Hola camp was established to house detainees classified as “hard-core.” By January 1959 the camp had a population of 506 detainees of whom 127 were held in a secluded “closed camp.” This more remote camp was reserved for the most uncooperative of the detainees. They often refused, even when threats of force were made, to join in the colonial "rehabilitation process" or perform manual labour or obey colonial orders. The camp commandant outlined a plan that would force 88 of the detainees to bend to work. On 3 March 1959, the camp commandant put this plan into action – as a result of which 11 of the detainees were clubbed to death by guards. All the 77 surviving detainees sustained serious permanent injuries.
Attempted cover-up by colonial officials
The first report to surface about this incident was in the East African Standard. The front-page article reported that ten died at the Hola detention camp. The paper quoted the "official statement" from the colonial authorities: “The men were in a group of about 100 who were working on digging furrows. The deaths occurred after they had drunk water from a water cart which was used by all members of the working party and the guards.”
More information about the incident emerged in the weeks that followed the initial reports. An investigation into the deaths ensued and it was discovered that the 11 detainees did not die of drinking foul water, but as a result of violence. The medical examiner said, “They had died from either lung congestion or shock and hemorrhage following multiple bruises and other injuries.” The coroner reported, “The injuries of a number of Mau Maus apparently were consistent with their allegations that uncooperative prisoners had been beaten by guards, apparently with the consent of the commandant." A report in the June 1959 edition of Time magazine entitled "The Hola Scandal" described the events. The report stated that, on 3 March 1959, 85 prisoners were marched outside and ordered to work but "dozens of the prisoners fell to the ground, refusing to work" and were beaten by the guards. When the assault had concluded, according to the magazine, 11 prisoners lay dying and another 23 needed hospital treatment.
Caroline Elkins' tells the story of the 'Hola Massacre' in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, (2005), pages 344-353. According to Elkins, much of the story of the British and Colonial administration was covered-up during the transition to independence in Kenya, and many official documents had been intentionally destroyed during the transition. Elkins, by carefully tracing available original documents and interviews with surviving Kenyans and colonial staff, indicates that part of Hola Prison was used as a remote punishment camp for 'hard core' Mau Mau insurgents who refused to recant their oaths or affiliation to the movement. Physical and psychological abuse were used to 'break' detainees, so they could be 'rehabilitated' and moved out of the concentration camp pipeline and back to Kikuyu reservations.
Once the inquiry findings were made public, the opposition members in the House of Commons called for a debate. Increasing adverse publicity and calls for further investigations of human rights abuses in the camps lead to a reduction in UK governmental support for the Kenya Colony's administration, and resulted in accelerated moves towards Kenyan independence. As recently as 2011 Kenyans were still seeking compensation for British Mau Mau 'torture'.
The Colonial government in Britain attempted to change the name of the location from Hola to Galole. Some have made the claim that this was an attempt by the colonial authorities in Kenya to confuse people in hope that they would forget the incident that occurred there.
Some of the early accounts do not even mention this incident, partly because many of the early accounts are either British government- or colonial-supported publications or secondary texts. Most of the secondary texts published during first decade or so after the Emergency were sympathetic to the British/Colonist/Loyalist point of view.
Reactions and aftermath
The negative publicity put pressure on the British parliament to take action to salvage Britain's deteriorating image. Colonial detention camps were closed throughout Kenya, and the prisoners were freed soon after. Attempts were then made to find a solution to maintaining British interests in Africa without the use of force, indirectly leading to a hastening of independence across British-colonised Africa.
- Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit (Vintage, 2003), p. 327.
- Maloba, Wunyabari O. Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt.(Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN: 1993) p.142-143.
- Horrors of Hola detention camp 22 April 2004
- East African Standard, 5 March 1959, p.1. This first report indicates that only 10 detainees died, but as other later reports said it was actually 11 who perished.
- Wild, Rose (4 April 2011). "No redeeming feature: The Times on the Mau Mau deaths cover-up". thetimes.co.uk. Retrieved 30 May 2012. "The warders claimed that they had died 'after drinking water', and although clear evidence was found that they had been beaten to death, no individuals were ever prosecuted."
- New York Times. 23 March 1959. p.2.
- KENYA: The Hola Scandal. Time (8 June 1959). Retrieved on 2010-07-24.
- Caroline Elkins, 'Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya',(2005), pages 344-353
- "Kenyans seek compensation for British Mau Mau 'torture'". CNN World. April 7, 2011.
- Itote, Waruhiu. Mau Mau in Action. (Nairobi: Transafrica Books, 1979) p.184-185.
- The Daily Nation (15 April 2004) Kikuyu hammered on the Anvil.
- 'Macmillan and the winds of change in Africa, 1957–60', Ritchie Ovendale, Historical Journal 38,2 (1995)
- Kabukuru, Wanjohi. (1 December 2003) New African, "Kenya: The Hola massacre" Page 34.
- Clayton, Anthony. (1976) African Affairs, "Counter Insurgency in Kenya: A Study of the Military Operations against the Mau Mau." Transafrica Publishers. ISBN 0-89745-061-2
- Mburu, Stephen. (30 April 2000) The Daily Nation , "How detention was used to break people. Archived 18 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine"
- Nissimi, Hilda. (Spring 2006) Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, "Mau Mau and the decolonisation of Kenya.[dead link]" Publisher: Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. Vol. 8, Issue 3.
- Preston, Peter. (16 January 2005) The Observer "Our Guantánamo."
- Simpson, Brian. (Spring, 2002) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, "The Devlin Commission (1959): Colonialism, Emergencies, and the Rule of Law." Page. 17.
- Slaughter, Barbara. (15 September 1999) Hartford Web Publishing How Britain crushed the ‘Mau Mau rebellion’; Channel Four TV's Secret History—Mau Mau.
- The Daily Nation (22 April 2004) "Horrors of Hola detention camp."
- The Daily Nation (8 April 2004) "The road to blood bath at Hola Camp."
- "Macmillan and the winds of change in Africa, 1957–60", Ritchie Ovendale, Historical Journal 38, 2 (1995)