A familiar tale of uprising and bloody suppression

Stanley Meisler was the Los Angeles Times' Africa correspondent, based in Kenya, from 1967 to 1973.

Histories of the Hanged

The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire

David Anderson

W.W. Norton: 406 pp., $25.95


Imperial Reckoning

The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya

Caroline Elkins

Henry Holt: 478 pp., $27.50


Mau MAU burst upon the imagination of the world half a century ago, when newspapers and magazines published lurid photos accompanied by accounts of crazed savages slaughtering white settlers and their families in the Arcadian and romantic British colony of Kenya in darkest Africa. The images of an irrational black onslaught were reinforced by the publication in 1955 of Robert Ruark’s bestselling novel “Something of Value,” which was made into a movie starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. To European and American ears during the 1950s, the words “Mau Mau” conjured up chilling terror.

Historians and academics have chipped away at these images ever since. Carl Rosberg, a UC Berkeley political scientist, and John Nottingham, a former British colonial officer, published their pioneering work, “The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya,” in 1966. More studies have followed over the years. The two latest books, remarkable and lucid accounts by British and American academics that are brimming with new evidence, surely smash the myth and images for good.

David Anderson and Caroline Elkins describe the Mau Mau insurgency, which lasted from 1952 to 1960, as an extreme response by the Kikuyu tribe to British injustice and land grabbing -- a response that might have been minimized had the British not reacted with so much fury. The British suppression was as bloodthirsty and irrational as the Mau Mau uprising itself. Despite all the tales, only 32 white settlers died at the hands of the Mau Mau terrorists. Tens of thousands of Kikuyus -- Elkins says perhaps more than 100,000 -- died at the hands of the British forces and their African allies, often in cruel and barbarous detention camps during the uprising.


For a reader, the new books have an odd, almost eerie dimension. So much seems to echo what has been going on of late in Iraq and Afghanistan. The British convinced themselves that the African insurgents were terrorists driven by tribal curses who had no reasonable motivation for their actions. International treaties like the Geneva Convention would not apply to them .

In their sweeps, the British did not differentiate between Mau Mau insurgents and other Africans; the innocent were swept along and kept in lengthy detention or even executed. The brutality of the repression produced more recruits for the insurrection. The British tortured prisoners to make them talk but hid their actions behind legal mumbo jumbo and euphemisms like “compelling force.” When some of the abuses were exposed in Britain, the government insisted that strong measures were needed against terrorists and that the abuses, in any case, were committed by only a few bad apples.

Neither Anderson nor Elkins mentions Iraq or Afghanistan. They began their research long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They focus only on the story of how a self-styled white man’s colony burst into bloody insurrection and how the British stamped it down with brutal force. However, a reader has to marvel at how easily history and ignorance repeat themselves.

Anderson, a lecturer in African studies at Oxford University, bases his account of the Mau Mau insurrection mainly on a trove of records he found in the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi -- the proceedings of more than 800 Mau Mau trials conducted by the British that condemned 1,090 Africans to death by hanging. Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard University, takes a different approach. She embellishes her study of the records of the British suppression with interviews of 300 Africans, most of them survivors of prisons, detention camps and emergency villages.

The audacity of Kenya’s 40,000 white settlers during the 1950s is kind of mind-boggling now. They were outnumbered 200 to 1 by the country’s 8 million Africans. Yet the settlers could imagine themselves someday running Kenya the way whites now run former British colonies like Canada or Australia or even the United States. The blacks, according to the white settlers, were simply too uncivilized to stand in the way.

Yet the Mau Mau rebellion came out of sophisticated nationalist feelings, especially among the Kikuyus, the largest tribe in Kenya. These feelings were powered by resentment over the large tracts of farm land monopolized by whites while the overcrowded African areas had too little land to go around. Kikuyu hotheads began to unite their compatriots against the British through a traditional religious ceremony known as oathing. The oaths, reinforced by such rituals as the smearing of blood on a forehead and the chewing of a goat’s innards, were regarded as so binding that an oathed Kikuyu risked supernatural vengeance if he or she betrayed the tribe. The term Mau Mau -- first coined by the British -- was probably derived from the Kikuyu word for oath.


The first victims of the uprising were Kikuyus themselves -- chiefs, landowners, Christians and others who refused to go along. To deal with this, Sir Evelyn Baring, the British governor, foolishly declared a state of emergency in October 1952, arrested Kikuyu nationalist leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and called for more British troops to pacify the colony. At the time Baring issued his decree, only a single white farmer had been killed. The emergency inflamed the insurgency and drove thousands of young Mau Mau to take refuge in the mountain forests of Kenya. The British insisted that Kenyatta was the Mau Mau leader, but both Anderson and Elkins dismiss the notion. In fact, they regard him as the only hope -- before the emergency declaration -- of moderating the movement and leading the Africans to majority rule peacefully. The conflict itself became a kind of civil war, with many Kikuyu fighting alongside the British against Mau Mau.

The British defeated the rebellion within eight years. They did so by killing and capturing the warriors in the forest, convicting suspected terrorists in the courts, detaining tens of thousands of Mau Mau sympathizers and rounding up more than 1 million Kikuyus -- mostly women, children and elderly men -- and confining them to 804 villages enclosed by trenches and barbed wire. Despite victory, however, the British government and public were so troubled by the cost and turmoil that -- to the dismay and outrage of the settlers -- they soon abandoned Kenya as a white man’s colony. The Africans lost the war but won their independence.

In “Histories of the Hanged,” Anderson tells the full story of the rise of Mau Mau and the brutal British suppression that followed. He insists that “no one in authority” -- from the prime minister in London to the district officers in Kenya -- “could claim that they didn’t know” about the British abuses, including torture and wanton killing of detainees. “Their reaction,” he writes, “ ... was to deflect and deny, disparaging the accusers or making light of the accusations.” Anderson’s narrative -- bolstered by realistic descriptions of life in Kenya and informed analysis of the causes of the Mau Mau insurrection -- is ample, judicious and elegant.

Elkins’ “Imperial Reckoning” complements Anderson’s book. Although she includes an analysis of the causes and politics of the insurgency, she is more concerned with documenting the full extent of the British brutality. Writing with white heat, she details the unsavory story of summary executions, rapes, sodomy with bottles, castration, flogging with chains and rhino whips, attacks by dogs, humiliation by nakedness and a host of torture techniques including electric shock, near drowning and sleep deprivation. The detail is sometimes numbing but always vital. Her thorough documentation is necessary to prove her case that the British, while suppressing the Mau Mau, were guilty of “creating one of the most restrictive police states in the history of the empire and deploying unspeakable terror and violence.”

Both books are distinguished additions to African colonial history and pointed reminders that even the most benign occupying power can behave inhumanely when its soldiers believe their enemies are less than human. *