Scholars shatter myths on cause of Mau Mau struggle

Sunday September 17 2006

By MYLES G. OSBORNE and FREDERICK K. IRAKI

Histories of the Hanged: Britain's dirty war in Kenya and the end of empire by David Anderson and Britain's Gulag: The brutal end of empire in Kenya by Caroline ElkinsReviewed by MYLES G. OSBORNE and FREDERICK K. IRAKI 

The Mau Mau oath is the most bestial, filthy and nauseating incantation which perverted minds can ever have brewed . . . (when writing about Mau Mau), 'I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page – the horned shadow of the Devil himself.'" Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttleton's words were typical of the explosion of hysterical publicity which poured forth from Kenya's white settler community during the 1950s, mainly though not exclusively to Great Britain, concerning the Mau Mau Emergency.

Yet the fact that the moderate Kenyatta all but ignored Mau Mau during his tenure as first President of Kenya, refusing to remove the organisation's proscription (Mau Mau would have to wait for President Kibaki to do so in 2003), the resulting silence has led to the episode being misunderstood. The Mau Mau war has received more attention than almost any other topic in the history of sub-Saharan Africa; yet scholars have disagreed wildly over its nature and events.

Two recently-published works have finally done the memory of Mau Mau justice with analysis and painstaking research at a level beyond that which has gone before. These are Caroline Elkins' Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya and David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. Both are shining examples of what academic work should be today: Both authors are gifted story-tellers, with Anderson's dark tone and Elkins' hard-hitting, vibrant language making each book difficult to put down; yet each book provides an outstanding example of careful research methodology, combined with a deep understanding of the complex interactions between settlers, Government officials, Mau Mau, "loyalists" and various other groups.

Elkins is an Associate Professor of History at Harvard University and won international acclaim for her award-winning documentary White Terror in 2002. Britain's Gulag also won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. This book investigates the "detention and rehabilitation" camps into which the British placed the Kikuyu believed to be Mau Mau. The camps form part of a larger attack on the final days of the British Empire in Kenya, shattering the myth that the British quietly and respectably helped their colonies to independence.

Elkins argues that taking into account the Kikuyu imprisoned in these camps, as well as in the "enclosed villages" the number could be closer to 1.5 million. The mood of the book is stated unequivocally in the preface, where she explains that, "I now believe that in late colonial Kenya, there was a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead". This claim is particularly extraordinary when contrasted with the official British figures for the number of Mau Mau killed – "just" 11,000. In this way Elkins prepares the reader for what is a damning indictment of British rule in Kenya and, by extension, across its dwindling empire during the 1950s.

Elkins relies on the testimony of over 300 informants, all interviewed between 1999 and 2004, for much of the material in her book. This is in some ways a choice forced upon her by the available archival evidence. She points out that large numbers of files are simply missing from the Kenya National Archives and that many significant files in Great Britain are still sealed from public viewing.

She also asserts that in 1963 the British deliberately burnt any files relating to the atrocities that occurred during Mau Mau. She is keen to allow the testimonies to speak for themselves, which they certainly do. The author's moral outrage is clear on every page; yet Elkins' often vitriolic condemnation of the British frequently comes across as one-sided. She makes little attempt to acknowledge or mention that not each Briton was a torturer or sadist, or that some Britons actively fought for the rights of the Kikuyu. This somewhat weakens the force of her overall argument.

"The British love a good hang," states Anderson (Lecturer, Oxford University) wryly in the opening of Histories of the Hanged; but the reader is rapidly forced to take these hangings with utmost seriousness as Anderson reveals that: "In no other place, and at no other time in the history of British imperialism, was state execution used on such a scale as this." During the 1950s the British sent 1,090 Kikuyu to the gallows. 

The idea was to spread terror among the population, although Anderson is quick to acknowledge that the story of Mau Mau is one of "atrocity and excess on both sides". Due to the careful and systematic recording of capital court cases, the case transcripts for over 800 cases survive in the archives today. Using these documents – many of which had previously never been read – Anderson is able to uncover the feelings and motives of many Mau Mau guerrillas from their own words. In this way, he is able to take the reader from the courtrooms of Nairobi and London to the forests, detention camps and villages of Kikuyuland.

While Britain's Gulag is particularly strong in contextualising the Mau Mau conflict within the overall picture of a waning British Empire (Chapter 1: Pax Britannica), Anderson's strength lies in his deep understanding of Kikuyu internal politics and provides an excellent Kikuyu-centred background for the conflict (Chapter 1: The Hidden History of an Anti-Colonial Rebellion). His detailed depiction of the Lari Massacre of March 26, 1953 is especially notable (Chapter 3: Death at Lari).

Rather than understanding the massacre – as most authors have – as an isolated flashpoint during the Mau Mau conflict, Anderson instead takes the reader back to the turn of the 20th century, to Tigoni, approximately 20 miles to the south. By explaining the various redistributions of land which led to many new families moving to Lari from Tigoni – families seen as "cursed" by the original Lari residents and complicit in the alienation of what was their land – Anderson reveals why the slaughter took place and why certain people were chosen to die.

While Anderson's work is certainly erudite, one wonders whether field interviews would not have made his work more convincing in allowing the voice of the Kikuyu people to be heard in the text. Anderson cites only three interviews with Africans present in his 30 page bibliography.

Both Britain's Gulag and Histories of the Hanged are timely reminders of the importance of the past in the present. Both have recalled a period of history which has been shrouded in mystery for the past 50 years. In October, a group of former Mau Mau fighters will present its case in Great Britain seeking reparations for atrocities carried out by the British Government. The two books are examples of scholarly writing at its best.

Miles Osborne is a PhD candidate, Harvard University, while F.K. Iraki is an associate professor of French, USIU