Britain's Gulag: the brutal end of empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins<br/>Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson

Forgotten shame of empire

Stephen Howe
Friday 21 January 2005 01:00

JONATHAN CAPE £20 (475pp). £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

As David Anderson says, the very words "Mau Mau" still conjure up memories of something evil lurking in history's dark shadows. Mau Mau was depicted in Britain at the time - and often since - as a struggle between savagery and civilisation. The revolt in Kenya seemed not only shocking but puzzling. Why a full-scale uprising just as empire was being dismantled? By 1952, when it began, Britain had already given up India and Pakistan, Burma and Palestine. A transfer of power was being planned in Malaya and at least contemplated in West Africa. Empire was in headlong retreat.

African resentment at the wealth, arrogance and racism of Kenya's white-settler minority had much to do with it. The fulcrum of such dissent was the Kikuyu people of central Kenya. Kikuyu both suffered and gained most from European rule. Much of their land had been lost to white settlers. Large numbers became "squatters"; tenants on European-owned farms. Still more partook in rapid urbanisation. European-model education spread more rapidly among Kikuyu than any other Kenyan group. And some prospered in agriculture, deftly occupying niches left open by the white farmers and colonial regulations.

When Kikuyu militants rebelled in the early Fifties, then, it seemed that colonial "modernisation" had failed. Why? British answers centred on a pseudo-scientific picture of Kikuyu psychology. They were cleverer than other Africans, but there was something unbalanced about them. They were an "unfathomable" tribe, in whom ideas about the inscrutability of the African mind found their most intense expression.

The oathing rituals which guerrillas evolved, and the brutality of their treatment of enemies, became the centrepieces of official and media demonisation of Mau Mau. Some British newspapers, and novelists like Robert Ruark, appeared to delight in reporting, embellishing or fabricating such traits as a form of sadistic pornography.

The Kenyan Emergency was also shocking on another level - and should have been far more so, for British observers and commentators, than it was. White settler and British security-force casualties were very low, despite the huge and gruesome publicity given to them in British media. Just 95 Europeans were killed, 32 of them civilians.

Deaths among the Kikuyu were massive. Official figures gave the total of Mau Mau "killed in combat" as 11,503. Most were slaughtered in cold blood, many were entirely innocent, and the real total was probably over 20,000. By Caroline Elkins's estimate, at least 160,000 Kikuyu were detained (almost all without trial) and often brutally ill-treated. Torture was routine.

Anti-terrorist laws suspended the rights of suspects, imposed collective punishments and extended the death penalty to a wide range of almost trivial offences. A total of 1,090 were hanged - when Britain "at home" was debating abolition of the death penalty. The evidence was often scanty in the extreme, many confessions probably extracted by torture, and the trials perfunctory.

As David Anderson points out, judicial killing had not taken place on such a scale anywhere else or at any other time in the history of British imperialism. His description of central Kenya during the Fifties as a "police state in the very fullest sense", or Elkins's of the detention camps as "Britain's Gulag", seem all too apt.

Anderson's research on Mau Mau trials and their victims, and Elkins's on the detention camps, not only transform our understanding of empire's end, but should produce political shock-waves. It appears possible that some former Kenya colonial officials will, even now, face criminal charges arising from the events of five decades ago.

To ask why the shock (if it happens) will be in the early 21st century, not during the 1950s, is on some levels an evidently naïve question - but on others genuinely intriguing. It is not that there was no outcry in Britain over the conduct of the Emergency. Elkins looks in some detail (albeit with a sometimes shaky grasp of British domestic politics) at the storms of protest in press and Parliament, rightly honouring Barbara Castle as probably the most courageous voice of liberal conscience.

Yet these were surprisingly small storms. Many of the most prominent British thinkers and artists - Mill and Carlyle, Ruskin and Dickens - entered passionately into the fray over colonial atrocities in 1860s Jamaica. One finds no similar response to Mau Mau among their equivalents in the 1950s, nor anything like the engagement of Sartre, Camus and others with France's crimes in Algeria. Liberal Britain's muted reaction to the Kenyan crisis remains puzzling, and shaming.

Anderson's and Elkins's books are closely related, in many ways complementary, equally devastating in their indictment of British atrocities. Yet their approaches are sharply different. Elkins writes like a prosecutor, Anderson more like a judge - a more conscientious and fair-minded one than those presiding over Mau Mau trials. There is a wider compassion for all the war's victims in his work than in Elkins': she is too inclined to place all blame on the British, the settlers, and their allies the Kikuyu "Loyalists". She reproduces some outworn stereotypes of Kenyan settlers as a decadent aristocracy, and depicts pro-British Africans as merely greedy exploiters.

Probably well over half the war's victims were killed by fellow Kikuyu, whether Mau Mau, police or Home Guard. The Emergency was many things but one of them, clearly, was a Kikuyu civil war. This dimension, while not quite missing, is underplayed in Elkins's account.

Anderson is stronger too on the broad contexts of British colonial policy and ideology. Elkins's picture of these, again, oversimplifies - mostly reducing them to a crude and virulent racism (which was obviously present, but itself requires more exploration) and the idea of a colonial "civilising mission". That phrase and concept was mostly dead before the time she writes about. On the other side, although she says much about Mau Mau detainees' staunchness for their beliefs, there is disappointingly little explanation of what these were; of what motivated Mau Mau.

Her greatest achievement, conversely, lies in unearthing through hundreds of interviews the tragic and horrifying memories of Kikuyu participants. Her best chapters are on detainees' experiences "behind the wire", drawing heavily on interview material. A more probing attitude to some of their claims, though, would have strengthened her book, even on the level of indictment. So would avoidance of the clichéd and largely inapt Nazi analogies which she too often invokes. What Britain did in Kenya was - as both Anderson and Elkins make clear in unprecedented and shocking detail - vicious, shameful and unforgiveable. Loose rhetorical comparisons do not help make that vital point, but distract from it.

Stephen Howe's 'Empire: a very short introduction' is published by Oxford

Buy any book reviewed on this site at
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments