Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire
By David Anderson
Norton, 2005, 320 pp.
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya
By Caroline Elkins
Henry Holt, 2005, 496 pp.
These two books take advantage of new data sources to provide compelling accounts of Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, in which mostly landless members of the Kikuyu ethnic group rose violently against the British colonial government, the European settlers, and the so-called loyalist Kikuyu, who supported the colonial order. Mau Mau's clearest grievance had to do with access to the choice agricultural areas of the highlands northwest of Nairobi, but the group fed on the general cultural and economic dislocation brought about by modernization and occupation. Both works are impressively researched and highly readable. Anderson makes excellent use of court records to structure his history around the trials that would lead to death sentences for more than a thousand Kikuyu. Elkins focuses on the squalid and inhumane prison camps the British authorities built to imprison hundreds of thousands of suspects.
The severity of British repression is striking in both works. As Anderson points out, death sentences were chillingly more common in Kenya than in places such as Palestine or Malaya. These books also dispel the myth that Mau Mau violence was primarily directed at European settlers. In fact, only 32 were killed in the half decade of violence, whereas as many as 300,000 Kikuyu lost their lives. The two accounts do differ on the relationship between the conflict and the anticolonial struggle in Kenya. Elkins tends to frame the violence in an anticolonial context; Anderson's more sociological approach puts greater emphasis on intra-Kikuyu conflict, mostly over land but also over religion and the nature of Kikuyu identity, and shows that the urban African elites who would lead the struggle for independence were little involved in Mau Mau and in many cases explicitly opposed it.