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Ian Henderson, who has died aged 86, was a British colonial policeman who played a major role in subduing the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya and later served as security adviser to the al-Khalifa ruling family in Bahrain.
Towards the end of his life, however, Henderson had to fight allegations that he had participated in torture in Bahrain, and found himself buffeted by the vagaries of post-colonial revisionism regarding his role in Kenya.
In 1954 Henderson was awarded the George Medal, later with a Bar, for his role in suppressing the Mau Mau uprising. Installed by the British government as head of security in Bahrain in 1966, when the country was a British protectorate, he stayed on after Independence and held the post for more than 30 years. In 1984 he was appointed CBE.
As Britain’s colonial record has in recent years come under increasingly critical scrutiny, Henderson found himself in the firing line over allegations by human rights campaigners that he had presided over, and participated in, gross maltreatment of Bahraini prisoners, some of whom died in custody.
One prisoner, Hashem Redha, a pro-democracy activist, claimed that he was personally assaulted by Henderson: “He tortured me one time. He kicked me and shook me two times. He said, ‘If you like to be hit, we can hit you more than that.’”
Investigations into the allegations by Scotland Yard were dropped in 2001 owing to a lack of cooperation from the Bahraini authorities. But British parliamentarians, including Lord Avebury, George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn, continued to call for Henderson to face prosecution — Galloway labelling him “Britain’s Klaus Barbie” and suggesting that he had “learned the black arts fixing electrodes to the genitals of the Mau Mau in Kenya”.
Henderson dismissed stories of torture as “totally untrue” and challenged investigators to bring any evidence to the appropriate authorities. Notwithstanding the campaign to have him arrested, to many surviving old Kenya hands he remains a hero.
Ian Stuart McWalter Henderson was born in Aberdeenshire in 1927 but grew up in Kenya, where his father, Jock, had been sent by a firm of Scottish seed merchants before the First World War. Jock Henderson stayed on and became a farmer near the Kikuyu township of Nyeri, near the Aberdare Mountains. As there were no white playmates nearby, Ian grew up among the Kikuyu, becoming fluent in their language and learning the skills of tracking and bush-craft.
At Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, he was good at sport and became a lance-corporal in the school cadet corps. After leaving school in 1945 he joined the Kenyan police.
Henderson’s knowledge of the Kikuyu, unusual among British colonialists, stood him in good stead, and he was soon moved from bicycle thefts and traffic duties to armed robbery and murder cases. In the early 1950s he was transferred to Special Branch, where one of his first duties was commanding the royal guard at Sagana Lodge when the young Princess Elizabeth visited in 1952. The Mau Mau uprising began later that year.
The violence was triggered by land-grabs cynically carried out by the colonial government to encourage European settlement, and in recent years the Mau Mau have come to be seen by many Kenyans as heroes of the nationalist movement. Last year, amid much soul-searching in the press about Britain’s colonial legacy, three Mau Mau veterans won a High Court ruling that vindicated their right to claim damages for the torture and abuses carried out by British colonial authorities during the suppression of the movement.
In the process of atoning for Britain’s colonial sins, however, commentators often tended to brush over the brutal nature of the uprising itself. For although the suppression of the Mau Mau was a brutal affair, it is also true that, as a campaign of sheer terror, the uprising has few modern equals — and the Mau Mau’s victims were mainly fellow Kikuyu.
In their efforts to recruit villagers to their cause, the Mau Mau would force them to undergo horrific initiation ceremonies and swear a blood oath to follow orders on pain of death. Those who refused could expect a gruesome end. As a result, the principal Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi, though hailed a hero by some Kenyans, is remembered by many others for acts of barbarity, including cannibalism and the massacres of hundreds.
After a State of Emergency was declared in October 1952, eight British regiments as well as police reinforcements were sent from Britain, supported by a “Home Guard” force of 25,000 loyal Africans.
Henderson’s first assignment during the Emergency was to prepare the case against Kenya’s future leader Jomo Kenyatta, who had been arrested in October 1952 and indicted on charges of “managing and being a member” of the Mau Mau. Though historians these days think that Kenyatta had few if any links to the movement, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
In January 1954, when Waruhiu Itote, a Mau Mau leader better known under his pseudonym “General China”, fell into the government’s hands, Henderson was the chief interrogator. Itote was found guilty and sentenced to hang. However, following a deal negotiated by Henderson (some reports allege that torture was involved, though Henderson denied it), Itote agreed to cooperate with the government and negotiate an end to the uprising in return for his life.
Subsequently Henderson was put in charge of a Special Branch detachment assigned to visit other Mau Mau leaders at their bases in the Kenyan forests, to persuade them to give up terrorism and enter talks with the government. This involved repeated unarmed trips into the forest to negotiate surrender terms with heavily-armed and highly nervous Mau Mau gangs.
The talks were abortive, but they won Henderson his two George Medals, in 1954 and 1955, the citation to the first noting: “The nature of this assignment made it necessary for Mr Henderson to travel frequently into the forests and parts of the reserves occupied by terrorists under conditions of extreme vulnerability in order to achieve the objective.”
But it was Henderson, above all, who masterminded one of the most effective elements of the strategy that eventually crushed the uprising. This was the use of so-called “pseudo-gangs” — fake guerilla bands, mostly composed of former Mau Mau — sent into the forests to gather intelligence, infiltrate the movement and track down its leaders.
Nowadays no Kenyan will admit to having served in these gangs, but Henderson seemed to have few problems finding recruits, claiming that “the methods of conversion were many, but the key to their success was kind and gentle handling”, though he also gained much intelligence by talking to Mau Mau fighters held at the now notorious detention camps.
By the beginning of 1956 the Mau Mau movement had been seriously circumscribed, and the security situation had improved so radically that a major action was launched to eliminate the elusive Dedan Kimathi, the last important Mau Mau leader still at large.
On October 21 1956 Henderson and his men scored their greatest triumph when, betrayed by his own followers, Kimathi was tracked down to his forest hideout. In his account of the campaign, Hunt for Kimathi (1958, also published under the title Man Hunt in Kenya ), Henderson recalled that wild animals had been as much of a problem to the trackers as the terrorists themselves, and implied that the only effect of much-vaunted RAF bombings of the forest was to make the animals even more dangerous than usual.
On the day Kimathi was captured, Henderson had to leave the jungle hunt to be presented to Princess Margaret at a tea party at Government House in Nairobi, an incongruous interlude from which he was called away to interrogate the captured Mau Mau leader at Nyeri.
Despite his recent rise to the status of nationalist hero, most post-colonial Kenyan governments concurred with the British in regarding Kimathi as a terrorist. In February 1957, after being found guilty of terrorist offences by a black African jury, Kimathi was hanged and his body buried into an unmarked grave.
Though a further three years would pass before the British declared the Mau Mau Emergency over, Kimathi’s death extinguished the last active spark of the rebellion. In 1957 General Sir Gerald Lathbury, the Army’s Commander-in-Chief East Africa, wrote: “Ian Henderson has probably done more than any single individual to bring the Emergency to an end.”
After Kenya’s Independence in 1963, Henderson was expelled from the country, and in 1966 he was installed by the British government as head of security in Bahrain, then a protectorate being challenged by a mainly Shia independence movement. Five years later, when Bahrain acquired its Independence from Britain, the Bahraini prime minister retained Henderson as his security adviser and head of Bahrain’s Security and Intelligence Service. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 1998, after which he continued to serve as a senior adviser to Bahrain’s ministry of the interior, retiring in 2000 with the rank of major-general.
According to Emile Nakhleha, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico who spent a year in Bahrain as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in the early 1970s, the main mission of Henderson’s security service was to penetrate dissident and pro-democracy groups and defeat them. “The Security Service under Henderson’s supervision and control commonly practised fear, intimidation, and ‘enhanced interrogation methods’,” he has claimed. “Henderson perceived all human rights advocates and proponents of the constitution and an elected parliament as ‘radicals’, ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’. Many were arrested without due process or clear charges and often beaten and tortured.” Some Bahrainis referred to Henderson as the “Butcher of Bahrain”.
Nakhleha’s claims were backed up by human rights campaign groups which reported extensively on the routine use of torture during Henderson’s tenure as head of Bahrain’s security services. Amnesty International, for example, repeatedly raised concerns about torture with the Bahraini authorities and with Henderson himself, from 1987 onwards. Allegations included claims that prisoners had been raped and forced into exile, and that security forces carried out extra-judicial executions and abused children. Henderson was also accused of torturing detainees with his own hands.
But although Scotland Yard launched an inquiry into the allegations in 2000, the investigation was dropped the following year and Henderson never had to face his accusers in court. He steadfastly denied involvement in torture, dismissing the allegations as politically motivated.
Bahrain retains close diplomatic links with Britain and is also a close ally of America in the Middle East, its ports providing a home to the American Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Critics have suggested that Britain’s long military and security relationship with Bahrain led it to drag its feet over investigating Henderson.
For many years Henderson was able to travel freely between Bahrain and his British home at Holne, near Dartmoor, though eventually he returned to Bahrain, where he died.
Ian Henderson’s other honours include the King’s Police and Fire Services Medal (1953). In Bahrain he was awarded the Medal of Military Merit, 1st Class, in 1982; the Order of Bahrain, 1st Class, in 1983; and the Order of Shaikh ’Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, Exceptional Class, in 2000.
He is survived by his wife, Marie, and by a son and daughter.
Ian Henderson, born 1927, died April 13 2013