- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005


By David Anderson

Norton, $25.95, 406 pages


By Caroline Elkins

Henry Holt, $27.50, 406 pages, illus.


Fifty years ago, a lot of nasty things were going on in the British East African colony of Kenya. Accustomed to thinking of that place in terms of big game hunting and decadent expatriate living, the rest of the world suddenly began associating it with horrifying violence.

Brutal massacres exploded onto headlines and newsreels, and images of bodies hacked to pieces replaced the snows of Kilimanjaro and ivory tusks as the symbols of Kenya. Such a dramatic eruption of mayhem needs a name: hence the term Mau Mau.

What was Mau Mau? It was the name given by the British authorities to the insurrection which blew up suddenly in 1952 and appears to have derived from the Kikuyu word for an oath, the swearing of which was an integral part of binding adherents to this militant organization.

No more than a few dozen white settlers were in fact killed by the Mau Mau, whose aim was to force the colonial rulers to leave Kenya. They did, however, massacre many thousands of their black compatriots, mostly because their religious or other moral scruples would not permit them to participate in the cruel activities of those who took the Mau Mau oath.

You might think that this conflict between good and evil might be the focus of books on the Mau Mau insurrection, but it is unfortunately an all too familiar sign of our times that two substantial volumes devoted to this subject should appear, both portraying the affair entirely in accordance with fashionable “post-colonial” academic nostrums.

Indeed, each author has chosen to examine a tangential aspect of the conflict: British scholar David Anderson’s “Histories of the Hanged” concentrates on the death sentences handed out by the British authorities to those Mau Mau convicted of premeditated murder, while Harvard professor Caroline Elkins’ “Imperial Reckoning” focuses on the internment camps in which suspected Mau Mau were held.

It should come as no surprise that both books cast the British colonial authorities in the worst of lights. Loaded words like “gulag” and “genocide” are bandied about, particularly by Ms. Elkins, who seems to regard colonialism as practically on a par with Nazism.

Hers is by the far the worse book of the two, full of righteous (or one is tempted to say wrong-teous) indignation about the British and their attempts at protecting law-abiding citizens, while accepting the most dastardly deeds by the Mau Mau as apparently legitimate because they are anti-colonialist.

David Anderson seems genuinely horrified by the incredible violence of the insurrection — he constantly uses words like “savage” and “brutal” — but in the end he also seems to slot even such revolting excesses into that same old anti-colonial paradigm.

Although it is meant to be self-evidently condemnatory, his account of the British judicial process which resulted in the hangings actually shows it to have been surprisingly fair, with its appeals process going all the way through local courts to the Privy Council, especially in comparison to the Mau Mau policy of killing any rejectionists or even suspected collaborators without any judicial process.

All women and those men under 18 sentenced to death by the British had their sentences automatically commuted by the governor. And if the camps chronicled by Ms. Elkins were not model places of incarceration, prisoners in them certainly fared better than inhabitants of the black village of Lari, the scene of an infamous Mau Mau massacre, described by Mr. Anderson:

“In five or six separate gangs, each numbering one hundred or more persons, the attackers descended upon their targets … armed with pangas, swords, spears, knives, and axes, and with some carrying burning torches, they swarmed over the unprotected homesteads. They carried with them ropes, which they tied around the huts to prevent the occupants from opening the doors before they set the thatch alight. As the occupants struggled to clamber through the windows to escape, they were savagely cut down.

“Most of those caught in the attack were women and children, but they were shown no mercy by the attackers, who seemed intent on killing every person in the homesteads … . As the bodies were cut down and viciously hacked, the attackers threw them back into the blazing huts … . By 10 p.m. some 120 bodies lay dead or grievously injured in the smoldering ruins of fifteen homesteads … In their wake, there was chaos, terror, shock, anger and indescribable grief.”

Ms. Elkins’ account of this massacre is briefer and colder, but substantially echoes the facts. Her emphasis may be seen in the words concluding her paragraph: “With the homesteads still smoldering and the bodies yet to be removed, the colonial government shepherded the press into the area to witness and record the carnage. Official press releases were handed out which described in gruesome detail the carnage resulting from the attack, which the colonial government called the Lari massacre. These releases, though, failed to mention that as many as four hundred Mau Mau were killed by security forces ” British and African soldiers, local police officers, and loyalists — during a vengeful reprisal.”

Vengeful, indeed. Even the most violent act seems justified to Ms. Elkins if it is part of the anti-colonialist struggle, yet she does not seem to understand what was being avenged by the security forces. After all, who started it? It’s not as if the colonial government sought out the wholesale internment or slaughter of the indigenous population. Yet the underlying assumption of both books appears to be that anything goes as long as it is part of the liberation struggle.

Both authors make a great deal of the undoubtedly unjust system of land confiscation practiced by the British colonial administration against the Kikuyu and other tribes in Kenya and about the identification book or “pass” system used to control movement and ensure cheap labor. With the tunnel vision that is so typical of academe today, they offer this up as justification for the insurrection, without any comparison with other parts of Africa where such injustices were at least as prevalent.

In South Africa, for example, all this and more was a feature of life for blacks, who unlike their brothers in Kenya, could not participate, even in small numbers, in government. Yet at no point in the struggle for liberation against apartheid were atrocities on the scale of Mau Mau even contemplated, let alone acted out. Surely it is incumbent upon writers chronicling something as unprecedentedly brutal and violent as Mau Mau to attempt some sort of explanation of the culture which could produce such atrocious conduct.

Yet they are content to condemn a system — colonialism — which nowhere else engendered anything similar, without facing up to the indigenous factors which contributed to such an outrage.

Both authors seem to underestimate the difficulties the colonial authorities faced with the local white settlers, who were clearly ready and even eager to take matters into their own hands during the insurrection. That worse excesses did not take place on a widespread scale is due to the administration’s pro-active and firm response.

Both these academic “experts” also seem to labor under the delusion that it was possible for these white settlers to seriously contemplate controlling Kenyan self-government indefinitely. One doesn’t know whose delusion is the more ridiculous, the settlers’ in the 1950s or these academics’ today.

Did none of them remember that immediately after granting whites-only rule to Southern Rhodesia in 1923, the Colonial Office in London adopted the “Devonshire Doctrine,” which made the interests of the majority paramount in all colonial decisions henceforth. Therefore majority rule was already inevitable in Kenya when the Mau Mau period commenced. Rather than hastening independence as these authors seem to think, it may have delayed it.

Any doubt as to these books’ cultural relativism or lack of a moral compass disappears when they deal with the Kikuyu custom of genital mutilation (they call it female circumcision, but let us acknowledge what it actually involves.) As an authentic indigenous practice, it is apparently sacrosanct, for the efforts of Christian missionaries and the colonial government to discourage it are viewed as reprehensible and even a casus belli to justify the violent Mau Mau insurrection. At this point, all you can do is throw up your hands in despair.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide