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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Colony: Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational

Authority in Kenya, 18971952

Author(s): Paul Ocobock
Source: The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1, Toward a
History of Violence in Colonial Kenya (2012), pp. 29-56
Published by: Boston University African Studies Center
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International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 45, No. 1 (2012)

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Colony: Corporal Punishment, Colonial

Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya, 1897-1952*

By Paul Ocobock
University of Notre Dame (

Corporal punishment, the infliction of physical pain and injury on an individual believed to
have committed wrongdoing, was commonplace throughout Kenya's colonial encounter.
European settlers bruised houseboys and harvesters with steel-toed boots to instill a sense
of station in Kenya's racial hierarchy. Schoolteachers "broke" pupils' backs to mold their
minds. African chiefs conducted forced labor to the cadence of the kiboko (whip or cane)
urging young men to dig roads faster and carry goods farther.1 African fathers raised
walking sticks to correct absent-minded herdsboys. Colonial magistrates sentenced
thousands of young Africans to caning for crimes ranging from bicycle theft to breach of
contract. Today, the citizens of an independent Kenya continue to wrestle with the decision
to spank mischievous sons and beat restless schoolboys.2

In Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, as Africans came into increasing contact with
Europeans, the diversity of individuals and institutions laying claim to this form of
violence expanded. Colonial governments relied on corporal punishment to broadcast their
authority, often through military barracks, schools, courts, and penal institutions.3 Colonial
courts were especially devoted to physical violence as a method of discipline and
alternative to imprisonment, fines, or other forms of punishment.4 Courts in most British
African colonies, from native courts in Northern Nigeria and Uganda to magistrate courts

* An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2008 African Studies Association Conference. I
would like to thank Brett Shadle and Matthew Carotenuto for inviting me to participate in the panel. Special
thanks go to Robert Tignor, Emmanuel Kreike, Richard Waller, Emily Osborn, Daniel Branch, and Catherine
Bolten for commenting on early drafts of this article.

1 Kiboko is the Kiswahili term for hippopotamus but it came to refer to whips often made of
hippopotamus hide. Later, kiboko became synonymous with instruments of corporal punishment whether
rattan cane used by the colonial state, sticks used by schoolteachers, or switches used by fathers.

2 Sammy Cheboi, "Ban on Students' Expulsions Reduces Discipline Options," Daily Nation, 19 May
2009; Dorothy Kweyu, "The Corporal Punishment Dilemma," The Daily Nation, 9 June 2009.

3 David Killingray, "The 'Rod of Empire': The Debate over Corporal Punishment in the British African
Colonial Forces, 1888-1946," Journal of African History 35,2 (1994), 204-205; Marie-Benedicte Dembour,
"La Chicote comme Symbole due Colonialisme Beige?" Canadian Journal of African Studies 26 (1992),

4 David Killingray, "Punishment to Fit the Crime? Penal Policy and Practice in British Colonial
Africa," in Florence Bernault, ed., A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa (Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann, 2003), 107-108.

Copyright 2012 by the Board of Trustees of Boston University.

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30 Paul Ocobock

in Gold Coast and Kenya, sentenced offenders to corporal punishment to varyin

In colonies with white settlement, such as Kenya and South Africa, a cult of the
tails formed to humiliate disobedient African chiefs, suppress resistance, and
male sexuality to salve fears of black peril.6 Corporal punishment was a key ins
establishing racial hierarchies. Moreover, the use of the kiboko in Kenya and
South Africa were common methods to coerce and discipline male African labor
a method to punish criminal behavior, display racial superiority, or incu
discipline, corporal punishment became an "essential pedagogical tool" of t
encounter, teaching through physical violence.8

Corporal punishment was not simply an instrument of the British colonia

was also a weapon of African parents and elders, used to define age and g
station.9 It separated men from boys, adults from children; it situated them on
sides of the kiboko and established the authority of one over the other. Father
menfolk in Kenya relied on a diverse disciplinary repertoire, which included
violence, to correct the behavior of young men, negotiate boundaries between g
and preserve senior authority.10 Yet elder patriarchal power was not h

5 The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Records Office (PRO) CO 323/139
Reform in the Colonies: Corporal Punishment, 1936.

6 Bernard K. Mbenga, "Forced Labour in the Pilanesberg: The Flogging of Chief Kgam
Commandant Paul Kruger, Saulspoort, April 1870," Journal of Southern African Studies 231 (
127; and Stephen Pet and Anne Devenish, "Fear and Food: Punishment and Race in Co
Journal of Southern African Studies 31, 1 (March 2005),7, 10-12 for the story of a white man
African court in Bechuanaland and British retaliation, see Michael Crowder, The Floggin
Mcintosh: A Tale of Colonial Folly and Injustice, Bechuanaland 1933 (New Haven: Yale Univ

7 Dunbar T. Moodie, "Maximum Average Violence: Underground Assaults on the South African Gold
Mines, 1913-1965," Journal of Southern African Studies 31, 3 (September 2005), 550, 566-67; Keith
Breckenridge, "The Allure of Violence: Men, Race and Masculinity on the South African Goldmines, 1900
1950," Journal of Southern African Studies 24,4 (1998), 669-93.

8 Moodie, "Maximum Average Violence," 549.

9 Evidence that corporal punishment predated colonial rule in Africa is contradictory. According to
Murray Last, religion and colonial education introduced the corporal punishment of young people in parts of
Northern Nigeria. See Murray Last, "Children and the Experience of Violence: Contrasting Cultures of
Punishment in Northern Nigeria," Africa 70,3 (2000), 383-84. Simon Ortenberg argues that among the Igbo
of Southern Nigeria, corporal punishment of children existed prior to colonial rule. See Simon Ortenberg,
Boyhood Rituals in an African Society: An Interpretation (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989),
119. For a fuller account of ethnographies mentioning the corporal punishment of young people during the
early colonial period, see Last, "Experience of Violence," 360-61.

10 G. Thomas Burgess, "Introduction to Youth and Citizenship in East Africa, Africa Today 51, 3
(2005), vii-xxiv. For classic studies of age organization in East Africa, see Mario I. Aguliar, The Politics of
Age and Gerontocracy in Africa (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998); P.T.W. Baxter and Uri Almagor,
eds., Age, Generation and Time: Some Features of East African Age Organizations (New York: St. Martin's
Press, 1978); B. Bernardi, Age Class Systems: Social Institutions and Polities Based on Age (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1985); A.HJ. Prins, East African Age-Class Systems (Groningen: J.B. Wolters,
1953); and Paul Spencer, The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1988) 65-100.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 31

Generations contested ideas about age, transitions from one age to the next, and fulfillment
of accompanying rights and obligations. The colonial encounter further complicated these
relationships, often in contradictory ways. As it entrenched elder authority, it also
expanded the number of alternatives for young people to accumulate wealth and redefine
maturity beyond the purview of fathers and senior kin.11

Colonial rule also muddied the disciplinary landscape.12 Although colonial rule
sometimes empowered elders, it also redistributed their right to punish the young among a
host of other actors. Likewise, while it freed some young people from elder surveillance, it
also brought them under the watchful eyes of a wider community of disciplinarians. The
right to beat a boy, once the exclusive right of African parents and elder kin, increasingly
included missionaries, schoolteachers, employers, chiefs, and the colonial state. Each of
these disciplinarians considered physical violence an appropriate form of punishment for
young males. As Dunbar T. Moodie argues for South Africa, "being beaten was a
completely normal part of growing up male...."13 So, too, was it normal for African males
coming of age in colonial Kenya. In fact, corporal punishment of the young was not a
distinctly "colonial" or "African" form of punishment, it was also used in Britain and much
of the world in the early twentieth century.14

In Kenya, it connected an ever-expanding network of African and non-African

adult actors and institutions wielding physical violence, in competing yet complementary
ways, all in an effort to exert authority over young African males. Colonial courts and
domestic households were two of the most common settings of this gendered and age
defined form of physical violence and authority in Kenya. Prior to the 1920s, colonial
courts began curtailing the use of judicial corporal punishment on African adults.
However, caning became one of the principal methods of punishing crimes, such as theft,
committed by males, mostly Africans, under the age of sixteen. An analysis of 10,410
cases of judicial corporal punishment of offenders under the age of sixteen between 1928

11 The literature is extensive, and this list is by no means exhaustive. For the connection between
Christianity and generational conflict, see Meredith McKittrick, To Dwell Secure: Generation, Christianity,
and Colonialism in Ovomboland (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002), 5-7; For the connection between
wage-earning and generational conflict, see Benedict Carton, The Blood from Your Children: The Colonial
Origins of Generational Conflict in South Africa (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000); and
Thomas McClendon, Genders and Generations Apart: Labor Tenants and Customary Law in Segregation
Era South Africa, 1920s to 1940s (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002).

12 Richard Waller, "Rebellious Youth in Colonial Africa," Journal of African History 47 (2006), 77
92; and Richard Waller, "Bad Boys in the Bush? Disciplining Murran in Colonial Maasailand," in Andrew
Burton and Helene Charton-Bigot, eds., Generations Past: Youth in East African History (Athens: Ohio
University Press, 2010), 135-74.

13 Moodie, "Maximum Average Violence," 549.

14 Victor Bailey, Delinquency and Citizenship: Reclaiming the Youthful Offender, 1914-1948 (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1987), 114; George R. Scott, The History of Corporal Punishment (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2005), 94-110; Carolyn Strange "The Undercurrents of Penal Culture:
Punishment of the Body in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada" Law and History Review 19, 2 (Summer 2001),

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32 Paul Ocobock

and 1955 offers insight into the ways the colonial courts used physical violence
young African males.15 These cases, compiled in annual registers and submitt
Colonial Office, provide a wealth of information, including where young
caned, why they were caned, and how often they were caned. Alone, statistics p
an abstracted picture of caning. Interviews with Kenyan African men beaten
magistrates in their youth help bring the experience and after-effects of can
African men who felt the crack of the cane recall the physical and psycholog
well as the procedure and formality, rendering it both intimate and impersonal.

As Kenyan African boys were strapped to a caning form by order of

courts, others received blows from a father's walking stick at home. Interview
with over eighty Kikuyu, Kipsigis, and Luo men about growing up in colo
explored, in part, the kinds of discipline they experienced at home.16 Corporal p
came up in nearly every interview. In some cases, men had experienced canin
hands of many different adults. During the colonial period a beating from a
neighbor was a common way to punish disobedience. Furthermore, men who
corporal punishment at home as well as by order of colonial courts often juxtap
They do not claim that the performance and execution of judicial caning and
beatings were the same. Yet they recognized that both relied on physical
confront the threat of wayward youths and contested age-relations. No matter the
the hand that held the instrument of pain, they understood each form o
punishment to be part of a broader network of discipline that aimed to puni
wrongdoing and re-exert adult authority over them.17

Weaving these sources together is thirteen-year-old Amritlal Monji,

Asian, whose own encounter with the cane provides a harrowing account
corporal punishment. Amritlal's experience, while different in some respects
African young men, exposes in the starkest terms the nature of judicial
punishment. His caning brings to life the thousands of impersonal records the g
kept and the memories of Kenyan African men today, bearing witness to intim
relationships among the colonial state, young people, and their families.

15 These 10,410 cases do not represent all judicial corporal punishment of juveniles betwee
of 1928 and 1955.1 could not locate registers for the years 1940-44. It is possible that officials
not submit them to the Colonial Office during WWII. In addition, I could not find registers
1934-37, but by drawing on other sources from the archive, I was able to compile some data fo
As such, 10,410 cases might represent only two-thirds of the actual number of juveniles caned
colonial courts during this period.

16 In 2008, I conducted interviews with over eighty Luo, Kikuyu, and Kipsigis men
experiences coming of age in colonial Kenya. The majority of the men had been born in the 19
and therefore initiated in the 1940s and 1950s. I conducted every interview myself with the
assistants and interpreters. Nearly all the interviews were done at an interviewee's homestead
the interviews include: Kiambu, Nyeri, Laikipia, Nakuru, Kericho, Sotik, Homa Bay, Kisumu, a

17 Taylor Sherman, "Tensions of Colonial Punishment: Perspectives on Recent Developme

Study of Coercive Networks in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean," History Compass 7,3 (2009),

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 33

Amritlal's Arrest and the Origins of Caning as Judicial Punishment

The story of Amritlal Monji's caning began on 15 March 1931, along Canal Street in
Nairobi. When he should have been in class at the Indian School, Amritlal was taking his
father's motorcycle for a spin without permission. While joy riding through town, he was
arrested by police and held at the station until his father made bail. The next day, he went
before resident magistrate Frederick Gamble who read aloud the charges: Amritlal was
accused of driving a motorcycle without license, permit, or silencer to reduce noise
pollution.18 The typical sentence for traffic offenses such as these was a fine. Magistrate
Gamble turned to Hirji Monji, the boy's father and local mechanic, and asked if he was
willing to pay his son's fine. He was not.
Hirji's refusal to pay put Gamble in a legal conundrum. Sentencing a juvenile to a
fine was common enough in Kenya, but under the penal code, failure to pay a fine resulted
in imprisonment. Without his father's help, Amritlal would surely default on his sentence
and face going to prison. Instead of risking Amritlal's possible imprisonment, Gamble
ordered the young man caned. Since the colony's earliest years, magistrates had loathed
sending young people to prison. Behind the bars of a Nairobi or Mombasa jail cell,
officials feared that adults instructed young inmates in criminal craftsmanship and loose
morals, stripping them of their innocence and initiating them into malformed quasi
adulthood.19 Instead, Gamble ordered the boy to receive four strokes for each offense, a
total of twelvethe maximum penalty for a juvenile.20 The sentence was to be carried out
as soon as the guards could escort Amritlal to Nairobi prison.

At the time of Amritlal's sentence, caning had become one of the most common
forms of juvenile punishment in the colony. This had not always been the case. In 1897,
the colonial state institutionalized the use of corporal punishment to penalize criminal
offenders of all ages. Government approved its use by provincial administrators, namely
the district commissioners and officers overseeing everyday colonial law and order.21
African chiefs and Muslim judges were also encouraged to use physical punishment on
offenders. District officers and African courts quickly made striking an offender with cat
o' nine tails or birch rod a frequent form of state violence. Colonel Algernon E. Capell, an
assistant district commissioner, recalled using a rhinoceros hide kiboko on a Kikuyu chief
who had lied to him. "I called the elders ... to follow me into the bush, where I laid on
twenty cuts ... on that portion of naked childhood obviously made for the purpose."

18 "Child Punishment: A Nairobi Court Case," Kenya Daily Mail, 22 March 1931; the specific
regulations Amritlal had broken were sections 3,12/1, and 18/3 of the 1928 Traffic Ordinance.

19 Kenya National Archives (hereafter KNA), AP/1/484, J.H. Sadler, Governor, East African
Protectorate to Lord Elgin, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 27 Nov. 1907.

20 The National Archives of the UK (hereafter TNA): Public Records Office (hereafter PRO)
CO/533/412/6, F.C. Gamble, Resident Magistrate to Registrar, Supreme Court, 24 March 1931. Adult
offenders could receive no more than twenty-four strokes of the cane.

21 James S. Read, "Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda," in Alfred Milner, ed., African Penal Systems (New
York: Praeger, 1969), 94-97.

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34 Paul Ocobock

Afterward, Capell boasted, the chief became an "almost embarrassingly dev


Almost as soon as government sanctioned corporal punishment, it began curtailing

the practice. Kenya's high court grew concerned that officials, like Colonel Capell, used
the kiboko with gratuitous brutality. In 1905 and again in 1911, the court sent circulars to
magistrates and provincial administrators, who also served as judges in the districts,
warning that corporal punishment must be reserved for only the most serious or
exceptional cases. In 1912, the high court stripped district commissioners, African chiefs,
and Muslim judges of their ability to sentence anyone in the protectorate to corporal
punishment.23 No provincial administrator or local African court could officially use the
kiboko to punish offendersonly resident and class magistrates had this option at their
disposal.24 Of course, this did not stop some chiefs or provincial administrators from using
physical violence to maintain order outside the courts.

A year later, governor Belfield introduced further restrictions, outlawing the birch
rod, cat o' nine tails, and whip in favor of the rattan cane 25 Rattan, a type of palm
resembling bamboo, had long been used in South and Southeast Asia for corporal
punishment because of its flexibility and durability. Kenya began importing rattan canes
from India where they were manufactured to certain specifications. The governor ordered
two sets of canes, one for adults and another for juvenilesthe adult cane was forty-two
inches long and half an inch thick; the cane for juveniles was shorter and thinner.26 As the
courts banned government officials from punishing offenders with whips and birch rods,
the term "caning" became common parlance for corporal punishment. Even the Kiswahili
word kiboko came to refer to the rattan cane in addition to the animal-hide whips used by
men like Colonel Capell. Beginning in 1913, the cane and kiboko became synonymous
with corporal punishment. Even when Kenyans speak of corporal punishment today or
their memories of it in the colonial past, they continue to use the words kiboko and caning.
The restrictions established by chief justice Hamilton and governor Belfield had a
remarkable effect on the number of floggings in the East Africa Protectorate. Between
1911 and 1912, 778 Africans were beaten by the state with the birch rod or cat o' nine
tails, about 7 percent of the 10,974 of Africans convicted by the court. The following year,
after the restrictions came into effect, the rate of corporal punishment in the courts dropped

22 TNA, PRO, CO/533/371/4, Col. A.E. Capell, Extract from the Rhodesia Herald, 15 July 1927.

23 KNA, PC/COAST/1 /10/70, R.W. Hamilton, Chief Justice to Chief Secretary, 27 Dec. 1912.

241 would like to thank Brett Shadle for confirming this. In fact, Kenya differed from other British
colonies like Nigeria and Uganda where African or "native" courts were allowed the use corporal
punishment, especially if the courts claimed the "traditional" punishment for a crime was flogging. For
Northern Nigeria see Steven Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body: Flogging and Colonialism in
Northern Nigeria," in Steven Pierce and Anupama Rao, ed., Discipline and the Other Body: Correction,
Corporeality, Colonialism Durham: Duke UP, 2006), 187-88. For Uganda, see TNA, PRO, CO 536/171/12,
Acting Governor Scott to H.T. Allen, 10 June 1932. For Kenya, see Brett Shadle, '"Changing Traditions to
Meet Current Altering Conditions': Customary Law, African Courts, and the Rejection of Codification in
Kenya, 1930-60," Journal of African History 40,3 (1999),411-31.

25 KNA, AP/1/863, H.C. Belfield, Governor, East Africa Protectorate, No. 409,28 May 1913.

26 KNA, AP/1/863, TA. Gray, Inspector of Prisons to Provincial Commissioner, Mombasa, 30 May

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 35

to 346, a mere 4 percent of the 8,418 Africans convicted.27The courts had followed
Hamilton's orders.

Colonial Office unease with corporal punishment in the empire played a role in this
change. In 1897 and again in 1902, secretary of state for the colonies Joseph Chamberlain
ordered all territories to submit annual returns of corporal punishment for Parliament's
perusal. Officials in the East Africa Protectorate complied, submitting detailed registers of
adult and juvenile corporal punishment. When Colonial Office staff found irregularities or
illegalities in the registers, they badgered magistrates to sentence offenders more
carefully.28 Yet, influence from London must not be overstated, its year-end complaints
had little effect on painful sentences carried out months before. Moreover, the Colonial
Office had no alternative than to let protectorate officials carry on as usual. In these early
years, the protectorate's prison system was in its infancy and the rattan cane had become
the "ordinary corrective" to be applied to "delinquent natives."29 In short, magistrates had
few alternatives at their disposal.

But in the 1920s, the colonial state in Kenya restricted corporal punishment yet
again. The continued shift away from adult corporal punishment reflected changing ideas
about the efficacy and ethics of caning. In 1923, the Native Punishments Commission
reviewed the various forms of punishment at use in the colony. It recommended a
reduction in the use of corporal punishment on adults. Some commission members argued
that caning had a morally deleterious effect on convicts, magistrates, and prison officials.
Others questioned whether Africans could even be "flogged to a higher morality."30 The
commission was not unanimous in its disapproval of corporal punishment. Dissenting
members praised caning as an inexpensive and efficient punishment, which, they argued,
Africans preferred over tedious trips to the courthouse or lengthy prison terms. While the
commission debated the future of adult caning, it never questioned the necessity of the
juvenile variety. All committee members believed the rattan cane was a suitable
disciplinary instrument for young offenders under the age of sixteen; that the young could
indeed be "flogged to a higher morality." The commission went so far as to make
recommendations on the size of the cane, number of strokes, and procedures to be
followed in juvenile cases.31
In the years following the Native Punishments Commission, corporal punishment
of adults continued to decline while that of juveniles increased. A year after the report, the
number of young Africans receiving corporal punishment surpassed the number of adults
for the first time.32 Between 1905 and 1925, the rattan cane had been relegated to the
margins of the state's disciplinary repertoire for adult offenders; a violent punishment

KNA, AP/1/843, Chief Justice R.W. Hamilton to Chief Secretary, 30 Aug. 1915.

28 KNA, ARC/MD/4/1/3, A. Creech Jones to Government of Kenya, Circular, 15 Jan. 1948.

29 KNA, PC/COAST/1/10/70, R.W. Hamilton, Chief Justice to Chief Secretary, 27 Dec. 1912.

30 KNA, AG/7/2, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Native Punishment Commission Report, 1923.

31 KNA, AG/7/2, R.W. Lyall-Grant, Attorney General to Colonial Secretary, Report of the Native
Punishments Commission, 20 June 1924.

32 KNA, AP/1/863, C.E. Spencer, Commissioner of Prisons to Colonial Secretary, 17 Apr. 1926.

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36 Paul Ocobock

reserved for male sex offenders and unruly prison inmates. Instead, it quic
centerpiece of the colonial state's effort to discipline and punish young m
under the age of sixteen.33

By the 1930s, 80 percent of all court-ordered canings in Kenya

juveniles.34 Moreover, between 1932 and 1948, over 40 percent of all juven
by colonial courts were sentenced to corporal punishment.35 After WWII,
juvenile corporal punishment nearly doubled as the state responded to risi
juvenile crime and criminalization as well as urban migration and rural un
Hundreds of juvenile canings became thousands in the 1950s as district co
Central Province used their enhanced powers under the state of emergency
young men suspected of participating in what they believed to be an anti-c
known as Mau Mau 36 Over the course of colonial rule, thousands of boys a
felt the crack of the cane. Each year, as more and more African youths wer
state, corporal punishment came under greater government surveillance; se
proceduralized and medicalized; and statistics were recorded and scrutinized

Amritlal's Sentence and the Nature of Juvenile Caning in Kenya

Shortly before five o'clock in the evening on 16 March 1931, Amritlal Mon
the holding cell of Nairobi's courthouse. He waited for guards to escort hi
where he would be caned. Resident Magistrate Gamble had sentenced
strokes, a severe punishment, especially as magistrates rarely ordered
penalty for minor traffic violations. In 1931, the year Amritlal was senten
number of strokes given to young men was eight; only 19 percent of those
the maximum penalty.37

33 Labels like juvenile, adolescent, and adolescence were explicitly gendered, r

exclusively to boys and young men, during the colonial period in Kenya. Timothy H
Resistance and the Boy Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa (Athens: Ohio Univers

34 Inside Kenya's prison system, juvenile inmates were also caned more often that adu
Kabete and Dagoretti approved schools, where serious juvenile offenders were incarc
punishment was a common form of discipline. In fact, the number of youths caned in the
schools exceeded the number of adults caned in prison even though the schools held a fr
total prison population. KNA, AP/1/1840, Acting Registrar, Supreme Court, 3 M
DC/KSM/1/15/225, Registrar, Supreme Court, 28 May 1958. Daniel Branch, "Im
Colonialism in Kenya, c.1930-1950: Escaping the Carceral Archipelago," International J
Historical Studies 38,2 (2005), 239-65.

3^ Colony and Protectorate of Kenya (hereafter CPK), Prisons Department Annual Re

CPK, Kenya Police Department Annual Reports, 1932-48; TNA, PRO, CO/533/483/14,
CO/859/18/8; and KNA, ARC/MD/4/1/2.

36 KNA, DC/KSM/1/15/225, Member for Legal Affairs to Registrar Supreme

Punishment Returns for 1952,4 June 1953.

37 TNA, PRO, CO/533/416/17, Annual Register of Juvenile Corporal Punishment, 1931

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 37



Figure 1: Corporal Punishment of Juveniles, 1913-1952. Sources: KNA AP/1/863, AP/1/1699, and
ARC/MD/4/1/2; TNA: PRO CO 533/381/12, CO 533/483/14, CO 533/496/8, CO 859/18/8, and CO 859/560;
and CPK, Kenya Prisons Annual Reports, 1921-27, 1929-35, and 1940-1951.

At the end of the year, a clerk added Amritlal's name, age, offense, and sentence to
a register of all judicial juvenile canings. Magistrate Gamble's name, location of the court,
and attending medical officer were also recorded. When the register was complete, the
clerk then posted it to London for review by the Colonial Office. Amritlal had become a
statistic, twenty-fourth on a list of 192. He would eventually become one of 10,410 cases
of juvenile caning reported by the colonial government between 1928 and 1955. Drawing
on Amritlal's case and 10,409 others taken from available registers, several characteristics
of juvenile corporal punishment in colonial Kenya emerge.38
First, judicial caning in Kenya was a gendered form of punishment. Prohibitions were
placed on caning girls and women, and officials explicitly described it as a means to
discipline males.39 In Kenya, as in Great Britain, a male state differentiated between male
and female bodies and the forms of punishment these bodies could receive. Caning was
simply not suitable for girls. When it occurred in the empire, controversy stirred. In 1914,
two African women from Northern Nigeria were stripped and beaten in public by order of
the colonial administration.40 When word reached London, the Colonial Office complained
and officials in Nigeria defended their decision, claiming that corporal punishment of

The following information regarding juvenile corporal punishment comes from the annual registers
submitted by the governor of Kenya to the Colonial Office from the years 1928-55. These registers contain
10,410 cases of juvenile corporal punishment. See TNA, PRO, CO/533/381/12 for 1928, CO/533/399/2 for
1929, CO/533/416/17 for 1931, CO/533/434/12 for 1932-33, CO/533/483/14 for 1936, CO/533/496/8 for
1937, CO/859/18/8 for 1938; KNA, AP/1/1699 for 1939, ARC/MD/4/1/2 for 1945-47, ARC/MD/4/1/3 for
1949, AP/1/1840 for 1950-51, AH/6/16 for 1952-53, and AP/1/1876 for 1954-55.

39 KNA, PC/COAST/1/10/70, R.W. Hamilton, Chief Justice to Chief Secretary, 27 Dec. 1912.

40 Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body," 186.

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38 Paul Ocobock

women was a customary practice in that part of the colony. Of course, the
never questioned the use of corporal punishment, merely its application t
body. Few Britons wanted to see a woman stripped, strapped to a caning for
at home, much less hear about it taking place in the empire.41

For colonial officials in Kenya, issues of gendered respectability

differences between female and male bodies mattered less than the different forms of
power exerted over them. In 1914, the chief secretary asked provincial commissioner C.W.
Hobley to investigate when boys and girls came of age and were no longer subject to
parental authority. He specifically asked Hobley not to simply reply that African girls
never came of age. Of course, the commissioner did just that. After consulting with his
district commissioners, Hobley informed the chief secretary that girls never matured to a
stage of personal freedom because they were transferred from the authority of fathers to
husbands.42 For the state to order the caning of girls betrayed the gendered authority of
fathers and husbands; a responsibility the state dared not question. But the state was
willing to intervene in the generational authority of fathers and elder kin when it employed
corporal punishment to young male bodies.

African girls were very rarely entered into court registers of juvenile offenders in
Kenya. From 1938-1939, and then 1945-1950, there are roughly 6,494 cases of young
Africans coming before the colonial courts, especially the juvenile court established in
Nairobi after WWII. Of these, only forty-two were girls.43 Unlike Nigeria, magistrates and
police in Kenya did not bring African girls before courts as juveniles.44 This does not mean
African girls were free of delinquency or exempt from prosecution. The colonial state
defined female and male maturities differently. For African girls, womanhood arrived with
reproductive maturity and then marriage, signified in some communities with
circumcision.45 As for boys, the colonial state often defined maturity by labor discipline
and submission to law and order.46 It is possible that many girls and young women were
instead tried as adults. When colonial magistrates did discipline young womenoften for
crimes like prostitution, beer brewing, and hawkingthey were punished with fines or

41 Greg T. Smith, "Civilized People Do Not Want to See That Sort of Thing: The Decline of Physical
Punishment in London, 1760-1840," in Carolyn Strange, ed., Qualities of Mercy: Justice, Punishment and
Discretion (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1996), 21-51.

42 PC/COAST/l/lO/181, Chief Secretary, Circular No. 34, The Rights of Missions to Keep Minors
Without the Consent of the Guardians, 16 Apr. 1914; and C.W. Hobley Provincial Commissioner Coast to
Chief Secretary, 31 May 1914.

43 TNA, PRO, CO/859/18/8 for 1938; KNA, AP/1/1699 for 1939 and ARC/MD/4/1/2 for 1945-47 and
1949-50.1 have not yet found a register for 1948. Note that these are only the cases recorded in the colonial
register prepared for the Colonial Office. Many cases might have gone unrecorded, especially those
involving girls.

44 Laurent Fourchard, "Lagos and the Invention of Juvenile Delinquency in Nigeria, 1920-1960,"
Journal of African History 41 (2006), 133-34.

45 Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2003), 3-17.

46 Waller, "Rebellious Youth in Colonial Africa," 81-82. In fact, Waller argues, rightly I believe, that
colonial ideas about "youths," "juveniles," and "adolescents" might be exclusively male frames of reference.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 39

returned to their families in the countryside rather than face the rattan cane.47 Fines and
repatriation represented a dual assault on a young woman's economic and spatial mobility
and attempt to augment the patriarchal power of fathers, husbands, and chiefs. Indeed,
debates about the control of girls, their behavior, and their punishment more often fell to
elder men sitting on local councils or courts.48

In addition to gender, race played a significant role in the nature of corporal

punishment. The vast majority of youths caned by the colonial state were Africans. Only a
handful of Arab and Asian young men received corporal punishment. Amritlal Monji was
part of a small cohort of Asians caned during the colonial period, and his experience would
ultimately differ in some ways from those of African young men. In very rare cases,
magistrates sentenced young European offenders to caning.49 Most European youths
encountered corporal punishment at school. There, the sons of settlers and colonial officers
were subject to the same form of discipline as students in African and Asian schools. Use
of the birch rod by headmasters and prefects at the Prince of Wales School and other
European schools in the colony continued well into the 1940s.50 However, the disparity
between the numbers of Africans and non-Africans subjected to court-ordered physical
violence illustrates that the rattan cane was indeed an instrument of racialized colonial

A third characteristic of corporal punishment evident from the records is the age of
those young men at the time of their caning. From 1928 to 1955, the average age of
juveniles sentenced to caning was thirteen (Table 1). The penal code allowed caning for
any male under the age of sixteen, but determining whether or not an offender was sixteen
at the time of the crime was virtually impossible. Most Africans, unless converts, did not
track their numeric age along the Christian calendar; and therefore, neither the young man
nor magistrate presiding over the case knew his precise biological age. Furthermore,
colonial officials had no tried and true means of determining African age to a legal
certainty. Various tests were devised to do so, from searching for armpit hair in the 1920s
to X-rays of molars and epiphyses in the 1950s.51 A more common method to determine
age was to examine for genital circumcision among youths whose communities practiced it
during initiation.

47 Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1990), 97-98.

^Tabitha Kanogo, African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, 1900-50 (Oxford: James Currey, 2005),
33-34; Brett L. Shadle, "Girl Cases": Marriage and Colonialism in Gusiiland, Kenya, 1890-1970
(Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006), 152-78.

49 TNA, PRO, CO 533/412/6, F.C. Gamble, Resident Magistrate to Registrar, Supreme Court, 24
March 1931.

-50 Geoffrey Griffin with Yusuf King'ala, The Autobiography of Geoffrey W. Griffin: Kenya's
Champion Beggar (Nairobi: Falcon Crest, 2005), 14-16.

51 Interview, John Tumbo Soi, Saunet, 6 June 2008; and KNA, BY/52/1, M.M. Bali, et al., Age
Determination of Male Africans, 31 July 1954.

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Paul Ocobock

Year Jnveniles Juveniles Average Average

(Colonial Office (Prisons Annual Age Strokes
Registers) Report)
1928 197 153 13 8.98

1929* 89 150 12.9 9.04

1931 192 268 13 8.4

1932* 290 283 13.2 7.9

1933* 118 248 12.9 7.6

1936 219 202 -


1937 280 259 -


1938 259 225 13.2 7.1

1939 248 -
13.1 6.6

1945 486 -
13.8 7.8

1946 471 471 13.9 7.8

1947 529 530 13.8 7.8

1948 484 435 13.6 7.7

1949 508 503 13.6 7.9

1950 423 417 13.9 7.8

1951 647 646 13.7 7.5

1952 510 516 13.6 7.6

1953 924 924 13.9 7.2

Table I: Corporal Punishment of Juveniles, 1928-1953. *Data available for only half the year. Sources:
TNA: PRO CO/533/381/12, CO/533/399/2, CO/533/416/17, CO/533/434/12, CO/533/483/14, CO/533/496/8,
CO/859/18/8; KNA AP/1/1699; and CPK, Prisons Annual Reports, 1928-53.

Some magistrates requested medical inspections to certify whether offenders had

been circumcised, then used this information to determine the age, as well as type and
severity of the punishment.52 However, relying on circumcision was just as unreliable as
other methods of fixing legal age. Early anthropologists of Kenya's circumcising
communities only ever offered ranges in which initiation took place.53 Further

52 KNA, DC/KAPT/1/17/20, throughout, files illustrate that medical officers noted circumcision in
court cases.

5^ The age of initiation and circumcision among the Kikuyu has been placed between fiftee
eighteen years of age; C. Cagnolo, The Akikuyu: Their Customs, Traditions and Folklore (Nyeri:
Printing School, 1933), 85; Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (Lo
Vintage, 1936), 107; William S. Routledge, With a Prehistoric People (London: Edwin Arnold, 191
Circumcision among the Kipsigis has been recorded between fourteen and eighteen years of age. See
Peristiany, The Social Institutions of the Kipsigis (London: Routledge, 1939), 8. Anthropologists hav
initiation among the Nandi at between ten and twenty-one years of age. See Alfred C. Hollis, Th
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), 52; George W.B. Huntingford, The Nandi of Kenya (London: Ro
and Kegan Paul, 1953), 67. Kamba circumcision has been described as taking place earlier than
communities, beginning at four years of age. See Charles W. Hobley, Ethnology ofAkamba and Oth

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 41

complicating matters, the introduction of Christianity and education, the spread of

hospitals and dispensaries, and the intervention of provincial administrators to alter the
timing of male initiation lowered the age at which boys were circumcised.54 In short,
circumcision could not prove whether a boy or young man was eligible for caning. Some
magistrates understood this and boasted that they rarely requested the assistance of a
medical officer, preferring to simply eyeball the young offender's age.55

Yet, circumcision and medical inspection provided tangible evidence and

reasonable boundaries within which magistrates could perform some educated guesswork.
From this, British colonial magistrates reserved corporal punishment for male youths they
believed to be around thirteen years of age, well below the upper legal limit of sixteen; and
possibly below the average age of circumcision. The rattan cane became a means by which
magistrates defined age, a method to punish uninitiated boys on the cusp of manhood. It
allowed magistrates to separate out those for whom the sharp, shock of pain might still
serve as a deterrent from those too young to possess an understanding of right from wrong
or those too old and incorrigibletoo adult.56

Male, African, and around the age of thirteenthis was the typical portfolio of
those offenders most often caned by order of the colonial state. In addition to their gender,
race, and age, they shared similar criminal resumes. If in fact magistrates relied on a single
dominant feature to determine whether or not to sentence a young man to corporal
punishment, then it was the type of crime an offender committed rather than his age. The
traffic charges against Amritlal were relatively rare among Africans; if a young African
male had zipped through Nairobi on a motorcycle, he would have certainly been charged
with more than failing to produce a permit. In the early 1920s, the rattan cane was most
commonly used to discipline Africans accused of labor-related offenses. Employers and
police brought African employees before magistrates for a variety of labor-related crimes
such as failing to carry a work permit, being absent without permission, and desertion.57
The cane disciplined African laborers and placated anxious non-African employers.58 But
by 1928 and until 1952, nearly 60 percent of youths sentenced to caning were convicted of
crimes against property. Young thieves made up 43 percent of all canings, while thefts by

African Tribes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 68; Gerhard Lindblom, The Akamba in
British East Africa (Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryckeri Aktiebola, 1920), 43.

54 Routledge, With a Prehistoric People, 156; Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 104; and Peristiany,
Social Institutions of the Kipsigis, 30-31; see also Gavin N. Kitching, Class and Economic Change in Kenya:
The Making of an African Petite Bourgeoisie, 1905-70 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 128-29;
and Greet Kershaw, Mau Mau from Below (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), 149,162.

55KNA, AP/1/1699, D. Edwards, Resident Magistrate, Nairobi to Registrar Supreme Court, 1 Nov.

56 In a similar way, corporal punishment differentiated African bodies in Northern Nigeria, between
Muslims and non-Muslims. Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body," 199,205-206.

KNA, AP/1/863, E. Northey, Governor to Secretary of State for the Colonies, 6 Apr. 1922.

58 David Anderson, "Master and Servant in Colonial Kenya," Journal of African History 41,3 (2000),

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42 Pan] Ocobock

domestic servants represented about 11 percent and stock thieves nearly 5 percen
order juvenile canings.59
The connection between convictions for theft and sentences of caning was
influenced by the ways in which magistrates differentiated the severity of cer
and the limited number of punishments at their disposal. The three most commo
punishment for juveniles during the colonial period were repatriation to t
reserves, corporal punishment, and incarceration in an approved school. Prior
first-time offenders or those committing minor offenses like trespass or travelin
were often cautioned and discharged. After the war, as juvenile migration to
Nairobi and Nakuru increased, magistrates used repatriation orders more freq
Youths convicted of more serious crimes like murder, rape, and habitual hous
were institutionalized in a reformatory, later known as an approved school.61 C
nestled between slaps on the wrist, free rides home, and years of incarceration.
limited space at approved schools and the perception among colonial offic
repatriation was a costly, colossal failure, corporal punishment became an indi
alternative form of punishment62

The state's shallow punitive repertoire became a rallying cry for magistr
officials in Kenya. To them, corporal punishment became a necessity amidst the
and logistical constraints of colonial rule. In 1939, when Malcolm MacDonald, sec
state for the colonies, joined the long-standing Colonial Office tradition of tr
convince Kenya to abolish corporal punishment, chief justice Joseph Sheridan in
Abolish it and one would ask what alternative is there available for offences not of
a serious nature. Imprisonment is unsuitable if only for reasons of undesirable
association with those imprisoned for serious crime. Then there is the possibility of
the juvenile being sent to an approved school, but against that detention in an
approved school for a period of three years may be an excessive punishment.63
In Sheridan's view, without caning, punishment Kenya was either too lenient or severe.
Magistrates had taken a similar approach to corporal punishment as their counterparts in
other corners of the British Empire. In late-nineteenth-century India, magistrates explained

59 TNA: PRO, CO/533/381/12, CO/533/399/2, CO/533/416/17, CO/533/434/12, CO/533/483/14,

CO/533/496/8, CO/859/18/8; and KNA, AP/1/1699, KNA, ARC(MD)/4/12, ARC(MD)/4/l/3, AH/6/16, and

60 Paul Ocobock, "Joy Rides for Juveniles: Vagrant Youth and Colonial Control in Nairobi, Kenya,
1901-52," Social History 31,1 (February 2006), 39-59.

61 Chloe Campbell, "Juvenile Delinquency in Colonial Kenya," Historical Journal 45, 1 (2002), 129

62 Andrew Burton and Paul Ocobock, "The 'Traveling Native': Vagrancy and Colonial Control in
British East Africa," in A.L. Beier and Paul Ocobock, eds.. Cast Out: Vagrancy and Homelessness in Global
and Historical Perspective (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008), 270-301.

63 KNA, AP/1/865, J. Sheridan, Chief Justice, Memorandum on Corporal Punishment, 19 June 1939.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 43

away their reliance on caning as the result of the paucity of juvenile-specific punishments
at their disposal.64

Just as the type of punishment reflected the seriousness of a young man's crime, so
too did the severity of his caning. From 1928 to 1955, magistrates showed little creativity
in their sentences. The average beating of a young offender was seven strokes, which
remained remarkably consistent over time (Table 1). Two houseboys stealing two fountain
pens twenty years apart were likely to receive the same number of strokes. Magistrates did
sentence some types of theft to harsher penalties than others. Stock thieves and boys
burgling homes, schools, or businesses received the greatest number of caningsan
average of nine strokes. Young domestic servants pinching a settler's silverware were
subject to seven strokes. Minor offenses, not involving theft, usually resulted in the lightest
canings. Train station beggars, alleyway gamblers, and unlicensed Lake Victoria trout
fishermen, to name a few, received six strokes or less.

The relationship between the severity of the crime and its corresponding
punishment underscored the seriousness with which magistrates and police took crimes
against property. In the words of one police commissioner, housebreaking was "perhaps
the most definite criminal act of all."65 Although most arrests during the colonial period
were for minor offenses such as restrictions on labor and disorderly behavior, police and
magistrates consistently focused their efforts on preventing and prosecuting burglary and
stock theft.66 At the heart of concern about housebreaking lay the fierce anxieties of the
colony's propertied class, namely European and Asian families. Almost immediately after
their arrival, European settlers demanded that the Kenya police protect their personal
property and security.67 In response, the police mainly serviced areas of European
settlement and investigated crimes against property.68 Magistrates, too, did their part to
alleviate European fears. They reserved their most painful punishment for young men who
threatened to tear the thin veil suspended between Kenya's multiracial communities, which
separated personal space, wealth, and security.

Further influence of European settlers on the nature of corporal punishment

emerges when considering the final characteristic of juvenile caning: its physical and legal
geography. Between 1928 and 1933, one-third of all juvenile canings originated in courts

64 Satadru Sen, "A Separate Punishment: Juvenile Offenders in Colonial India," Journal of Asian
Studies 63, 1 (2004), 100-101. Sen also notes that corporal punishment in British India was only used for the
"truly delinquent," whereas, in Kenya, incorrigible youths were sent to an approved school.

65 Justin Willis, "Thieves, Drunkards, and Vagrants," in David Anderson and David Killingray, eds.,
Policing the Empire: Government, Authority, and Control, 1830-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1991), 227-28.

66 David Anderson, "Policing, Prosecution, and the Law in Colonial Kenya," 1905-39," in Anderson
and Killingray, eds., Policing the Empire, 194-96.

67 Robert W. Foran, The Kenya Police, 1887-1960 (London: R. Hale, 1960), 67-68,80,153.

68 David Throup, "Crime, Politics and the Police in Colonial Kenya, 1939-1963," in David Anderson
and David Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917-1965
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 130-31.

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44 Paul Ocobock

in Rift Valley Province, especially Nakuru, Naivasha, Eldoret, and Kitale (

municipality of Nairobi contributed a further third of all juvenile corpor
during this period. After WWII, Rift Valley continued to contribute the
sentenced to corporal punishment, followed closely behind by Central Prov
until the 1950s during the state of emergency and the military campaign a
that Central Province, especially Nyeri district, overtook canings in the Wh
(Table 2).70

Year Rift Valley Central Nyanza Coast Southern Northern

1928 79 83 12 19 6

1929* 26 32 18 6 - 7

1931** 61 75 41 14 1

1932 102 128 28 23 9

1933** 43 49 6 15 5

1949 192 122 71 39 55 25

1950 129 136 56 67 28 6

1951 225 178 94 54 44 32

1952 230 127 81 41 31 18

1953 210 617 73 26 4 2

1954 120 878 13 37 38

1955 212 1,995 55 42 41

Table 2. Corporal Punishment of Juveniles by Province, 1928-1955. *Data only for July to December.
**Data only for January to June. Sources: TNA: PRO CO/533/381/12 for 1928, CO/533/399/2 for 1929,
CO/533/416/17 for 1931, and CO/533/434/12 for 1932-33; and KNA ARC/MD/4/1/3 for 1949, AP/1/1840
for 1950-51,AH/6/16for 1952-53, and AP/1/1876 for 1954-55.

While most young men sentenced to flogging went before courts in Rift Valley and
Nairobi, they also shared a similar legal geography. A majority of caning sentences
emanated out of resident and first-class courts. Resident magistrates held court in the larger
towns of Kenya such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Naivasha, and Eldoret and oversaw
cases from the surrounding area. First-class courts, often presided over by provincial
administrators, handled cases in more rural areas of European settlement such as Kitale,
Kapsabet, and Kericho.71 The prevalence of juvenile caning cases in these courts reveals
that many of these cases likely involved youths arrested in towns and trading centers where
they were most likely to meet non-African populations and police. Juvenile caning ordered

TNA: PRO, CO/533/381/12, Annual Register of Juvenile Corporal Punishment, 1928; CO/533/399/2
for 1929, CO/533/416/17 for 1931, and CO/533/434/12 for 1932-33.

70 KNA, ARC/MD/4/1/2, Annual Registers of Juvenile Corporal Punishment, 1945-47,

ARC/MD/4/1/3 for 1949, AP/1/1840 for 1950-51, AH/6/16 for 1952-53, and AP/1/1876 for 1954-55.

71 Yash P. Ghai and J. Patrick McAuslan, Public Law and Political Change in Kenya (Nairobi: Oxford
University Press, 1970), 134-35; and David Anderson, "Policing the Settler State, 1900-52" in Dagmar
Engels and Shula Marks, eds., Contesting Colonial Hegemony: State and Society in Africa and India
(London: British Academic Press, 1994), 256.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 45

by second and third class courts, represented only a fraction of the total sentences in the

The presence of non-African populations in a particular area greatly increased a

young man's probability of being caned when brought before a magistrate. The White
Highlands and Nairobi represented nearly two-thirds of the total number of young people
sentenced to judicial caning in Kenya. Most of those cases went before resident and first
class magistrates. These physical and legal geographies sutured together juvenile corporal
punishment and the encounter between African youths, Europeans and Asians, and the
state. Furthermore, the annual registers clearly illustrate that a few employers, regardless of
their race, brought young employees to the police for a variety of crimes ranging from
theft, to burglary, to breach of contract.

They likely valued corporal punishment because pain matched, in their eyes, the
severity of a young man's offense: failures to labor well, observe authority, or respect
personal property. Yet, employers and magistrates had little recourse other than to accept
corporal punishment. Repatriating undisciplined laborers to their home villages or
incarcerating them for three years in an approved school jeopardized labor contracts and
required employers to find replacement labor. Juvenile labor was a cheap yet prized
resource on tea, coffee, pyrethrum, and sisal farms. Pain was a swift, expeditious form of
urban and frontier colonial justice. A negligent herder or thieving servant could be caned
and back in the grazing field and kitchen by mid-afternoon.

Amritlal's Caning and the Pain and Procedure of Punishment

When the guard arrived at the courthouse, he loaded Amritlal Monji onto a van bound for
Nairobi prison. At the prison, he led Amritlal into a room where three men waited: chief
prison officer Partridge, sub-assistant surgeon Siriram Thind, and an unnamed African
prison guard. Each man had a different role in the procedure. Partridge oversaw the caning,
Thind certified whether the boy was medically fit to receive the strokes, and the African
prison guard carried out the sentence.72 In the room, Amritlal noticed a table, a towel, and
a long, thin brown stick. The instrument was made of rattan, three and a half feet long, and
three-eighths of an inch thick. It was designed to inflict pain. If Amritlal had not felt fear
before, he certainly did now.

Partridge instructed the young man to take down his trousers and bend over the
table. Amritlal could not, would not, do it. The officer called four African prison guards to
seize the boy, remove his trousers, and hold him down prostrate against the table.
Struggling against the guards, Amritlal felt the towel, cool and wet from antiseptic, draped
over his buttocks.73 He heard someone step into position behind him, then the whistle of
rattan slicing through the air, and finally the crack as it struck him. After the searing pain
of twelve strokes, the wet towel was removed and the four guards eased their grip.

72TNA: PRO, CO/533/412/6, F.L.R. Miller, Medical Officer, Nairobi Prison to Director of Medical
and Sanitary Services, 24 March 1931.

73 In Northern Nigeria, towels dampened with antiseptic were used. This might explain the presence of
a wet towel at Amritlal's caning as well as descriptions of a wet towel by individuals caned by court order in
Kenya. Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body," 199.

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46 Paul Ocobock

Partridge ordered him to pull up his trousers and leave the prison quickly
receive another five.74

Amritlal's encounter with the cane bore a striking resemblance to the

Kenyan Africans who experienced corporal punishment as youths during
period. After fleeing the violence of an abusive uncle, Harry Joseph Kim
street youth in late 1940s Nairobi. He spent his days rummaging through g
food, stealing clothes hanging on the line to dry, and sleeping in culverts
arrested him many times, but it was after his second arrest, that he first encou

They told me to lie down on the table, and then caned me on my bu

would not beat you on your ankles because they did not want to har
beat you on the buttocks, which would grow swollen, but they would b

He received five strokes and was released back onto the streets, only to be
and caned on two more occasions. During his third beating, officials appli
and salt to his backside, which were used to "make more pain." Gabriel Ka
Mwarangu, streetwise contemporaries of Harry Joseph, also found thems
before the court and sentenced to corporal punishment in Nairobi. Both me
the number of times they had been arrested and sentenced to corporal punish
remembered being "laid on our stomachs, and beaten on our buttocks."76

The canings of Amritlal, Harry Joseph, and thousands of other Kenyan

harrowing experiences marked by physical and psychological pain. For
offenders, the pain of the cane was enough to correct their behavior, if on
James Ng'ang'a recalled that the pain from his caning in 1950s Gilgil was so
a time, he returned to school and obeyed his parents. He and his frien
pain."77 But after awhile, he resumed playing truant from school, smoking
harassing young women. Indeed, the potency of caning should not be overe
Joseph recalled that despite numerous canings, it never severely wounded
him bleed 78 Moses Nyatia, who experienced court-ordered caning in 1950
that, "you felt pain but after a while the pain disappeared, so you wouldn't m

Although painful, juvenile canings were also private and highly

procedures, offering little public spectacle of colonial authority and Africa
Both corporal and capital punishments had been moved indoors away from
eyes of spectators.80 The notion of private, violent punishment arose in l
century Europe and North America as governments began to view public

74 "Child Punishment: A Nairobi Court Case," Kenya Daily Mail, 22 March 1931; T
533/412/6, C.E. Spencer, Commissioner of Prisons to Colonial Secretary, 25 March 1931.

75 Interview, Harry Joseph Kimanji, Gilgil, Kenya, 6 Apr. 2008.

76 Interviews, Peter Mwarangu Ngugi, Ndenderu, Kiambu, Kenya, 26 Apr. 2008;

Muchahi, Ndenderu, Kiambu, Kenya, 26 Apr. 2008.

77 Interview, James Ng'ang'a Kamau, Gilgil, Kenya, 17 Apr. 2008.

78 Interview, Harry Joseph Kimanji, Gilgil, Kenya, 6 Apr. 2008.

79 Interview, Moses Mwanja Mutahi Nyatia, Nyeri, Kenya, 26 May 2008.

80 Stacey Hynd, "Killing the Condemned: The Practice and Process of Capital Punishm
Africa, 1900-1950s," Journal of African History 49 (2008), 409-12.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 47

floggings with certain embarrassment.81 In colonial Africa, the public nature of capital and
corporal punishments worried British officials who recognized the contradiction between
public displays of state violence and the civilizing mission.82 By concealing the cane and
muffling the sounds of suffering, the colonial state could declare caning a modern,
"humane" punishment. Magistrates and other officials went to great lengths to regulate and
isolate the location where juveniles may be beaten, usually the backrooms of prisons and
police stations.

In addition to regulations regarding instrument and location, specific rules were to

be followed during a sentence. In many but not all sentences of corporal punishment three
individuals had to be present: a prison or police official, a medical officer or surgeon, and a
prison guard or police officer. The relationships between the purveyors of corporal
punishment exemplified the hierarchical and segregated nature of colonial rule. And in a
perverse way, these canings evoked a distorted multiracial community coming together to
exercise discipline over unruly youths. The man endowed with the most power, the white
prison officer, invested himself in the procedure the least as merely a witness and record
keeper. The surgeon, most often an Asian, provided specialized services inspecting the boy
and his wounds to determine whether or not a sentence should continue. The dirty work,
one with its own psychological repercussions, fell to the African prison guard, striking the
offender over and over. The most powerless person in the room, the young, typically
African offender, witnessed representatives of the colonial community coming together to
exert discipline over him.
As a result of these procedures, officials came to believe that juvenile caning
represented a humane, compassionate form of discipline. This idea gained currency as
officials defended the practice from an increasingly irked Colonial Office in the waning
years of British rule. In 1945, commissioner of prisons Heaton observed several juvenile
canings and argued:
I have witnessed the infliction of corporal punishment with all the instruments
enumerated above and I have no hesitation in stating that in my opinion the
instruments in Great Britain are far more severe in their application than the
"school boy" instruments used in this Colony.83

Heaton's comparison between Kenya's rattan cane and Britain's birch rod tried to reverse
the perception that punishment in the colonies was more brutal than in the metropole.
Heaton claimed the colonial efforts to proceduralized corporal punishmentlimit the
strokes, regulate the cane's size and shape, require the presence of a medical officer, and
carry it out discretelymade it more humane than its British counterpart. These arguments

81 Thomas Laqueur, "Crowds, Carnival, and the State in English Executions, 1604-1868," in A.L.
Beier, David Cannadine, and James Rosenheim, eds., The First Modem Society: Essays in English History in
Honor of Lawrence Stone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 305-55; see also V A.C. Gatrell, The
Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

82 Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body," 189-90.

83 KNA, AH/14/3, G.H. Heaton, Comm. Prisons to Chief Secretary, Re: Corporal Punishment, 13 Nov.

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48 Paul Ocobock

became fixtures of the colonial state's numerous attempts to deflect criti

efforts by the Colonial Office to abolish the punishment.

In 1950, secretary of state for the colonies Creech Jones made yet an
to encourage the colonies to abandon the cane. The secretary argued
exception of the British Commonwealth, "the greater part of the civilized w
other methods."84 In Kenya, a commission established to review the u
punishment disputed the secretary's circular. The commission argued "th
severity to be so marked as to merit a different nomenclature referring to
as chastisement, to distinguish it from judicial corporal punishment as w
understood, for example, in the United Kingdom."85 Ultimately, the best de
in Kenya was to rebrand it with a more humane, civilized vocabulary.

Despite colonial claims about procedure and compassion, caning w

personal, intimate experience. Gabriel Kahugu recalls "the strokes were pa
after the beating, one of the white men applied salt that would hurt the b
Gabriel believes to have been salt could have been antiseptic, which was co
to prevent infection after canings.87 The medicinal intent of the "salt" was
irrelevant in light of the additional suffering a white man caused. Corporal
a personal, painful encounter with the state, made manifest by a white ma
into fresh wounds. As private, procedural, and medical as the state tried to
punishment, the violence of the cane remained an intense physical an
demonstration of colonial power.

A Father's Outrage and the Cane as Custom

At 6:30 in the evening, Hirji watched his son stumble through the door of
home and called for Dr. Mackinnon, a well-known physician in Nairo
inspected Amritlal and found "long linear scars with severe subcutaneous h
both buttocks."88 The boy could neither sit nor stand. The doctor con
considerable amount of energy [had] been applied in administering the tw
When word spread of the caning, it caused a sensation within Kenya's Asi
The Indian Association sent a letter to the chief secretary condemning th
brutality. On Sunday, 22 March, the Kenya Daily Mail, an Asian newspape
of Mombasa, ran a letter to the editor from Amritlal's father. In the lett
claimed the court had refused to let him pay his son's fines and allowed A
guards to touch and beat his boy. It was a clear case, he argued, of racial dis

An investigation began. Resident Magistrate Gamble vigorously defe

"The allegation of racial discrimination on my part hardly calls for commen

84 KNA, AH/14/3, Colonial Office Circular to Government of Kenya, Corporal Punis


85 KNA, JZ/6/18, Report of Committee on Corporal Punishment, 1951; emphasis mine

86 Interview, Gabriel Kahugu Muchahi, Ndenderu, Kiambu, Kenya, 26 Apr. 2008.

87 Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body," 199.

88 KNA, AP/1/864, U.K. Oza, Secretary Indian Association of Nairobi to Colonial Secr

89 "Child Punishment: A Nairobi Court Case," Kenya Daily Mail, 22 March 1931.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 49

interesting to observe that I ordered a European child to be caned for an identical offence
committed in respect of a motorcar."90 The prisons department reviewed the caning and
noted that officials had followed standard procedure; adding that the boy had not bled and
an Asian prison guard, not an African, had beaten him.91 In May, the clipping from the
Kenya Daily Mail reached the desk of Lord Passfield, secretary of state for the colonies.
After reviewing the penal code in Kenya, Passfield argued that despite Gamble's
assertions, his legal gymnastics were illegal. The Kenyan penal code only allowed caning
to be used in lieu of imprisonment, not payment of a fine. In short, the boy's inability to
pay a fine, and his father's refusal, had no bearing on the case. Amritlal should never have
been beaten.92 Passfield ordered a review of caning in the colony.

Little came of Amritlal's case. Lord Passfield's call for an inquiry merely
perpetuated the policy of reviewing annual returns and highlighting irregularities long after
wounds had healed. Yet unlike the majority of youths caned by the colonial state, Amritlal
had the advantage of his father's fury, literacy, and above all, connections to the Indian
Association. Hirji Monji publicized his son's pain and communicated his outrage to the
highest levels of the Colonial Office. Most parents in Kenya remained uninformed or
uninvolved in the courtroom proceedings or caning of their sons. Moreover, if they
opposed the court's ruling, few had the ability to publicize their anger as Hirji Monji had
done. Judicial corporal punishment rarely involved parents or kin; it was an encounter
between young men and employees of the state.

At first glance, caning seemed to represent a contradiction in the nature of juvenile

punishment in colonial Kenya. Repatriation and cautionary slaps on the wrists left
discipline in the hands of fathers and elders. At most, the colonial state made an effort to
return young offenders home to face, it hoped, parental and chiefly authority. In serious
cases like burglary and assault, cases in which magistrates believed parental authority had
failed, the state assumed full responsibility for young offenders, incarcerating and trying to
reform them in an approved school. The rattan cane occupied an interstitial space between
the two, between augmenting parental, generational authority and rejecting it in favor of
Western methods of punishment. This was the source of Hirji Monji's outrage: the colonial
state had claimed his parental prerogative to punish his own son, in a way unbefitting of
his son's racial station.

In the case of Amritlal's caning, the colonial state came into unanticipated tension
with the Hirji household, unforeseen because British officials believed that corporal
punishment was a "traditional," African instrument of discipline that they too could
wield.93 Convinced of its place in the African past, corporal punishment was included in
the disciplinary inventory of the colonial present. Some Kenyan Africans played a role in

90 TNA: PRO, CO 533/412/6, F.C. Gamble, Resident Magistrate to Registrar, Supreme Court, 24
March 1931.

91 TNA: PRO, CO 533/412/6, L.R. Miller, Medical Officer, Nairobi Prison to Director of Medical and
Sanitary Services, 24 March 1931; C.E. Spencer, Comm. Prisons to Colonial Secretary, 25 March 1931.

92 KNA, AP/1/864, Lord Passfield, SSC to J.A. Byrne, Governor, 26 May 1931.

93 Pierce, "Punishment and the Political Body," 194-%.

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50 Paul Ocobock

perpetuating this view. During a review of corporal punishment in 1950s Ken

Waweru of the Nairobi African council argued that beating juveniles was "cus
among African peoples and "acted as a deterrent."94 Along the Coast, Muslim
invoked the use of corporal punishment in sharia to promote its continued use.
British officials presupposed that caning was an easily communicable form of
that both they and members of a multiracial Kenyan community understood.95
Chief Waweru accepted this vision, others like Hirji Monji rejected it outright.

Although some African intermediaries claimed that corporal punishment

historic, traditional form of discipline, it certainly had a place within Kenyan
households during the colonial period, and possibly long before. Corporal punish
a common form of punishment for young people among Kenyan African comm
the early-to-mid twentieth century. Whether parents were Kikuyu squatters
Province, Kipsigis herders in Rift Valley, or Luo artisans in Nyanza, they some
on physical violence to punish their children.96 According to Augustine Ruto, w
in Sotik District, "the old way of disciplining children was the cane; the only
you do not cane a child then you are not teaching."97 Even though Augustine
been born in 1938, he understood corporal punishment as an old form of disc
linked to the socialization and education of youths.

At home, and in the village, boys could be beaten for a wide range of m
Most men who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s recall that corporal punishment
came following their failure to properly herd livestock. The list of possible vio
long. A boy who slept while the herd grazed, a boy who encouraged bulls to f
who let cattle stray into a neighbor's shamba, a boy who allowed herds to mix
who lost a goat or a sheep could all be beaten 98 Children could also be given c
punishment for fighting too fiercely with one another or stealing from
neighbors. A father's surveillance knew no bounds in the village and graz
Kinfolk and neighbors had the right to strike any child they saw misbehaving.
could punish you whenever you committed a mistake. Everyone had the right t
a boy."99 The discipline of youths was a community responsibility. In some ca
who received a few strokes from a passerby could expect a second set from his f
he arrived home. Word in the village always spread quickly.

Nevertheless, corporal punishment had limits at home. Fathers did not spo
nine tails, rattan canes, or other instruments specifically designed for punishme

94 KNA, JZ/6/18, Report of Committee on Corporal Punishment, 1951.

95 Killingray, "The Rod of Empire," 202.

96 The Maasai are also known to have used corporal punishment as a form of discipli
Archambault, "Pain With Punishment and the Negotiation of Childhood: Ethnographic
Children's Rights Processes in Maasailand," Africa 79,2 (2002), 289-91.

97 Interview, Augustine Ruto, Kaplong, Sotik, Kenya, 9 June 2008.

98 Interviews, Abiathar Omondi Opudo, Homa Bay, Kenya, 28 March 2008; Jaramongi Jos
Sidho, Bondo, Kenya, 31 March 2008; Joseph Mutai Kiprop, Kapsinendet, Kenya, 7 June
Kipkwai Bargetet, Tenwek, Kenya, 10 June 2008.

99 Interview, Erick Kipkwai Bargetet,Tenwek, Kenya, 10 June 2008.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 51

they reached for the nearest switch.100 Among the Maasai, some spaces were off limits to
elder authority, especially the manyatta where warrior murran lived together. As Waller
argues, Maasai elders sought to remove murran from their manyattas returning them to
their father's homesteads where they could be more easily disciplined.101 In addition, some
men recall that a beating could last for some time and the strokes could be "innumerable"
or "many, up to twenty times."102 Gabriel Kahugu, a former Nairobi street youth, bitterly
recalled the painful blows from a prison guard, but these were sufferable compared to the
physical and emotional pain he experienced at the hands of his father before fleeing to
Nairobi.103 Punishment at home could be a violent affair. Colonial restrictions on and
procedures for caning had no jurisdiction in a father's household.

Furthermore, some men recall that corporal punishment was an age-specific

punishment. After a boy's initiation, they argued, corporal punishment ended. Especially
among those communities practicing male circumcision, a father or elder could not beat an
initiated young man. Facing the knife bravely had earned him that respect.104 Instead, to
punish the initiated and circumcised, "your words would be the cane."105 Young men were
expected to display a greater level of self-discipline after initiation, and in return, adults
drew from a less violent reservoir of punishment. Corporal punishment ended along with
childhood and matriculation into young manhood, reflecting the altered social status of the
initiated. In much the same way, British magistrates often relied on male circumcision to
determine whether an offender should be caned.

However, the practice and ideas about initiation, age, and discipline became
increasingly ambiguous during the colonial encounter. Children were initiated earlier and
earlier. Their time in seclusion in which elders instructed them in codes of conduct
shortened, or in some cases, disappeared.106 Elders began to question whether such young
initiates were equipped with the ability to weigh right and wrong. Whether fathers and
elders breached past disciplinary norms and resorted to beating undisciplined young men
after they had been initiated is not known. But if there was uncertainty over age, initiation,
and discipline, then it is possible. In fact, chiefs sitting on local African councils, desperate
to exert some authority over boys and young men in their districts, repeatedly asked the
colonial state to reactivate their authority to wield the rattan cane through African courts.

100 Interview, Veronica Mwihaki, Gilgil, Kenya, 8 March 2008.

101 Waller, "Bad Boys in the Bush," 151-52.

102 Interviews, Joseph arap Soi, Saunet, Sotik, Kenya, 6 June 2008; Jonah Kiprono Chepkwony, Bureti,
Kenya, 12 June 2008.

103 Interview, Gabriel Kahugu Muchahi, Ndenderu, Kiambu, Kenya, 26 Apr. 2008.

104 Interview, Philip Oduok Ayoo, Awendo, Kenya, 27 March 2008; also see Archambault, 292.

105 Interview, Erick Kipkwai Bargetet, Tenwek, Kenya, 10 June 2008.

106 KNA, PC/CP/6/4/2, D.R. Crampton, Acting PC Central to all DCs, 28 May 1920; PC/CP/7/1/2, DC
Fort Hall to PC Central, Circumcision, 8 Sept. 1920 and DC Nyeri to PC Central, Circumcision 13 Sept.
1920; PC/CEN/2/1/4, Kiambu LNC Meeting Minutes, 4 Apr. 1927, see also Robert L. Tignor, The Colonial
Transformation of Kenya: The Kamba, Kikuyu, and Maasai (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977),
47-48,164-67 and Peristiany, Social Institutions of the Kipsigis, 30-31.

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52 Paul Ocobock

Rebuffed each time, chiefs resorted to persuading parents to more freely

even for minor offenses to improve discipline.107

Whether or not fathers or elders continued the past practice of end

punishment after initiation, many had little choice in the matter with the adv
rule. During the colonial period, more and more young men left hom
employment and education. The disciplinary power of fathers and kin shift
men traveled farther from home or as they accumulated more wealth in
Although many young men believed they might have eluded the authority
chiefs, they quickly encountered new disciplinary regimes. The arrival of
settlers, police, and colonial courts dramatically expanded the settings in
punishment occurred.

One of the first encounters young men had with corporal punishment
homes was in school. Headmasters relied on physical violence to maintain
their classrooms. John Osawa recalls that he and other boys were caught be
at home and school. Boys often attended school, he argued, because they g
herding livestock and got fed up with their fathers' floggings. Yet, when t
cane at school, they promptly returned to the grazing fields only to cause
earn a beating, and wind up back before the headmaster yet again.10
themselves trapped between competing yet complementary disciplinary regi

Living on or near European estates also offered boys and young men
of opportunities to cause mischief and run afoul of settlers and police. Mose
that living near Europeans in Nyeri, on the eve of the state of emergency
pleasures and pitfalls. As a child, "we herded our animals around this
occupied by white families. We would steal their children's bicycles and toy
fruits from their yards."109 Moses and his friends would then ride the b
town, and when spotted by police, would be arrested and caned. "We were
given strokes at the police station, three strokes each, and then we were re
young laborers or squatters' children also brought new disciplinary encou
employees were often beaten on European farms both by supervisors and
the tea estates of Kericho and Sotik, "when the settlers came, cases of wa
were reported to the authorities. Complaints were made to the district com
the children would be caned and released to their parents."111

On a farm in Molo, Siamba Maina recalls a time when some sheep we

from the flock he was hired to herd. Police came to the farm and caned him and another

herdsboy. "We were just caned to scare us into telling the truth."112 Less serious mischief
could result in a farm manager escorting a boy to his office and caning him without
involving the police.113 Christopher Achar recalls that on the African Highlands estate,

107 KNA PC/CEN/2/1/12, Embu Local Native Council Meeting Minutes, 11-12 March 1948.

Interview, John Opyio Osawa, Awendo, Kenya, 27 March 2008.

109 Interview, Moses Mwanja Mutahi Nyatia, Nyeri, Kenya, 26 May 2008.

110 Anderson, "Policing the Settler State, 1900-52," 258-9.

111 Interview, Joseph Chepkwony, Saunet, Kenya, 6 June 2008.

112 Interview, Siamba Maina, Chepilat, Kenya, 8 June 2008.

113 Interview, Joseph Kibelyon Korir, Chepilat, Kenya, 8 June 2008.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 53

children were flogged with a cane as wide as a pencil and as long as his arm, and they only
ever received four or five strokes.114 Colonial rule had indeed dramatically expanded the
community that claimed the right to discipline African male youths. What had once been
the purview of parents, kin, and neighbors grew to include schoolteachers, farm managers,
and employers.
The intermediaries of the colonial state, chiefs and headmen, inserted themselves
into this community as well. Notorious youths were increasingly brought before chiefs by
frustrated parents and unsatisfied complainants. According to Wills Opiyo Otondi, who
served as a headman in Nyahera, chiefs in the 1940s and 1950s would often take it upon
themselves to arrest unruly youths, cane them, and scold their parents.115 Chiefs and
elders, who had no legal authority within colonial African courts to cane the young,
sometimes took the law into their own hands, often at the behest of parents and victims of
juvenile crime.116 In some cases, a young man's family bypassed chiefs and elders and
approached British police or probation officers directly. James Ng'ang'a, a self-described
young gangster living in Gilgil just prior to independence, frequently defied his parents
and played truant from school. He eventually ran afoul of police while riding a stolen
bicycle. His parents came to the station and informed police officers that, "our child has
become too much, you can do what you wish with him."117 He was beaten thoroughly, and
afterward, his parents escorted him home. Some frustrated parents were forced to appeal to
alternative authorities when the "normal way to discipline children" no longer seemed

Of course, most parents did not rush to district commissioners or chiefs to handle
their mischievous children. Some elders argue that parents never took young people before
district officials, keeping punishment strictly within the community.119 Likewise,
opponents of court-ordered corporal punishment like Nairobi city councilor Gikonyo
argued that the cane was the exclusive right of parents over their children, not the colonial
state.120 Nevertheless, with the rattan cane, the colonial state inserted itself into a crowded
field of disciplinarians. British magistrates elevated it to the principal form of juvenile
discipline in the colony, and considered it an effective, communicable method of exerting
both generational and colonial authority.

British officials did not borrow corporal punishment from African communities.
Corporal punishment was as much a British tradition as an African one, and caning young

114 Interview, Christopher Onduru Achar, Awendo, Kenya, 26 March 2008.

115 Interview, Willis Opiyo Otondi, Nyahera, Kenya, 30 March 2008.

116 Unofficial judicial bodies flourished in late colonial Kenya in part because elders and the
community grew wary of the rulings of chiefs and provincial administrators, Ghai and McAuslan, Public
Law, 154.

117 Interview, James Ng'ang'a Kamau, Gilgil, Kenya, 17 Apr. 2008.

118 Interview, Alan Ale Kanyingi Ngugi, Githunguri, Kenya, 19 May 2008.

119 Interviews, Anthony King'etich Rotich, Kaplong, Kenya, 9 June 2008; Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge,
Kariobangi, Kenya, 23 June 2008.

120 kna, JZ/6/18, Report of Committee on Corporal Punishment, 1951.

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54 Paul Ocobock

offenders and schoolchildren was an acceptable form of discipline in Brit

twentieth century. In 1923, members of the Native Punishments Commissi
caning argued that, "the native is a child and should, therefore, be punished
Historians have used such racialized language to illustrate that adult canin
colonial Africa because the British believed Africans possessed an underde
maturity. Yet, such rhetoric underscores the firm belief that corporal pun
age-specific form of discipline, one ideally suited to young people. African
after all, still children. Thus, the longevity of corporal punishment in Ken
viewed in terms of its "traditional" place in the British disciplinary

The corporal punishment of young people was not simply a viole

colonial aberration of British imperial rule. It was a common feature of juv
Britain and the rest of the western world. In Britain, government used corp
to discipline young people beyond parental control.122 An officer of the co
birch rod assumed the role a parent seemed unable to fulfill. By the mid-tw
opponents of corporal punishment in Britain successfully scaled back som
incarnations such as its use in the British navy. Yet, physical violence rem
juvenile discipline in British penal and educational systems. Rather than s
people to long terms in government-run reformatories or continual visits
officers at the expense of taxpayers, a swift stroke of the cane and the de
were believed cheap and effective.123 Although the number of young peo
corporal punishment in Britain shrank, it was not until 1948 that Parliam
abolished its use on young offenders. In the United States and Canada
continued to suggest the effectiveness of corporal punishment well into the
century.124 Caning died a slow death in the western world. It was not a pre-
punishment banished by high-modernist methods of discipline to far
territories.125 Rather, the final outpost of the birch rod was not a British
British school system, which finally banned corporal punishment in state
and private fee-paying schools only in 1998.
Both Britons and Africans were familiar with corporal punishment
disciplining the young. It should therefore come as no surprise that corpor
lay at the center of the British colonial state's attempt to project its authori
generations in Kenya. Moreover, the caning of juveniles in the colonial th

121 KNA, AG/7/2, Native Punishment Commission Report, 1923.

122 Scott, History of Corporal Punishment, 94-110.

123 Bailey, Delinquency and Citizenship, 114.

124 Strange, "Undercurrents of Penal Culture," 371-72.

125 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vint
Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution
York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 5-26. For additional works on corporal punishment in the
Douglas M. Peers, "Sepoys, Soldiers and the Lash: Race, Caste and Army Discipline in
Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 23, 2 (1995), 21147; Henrice Altink, '"
Decency': Abolitionist Reactions to Flogging Jamaican Slave Women, 1780-1834," Slave
2 (2002), 10-22; Mary Turner, "The 11 O-Clock Hog: Women, Work and Labour L
Caribbean," Slavery & Abolition 20,1 (1999), 38-58.

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Corporal Punishment, Colonial Violence, and Generational Authority in Kenya 55

simply be historicized as a foreign or indigenous form of punishment introduced or

borrowed by a coercive colonial state. Rather, corporal punishment bound a variety of
members of the colonial community together in a relationship of violence with young
people. Caning became an age-based disciplinary regime operating in productive tension
across the colonial community to exert authority over the young. Whether a resident
magistrate in Nairobi, farm manager in Kitale, schoolteacher in Maseno, chief or elder in
Siaya, or father in Kiambu, corporal punishment had become a shared instrument of
generational order.


In 2001, the Kenyan government abolished corporal punishment in schools, and two years
later ended judicial corporal punishment as well.126 A century of state-sponsored corporal
punishment had come to an end. Yet Kenyans have found it difficult to let go of the cane.
In 2008, after an outbreak of violence and property damage by disgruntled students, the
Kenya National Association of Parents demanded government reinstate corporal
punishment in schools.127 Panicked by student indiscipline and parental anger, President
Mwai Kibaki's cabinet briefly considered handing the cane back to teachers. Energy
Minister Kiraitu Murungi argued, "you spare the rod and spoil the child. If a child does
something wrong, he or she must be caned."128 Britons, too, have also struggled to put
corporal punishment behind them. Similar calls have been made by parents to bring back
caning in the classroom, while the international community has pressured Britain to shore
up its protection of children from violence at home and school.129

Despite such political bluster, both governments have resisted calls for the return of
rattan. In Kenya, the head of the Kenya Secondary Schools Association stated, with a tone
of finality, "times have changed and we have to change as well. Going back to caning is
going back to where we are coming from."130 The 2010 Kenyan constitution buried the
cane once and for all, banning all forms of corporal punishment.131 Corporal punishment
of the young, whether by fathers, schoolteachers, or the state, was a relic of the past,
something best left there.132

126 Pravin Bowry, "Changes in Criminal Law Significant," Daily Nation, 16 Sept. 2003.

127 Robert Nyasato, "Parents Want the Cane Back in Schools," The Standard, 9 June 2008. More
recently, Muslim leaders requested reinstatement of the cane in classrooms to encourage a "high level of
discipline." Shabon Makokha, "Resume Corporal Punishment, Muslim Leaders Say," Nairobi Star, 25 Aug.

128 "Government to Reintroduce Caning in Schools," The Nation, 4 Aug. 2008.

129 John Carvel, "Parents Call for Schools to Bring Back the Cane," The Guardian, 7 Jan. 2000;
Stephanie Nebehay, "U.N. Panel Tells Britain to Improve Child Protection," Reuters, 3 Oct. 2008.

130 Benjamin Muindi and Samwell Kumba, "Return of the Cane Against Children's Act, Says
Minister," Daily Nation, 19 Aug. 2008.

131 Republic of Kenya, Laws of Kenya, The Constitution of Kenya 2010, section 29(e).

132 Contemporary use of caning in Africa has been a subject of intense interest for scholars: J.
Hatchard, "The Fall and Rise of the Cane in Zimbabwe," Journal of African Law 35,1-2 (1991), 198-202; J.
Hatchard, "The Fall of the Cane Again: Corporal Punishment in Nigeria," Journal of African Law 36, 1

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56 Paul Ocobock

In that past, the corporal punishment of young African males by co

was part of a broader aim by the British to exert authority over younger g
the course of colonial rule, magistrates used the rattan cane in particular wa
for certain gendered age groups, offenses, and locations. Colonial law restr
young males under the age of sixteen, yet magistrates generally ordered it
around the age of thirteen. It was also mainly used for youths convicted
burglary. Caning defined age and misbehavior, separating out those too y
crimes were too minor to warrant physical violence as well as those old o
enough to require incarceration. The state caned young African males most
of non-African settlement like the White Highlands and Nairobi. The face
urban colonial justice, caning provided a disciplinary interface betwee
seeking to punish young African males and the state.

Just as canings were conducted in colonial prisons or on European sett

too, were beatings meted out in paternal homesteads and village grazing f
for the young and uninitiated, fathers used physical violence to correct th
labor of sons. As the young found new ways to make mischief during colon
and chiefs increasingly turned to corporal punishment. Moreover, boys fou
part of a growing colonial community in which indiscipline begot
community extended outwards from a son beaten for allowing the herd t
student slapped on the wrist for forgetting his alphabet, to a juvenile offe
stealing maize cobs from the kitchen of a European home. As such, corpo
provided a mutually re-enforcing method of age-defined discipline sh
African and non-Africans alike, forming a network of generational autho

Coming of age in colonial Kenya was, at times, a violent experience f

African males. Despite the colonial state's numerous attempts to cast judic
limited, civilized punishmentmore akin to chastisementit rema
humiliating encounter for thousands of young Africans as well as a few E
Asians like Amritlal Monji. Some Kenyan Africans, beaten by fathers and k
their youth, remember such domestic violence as a normal part of growing
it with bitterness. A father's walking stick and a prison officer's rattan cane
corrected their behavior then; but they etched indelible memories of pain
last to this day.

(1992), 81-85; and Stephen A. Pet6, "Spare the Rod and Spoil the Nation?: Trends in Corp
Abroad and Its Place in the New South Africa," South African Journal of Criminal Justi

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