It’s the Principle

Frustration and Conflict in Colonial Kenya

In the archives of the University of Oxford’s Weston Library sit six folios of private and official documents. They cover the years Sir Arthur Edwin Young spent seconded to the Gold Coast, Malaya and Kenya, to coordinate the reform of the colonial police forces in preparation for those countries’ independence. Two of the documents are not available, access still blocked today by a government ruling. They come from the time of his resignation in Kenya, and their hidden state was the inspiration for this article.

Sir Arthur Edwin Young

Young is hardly a household name, but he was an admirable, principled man who had a fascinating life. He believed deeply in the transformation of police ‘forces’ into police ‘services’, instilling in officers and their superiors a sense of their place as supporters of communities, rather than law enforcers. He was a strong believer in Robert Peel’s idea that promotion to leadership in the police should be from the bottom up, rewarding on merit officers who had been raised and trained in line with this ‘service’ ideology. He proved remarkably successful in achieving these aims, first in Hertfordshire, then the London Metropolitan Police, and finally as Commissioner of the City of London Police. He was the first ‘beat bobby’ to be made a Commissioner, a fantastic achievement in its own right.

In 1948, the Malayan ‘Emergency’ began, a communist insurgency which would eventually last for more than a decade. It was a bloody and vicious affair, with many different High Commissioners and police officials trying to find ways to end it. In 1952, Arthur Young was sent to the colony to try and reform a police force which had been for a some time essentially a military one. He was shocked and deeply troubled by the policing culture he found there, but with the support of the High Commissioner Sir Gerald Templer, he was successful in bringing his own ideals to the service and effecting a great deal of change. He left Malaya in 1953, rightly praised for his positive and determined efforts.

Frustration: Kenya, 1954

If his experience in Malaya had acted as proof of the efficacy of Young’s ideals and methods in certain conditions, his next placement was to prove their limitations in others. In a sense, the factors which allowed for the successful implementation of police reform and the establishment of a police ‘service’ rather than a police ‘force’ in the Asian colony were entirely converse to those in Kenya. Young’s resignation nine months into his contract could be seen to have signified an uncharacteristic admission of defeat, but was more likely a pointed withdrawal in disgust at conditions in the colony and the resistance he constantly faced.

After his term of service in Malaya, Young had returned to his position in the City of London Police with an assurance that he would not once again find himself drafted into a colonial situation which would take him away from the position and career he intended to pursue. Ultimately this was not to be the case, yet he accepted the position in Kenya on the proviso that it would be for no more than two years, to allow him to continue with the London Police and avoid becoming trapped in a colonial career. In preparation for the inclusion of his private and official papers in the University of Oxford’s colonial collection, Young wrote an extensive, revealing and valuable narrative to give background and explanation of the contents of the files. The narrative also allowed him to express his opinions and concerns regarding the situation in the country.

The history of the settlement of Kenya and its development as a colony could not have been more different to that of Malaya. The societies which the British encountered on their arrival were markedly different in structure, outlook, administration and, from a traditional European perspective, sophistication. The purposes to which British authorities attempted to put their new territorial gains and the means by which they did so were also quite different, although in one aspect, that of the role of white agriculturalists, there are interesting parallels. As in Malaya, these factors all contributed to the construction of a socio-political situation in Kenya which would have a direct bearing on Arthur Young’s experience and achievements there.

One fundamental difference that created a radically different outcome for the story of Kenya from that of Malaya was the creation of the state itself. Rather than the clear political boundaries and structures of rule that had existed in Malaya under the Malayan sultans, Kenya had found itself quite arbitrarily forced into being. Within such a framework, it would have been hard for any previously-extant system of rule to have continued to have exercised its powers effectively. As it was, no system of regional governorship which would have been likely to have been accepted as legitimate by the British authorities existed. Instead, Kenya was peopled by various tribes, most of them nomadic, the largest of which was the agrarian society of the Kikuyu. As a people settled in agricultural communities, the Kikuyu may have seen themselves as superior to the other tribes who still wandered the land and had found themselves pushed further and further afield by steady Kikuyu expansion, exclusion and a death penalty for any who intruded on the land of the more powerful and organised group. Yet if the Kikuyu would not have represented a regional power for British authorities, within their society things may have been quite different. In his intriguing anthropological study of his own people, Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta asserted that prior to European arrival, Kikuyu society had been run as a true democracy with its own constitution and council with representatives from every village.

This system would not necessarily have benefited mass white migration and the establishment of a permanent settler community in the White Highlands, rather than the familiar pattern of elevation and relationships with individual tribal chiefs that had been employed elsewhere in the Empire. The arrival of the white settlers, encouraged even further after the Second World War with a programme of promoting the settling of ex-servicemen and their families with generous benefits and support, intensified the emphasis on policies for their protection, to the detriment of the African population. As time went by, the political strength of the settlers went beyond what would normally be expected of citizens in a colonial setting, to the point of aggressive demands, backed at times with a threat of force, for the same constitution as that in Southern Rhodesia to be established in Kenya. By the time of Young’s arrival in the colony, friction between administration and settlers had not abated, with the Governor in particular being a constant target for abuse and at least once…the subject of an abduction plot. Finding himself in such an environment, so different to that in Malaya, Young could not help but see his job for what it was, an uphill struggle.

This struggle was made no easier by the history of the colonial police in Kenya. Since the establishment of the colony, the police had always acted under direct command of the central administration and the armed forces, a situation favoured by soldiers and the military leadership. As early as 1907, long before Young’s arrival on the scene, the authorities in Whitehall had been keen on some kind of reform of this system, yet although it had been attempted, the police continued as a quasi-military force. With such an entrenched culture of the police as an extension of the military with no autonomy whatsoever, combined with a deeply-embedded culture of impunity, the system in Kenya represented the antithesis of all that Young held to be necessary and right in policing. Earlier, in 1953, a commissioner’s report described exactly the kind of problems Young would face on his arrival. It found that police recruited in large numbers over the previous year had no true understanding of what their duties entailed, nor of what their role in the community was intended to be. Training in these important areas had been curtailed to allow for the rapid deployment of new recruits as a result of the outbreak of Kenya’s own ‘Emergency’, the Mau Mau Rebellion. The events, methods and attitudes which characterised this period of conflict are infamous and need little exploration here beyond some scene-setting. Still controversial to this day, police brutality in response to the savage attacks by the Mau Mau rebels was extreme. Mass shootings of suspects were held without any attempt to hide what was taking place. Kikuyu people were placed in concentration camps in huge numbers. Torture of suspects appears to have been standard practice and the Governor himself voiced the opinion that a form of ‘counter-terror’ was desirable in fighting the insurgency. It would be a challenge to conceive of any situation in which principles of policing stood more at odds with Young’s ideals.

Police guarding suspected Mau Mau rebels


Arthur Young was a man of great personal conviction and confidence. Personal conviction and a desire to overcome any obstacle in the pursuit of what one perceives as righteous goals are, as long as one shares the view of the goals as righteous, admirable traits, well worthy of support and emulation. This feeling is particularly strong when the resistance to the actions of that person is as strong as the convictions themselves. Yet even the most intelligent, thoughtful and principled person can, when so driven, fall victim to moments of lack of self-awareness and blindness to the realities of the situation. During his tenure in Kenya, Young was no exception in this regard, although his later actions do represent some acceptance of the necessity of compromise.

Bolstered by his success in Malaya and the very public praise he had received as a result, on accepting the position in Africa, Young lost no time in asserting himself strongly. After a lightning visit to the colony prior to taking up the position of Commissioner of Police officially, he actively lobbied cabinet members for the replacement of both the governor and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Hardly actions designed to create a pleasant working relationship with the administration, particularly as they were not taken up, Young made matters worse by publicly denouncing the Kenyan leadership in The Times. Perhaps such behaviour shows the level of his confidence at the time, yet that confidence had doubtless developed out of his experience of a close and positive working relationship with Gerald Templer and others in Malaya. With little-to-no bars imposed on his methods and demands in South East Asia, naturally he had achieved a great level of success. However, if he had expected the same headstrong and demanding approach to encourage the same level of cooperation and support in Kenya, a place with a markedly different political and cultural climate, he was sorely mistaken and had risked jeopardising the success of his efforts before he had even arrived on site. Because the settler population was frequently hostile to the administration as whole and to what was perceived as its intrusion into settler affairs and a lack of support for their interests, potentially making enemies among the government officials would inevitably make his job all that more difficult.

Kikuyu men in a concentration camp
Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templer, an ally.

All of this is not to suggest that Young received no support for his moves in Kenya, nor that he had an entirely negative experience of working within the administration. He described his relations with Sir Evelyn Baring, the Governor of the colony, as pleasant and courteous, but asserted that he was seen not as a colleague as with Templer in Malaya, but a subordinate official about whom no special consideration applied. Of particular concern and particularly damaging was Baring’s refusal to allow Young to be present at any high-level policy meetings, in spite of him holding a place on the national War Council. Whether this was a decision made purely for reasons of political propriety or that it grew out of resentment of Young’s criticism of the administration is difficult to assess from the documents available, but without a doubt it would have had anything but a positive influence on the Commissioner’s feelings and room for manoeuvre.

Sir Evelyn Baring, an obstacle.

It was in his attempts to confront the core problems in society and policing where Young would find himself undermined. He received no replies to letters sent to the Governor expressing fear of the level of violence being carried out by some branches of the security services. Demands that he expand rather than reduce the size of police auxiliary forces prompted him to declare his intention to resign rather than do so. Repeatedly his insistence that the police needed psychological and moral reform through a redefinition of their place as part of society was met with the same answer, that the ‘time was not yet ripe’ in East Africa.

Towards the end of his stay, Young was granted permission to present his arguments in favour of the separation of the police from the central administration and military control before colonial ministers in what he saw as a last-ditch attempt to persuade them of the value of the plan. As he had already done so to no avail in talks and attempted correspondence with individuals including the Governor, the frustration in his preparatory notes and draft of the presentation is palpable. He described the police as having been ‘sick’, both physically and mentally. He described himself as a ‘specialist’ called in to treat the sickness, asserting that while the physical malady – a lack of organisation and material needs – may have been successfully treated by that point in time, the mental issues still had a long way to go. Such a striking choice of language is absent from most other documents in his files and whether it was intended to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the lack of support he had received or not, ministers did not act favourably. Key among their responses were two main points.

The first was a concern that the authority and position of District Commissioners would be jeopardised if the police were no longer under their direct control, allowing Africans with complaints to bypass them and deal with the police and Commissioner directly. The role of the District Commissioners was seen as vital and more suitable to what was perceived to be the kind of authority the African population would understand. Young saw the role of the District Commissioners as essentially problematic. Their ability to shut down investigations arbitrarily had, in his opinion, developed a reluctance on the part of individual officers to engage in painstaking and enthusiastic work when there was a high probability of it being neutralised by the local authorities.

The second argument against Young’s suggestion was that illiterate locals were not yet ready for such a move and would be unable to understand its value or how it would work. This was also seen to be the case with illiterate police officers. Young had accepted the difficulties in dealing with illiterate police and had still attempted to involve them in learning more than merely how to control the population and to do more than train them in the role of soldiers. He had found that while the use of printed textbooks was naturally unrealistic, the police learned well and with much enjoyment through role-playing exercises. Regardless, the Council still insisted that his aims were unachievable. In this case, Young had gone to the trouble of offering an uncharacteristic compromise that the measure should first be implemented only with members of the force who held positions in the upper echelons, but it was still rejected as not being viable.

Clearly having reached a point at which he felt a complete lack of administrative support, Young’s handwritten notes on his copy of the report submitted after the ministers’ deliberations seem positively angry. In response to calls for greater discipline in the police force and greater awareness of ‘civics’ on the part of the population, Young expresses agreement but argues that before this training and education can take place, the fundamental principles on which the force and its relationship with the public are based ‘must be right’. He disagrees with a scrawled ‘no!’ with the suggestion that the British concept of a police officer can only function in a racially and linguistically homogeneous society. He dismisses the idea that for the foreseeable future the police must remain an ‘extinguisher force’, opining that the suggestion that the police need to be above local intrigues directly contradicts the criticism of his ideas.


Young’s efforts did attract a great deal of praise from Europeans beyond the mainstream of settlers and administrators. The English Missionary Society worked tirelessly in promoting better relations between the races and decried the excesses of the government and security forces, publishing letters and pamphlets promoting new attitudes and behaviour. Much as in Malaya, Young’s departure late in 1954 produced much dismay within these sections of the community, letters being penned to British newspapers thanking him for his work and attempting to encourage greater recognition of the efforts of a man who was indeed greatly respected. If his commitment to implementation of the same system that had paid dividends in Malaya had here caused friction and been rejected, the principle and the intention were appreciated. Shortly after Young’s return to London, Willoughby H. Carey, a secretary of the Church Missionary Society, wrote to The Times thanking the former Commissioner of Police for what he had achieved. He wrote of a ‘noticeable sudden change’ in the state of Kenyan policing, followed by a ‘swift improvement in the behaviour and conduct of the Police…towards the African population.’. The problem is however obvious: none of those who offered unqualified support were in any position to influence or decide the practical outcome of government policy. It was for this reason that ultimately attempts at colonial police reform had not met expectations.

Walking Away

Arthur Young returned to Britain at the end of 1954 intensely dissatisfied with his Kenyan experience. He may have received praise for his efforts from some quarters, but the contrast with Malaya was clear. Even at the time of his departure, Young was unable to clearly express his views, his letter of resignation being suppressed because of its content and a more palatable alternative submitted. To this day, two of his final letters to Baring, surely those inaccessible at the Weston Library, remain under an embargo, his voice still silenced decades after his death.

Arthur Young’s successes and shortcomings were probably inevitable when such fundamental reform was required. If his own strong will and refusal to compromise could have caused friction with administrators and resulted in some measure of failure for his plans, that would be a great cause for personal regret. Yet as evidenced by his experience with Templer in Malaya, it was the reception his ideas received and the culture of thought and openness to them which determined their success rate. Sir Evelyn Baring’s Administration in Kenya had resisted, where Sir Gerald Templer’s had supported.

At the end of the preface to his Kenyan narrative, Young recalls a letter he received from B. N. Hinga, the Kenyan Commissioner of Police, in 1968. Hinga reminded Young of a time he had spoken to students at the Alliance High School, calling on Africans to join the police, to give service to their community and to make personal integrity the foundation of their conduct. As a result of the visit, three of the students joined the police, and one of them had been Hinga himself. Regardless of the eventual outcomes of his policies, for those who saw and desired what Young saw and desired, he could be nothing less than an inspiration.

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