called ‘the colonial myth of Mau Mau’. This saw the anti-colonial effort as an atavistic ‘bestial campaign’ – the words of Richard Catling, one of the interviewees who later reconciled himself to Kenyatta, serving as his Inspector of Police after Kenya’s independence. Redressing this imbalance through oral history interviews with survivors in Kenya is therefore crucial.

Re-shaping the IWM’s relationship with Britain’s imperial past requires a more proactively inclusive and reimagined purpose for its collections. As the primary repository of actual voices of Britain’s military past, the IWM has a duty to provide public access to the powerful stories of Kenyan survivors of the conflict. This is already changing. The consequences of conflict and Britain’s relationship with the Empire and Commonwealth are at the heart of new curatorial strategies being taken forward by the museum. The 2020 ‘Collecting strategies and curator charter’ argues for a museum that ‘gives voice and agency to those affected by the changes wrought by Britain and the Commonwealth and its military engagements, just as we have represented and given voice to those that effect those changes’.

In my PhD work, I hope to conduct interviews with the remaining survivors of the Uprising: Home Guards, Mau Mau and citizens caught up in the conflict. These will hopefully go some way to providing a more complete picture, one which is sensitive to the legacies of colonial violence in a post-colonial context. Re-evaluating IWM’s collections of course goes beyond the Mau Mau. IWM’s coverage of the stories of both the role of colonial subjects during the two world wars (often exploitative and ruinous of lives and communities) and of decolonisation is being rebalanced across IWM’s remit.  While the time has long since passed to record the voices of Indian troops on the Western Front, or the Iraqi rebels bombed by the RAF in 1920, there is still time to record the subaltern memories of Britain’s late imperial conflicts, such as, for example, those of rank-and-file soldiers (not just white officers) of the King’s African Rifles. This would be an important step towards re-making the narrative of the Britain’s long and troubled story of decolonisation, from plucky colonial administrations defending democratic values to a more reflective and inclusive story that locates Britain firmly in its post-imperial present.

MAU 866, Loyalist Kenyan soldiers, members of the Rift Valley Home Guard, take on members of the Royal Irish Fusiliers at tug-of-war.
MAU 866 © IWM
Loyalist Kenyan soldiers, members of the Rift Valley Home Guard, take on members of the Royal Irish Fusiliers at tug-of-war. Throughout the conflict, British troops operated in close cooperation with loyalist Kenyans, however the latter were barred from promotion above the ranks of District Officer until the early 1960s. Racial hierarchies are evident, with the Home Guards stripped down to their undershirts.