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NAIROBI, Kenya — It was not quite a direct apology, and it came at least 50 years late.

But the British government’s “sincere regrets” over colonial abuses of Kenyans during the 1950’s Mau Mau uprising and its agreement to pay $30 million in compensation to survivors was the first time Britain has admitted guilt over colonial-era abuses, not just in Kenya but anywhere, according to Harvard historian Caroline Elkins.

It was also a landmark admission by Britain that its empire was far more violent and sordid than the splendid lyrics of “Rule Britannia” convey, according to Elkins, who was in Nairobi for the announcement.

“It’s the first time the British government has acknowledged that it was not the empire it claimed to have been,” said Elkins, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”.

“Never before has the British government issued an apology like this.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the compensation payments — averaging about $5,700 for each of the 5,228 claimants — in Parliament in London, acknowledging that the victims were tortured and abused by the colonial administration.

“The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya’s progress toward independence,” Hague said. “Torture and ill treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity, which we unreservedly condemn.”

Thousands of Kenyans were killed in the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, and thousands more were detained and tortured, including the grandfather of President Obama, according to Obama’s step-grandmother, Sarah Onyango.

The brutality was one of the empire’s guilty secrets, and it was never supposed to get out: “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” the British attorney general in Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones, told the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, in a 1957 letter. It was one of thousands of documents released from archives last year.

The rebellion began in 1952 and continued until 1960. Kenya gained independence in 1963. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, 90,000 Kenyans were killed, tortured or maimed during the conflict, and 160,000 were held in inhumane prison camps.

Five elderly Kenyan filed claims against the British government in 2009, but the law firm Leigh Day eventually represented the 5,228 Kenyan claimants. Among the original claimants, Paulo Muoka Nzili testified that he was castrated by British soldiers. Wambuga Wa Nyingi was in the Hola prison camp in 1959 when British guards carried out beatings, killing 11 people. Jane Muthoni Mara suffered sexual abuse in a prison camp.

Justice came too late for the two other original claimants, who died as the case dragged on.

For decades the British Foreign Office kept documents describing the torture of Mau Mau rebels hidden in a secret archive. Until 2011, it denied the archive’s existence.

In court the British argued that the Kenyan government should take responsibility and that the events were too long ago to enable a fair trial to take place.

Some claimants wept as Hague’s statement was read at a ceremony marking the occasion at the British High Commission in Nairobi.

Dixon reported from Johannesburg, and special correspondent Soi from Nairobi.