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How did they get away with it?Bernard Porter
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Vol. 27 No. 5 · 3 March 2005

How did they get away with it?

Bernard Porter

3937 words
Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire 
by David Anderson.
Weidenfeld, 406 pp., £20, January 2005, 0 297 84719 8
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Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya 
by Caroline Elkins.
Cape, 475 pp., £20, January 2005, 9780224073639
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In Niall Ferguson’s panegyric to British colonialism, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), Kenya gets just one significant mention. It comes in the introduction, and is a description of his time there as a boy. It was three years after independence, but, happily, ‘scarcely anything had changed’ since colonial days. ‘We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango. I suspect my mother was never happier.’ Glasgow, where the family returned after just two years, was a comedown. ‘To the Scots, the empire stood for bright sunshine.’ You can see that in the book. Yet less than a decade before Ferguson’s idyllic stay there, Kenya had been wracked by war, with much bloodshed and unspeakable atrocities on all sides. It was wrong to say that ‘scarcely anything had changed.’ Not that the young Ferguson would have been aware of that in the 1960s; but by the time he came to write his book, some knowledge of it should have percolated through. The Kenya ‘Emergency’ is a major incident in the history of the end of the empire: it makes a difference to the whole story. But he doesn’t mention it. Perhaps we should not be too hard on Ferguson. I can’t offhand think of another modern general history of British imperialism or decolonisation that leaves 1950s Kenya out of the picture entirely, but none of them (including my own) makes as much of it as we shall clearly need to now, after the publication of these two brilliant, meticulously researched and shocking books.

The British declared the Kenya Emergency in 1952, when seven years of restless dissatisfaction with British rule culminated in the full-scale rebellion known as Mau Mau. It was very largely the struggle of the Kikuyu, the country’s majority ethnic group – about 1.5 million in a native population of five million – who had lost much of their land to white settlers and had moved into reservations or continued farming as tenants. The Emergency saw out two prime ministers – Churchill and Eden – and ended in January 1960. In that time, Mau Mau supporters killed at least 2000 African civilians and inflicted some 200 casualties on the army and police. In all, 32 white settlers died in the rebellion. For their part, the British hanged more than 1000 Kikuyu, detained at least 150,000 and, according to official figures, killed around 12,000 in combat, though the real figure, in David Anderson’s view, is ‘likely to have been more than 20,000’. In addition, Caroline Elkins claims, up to 100,000 died in the detention camps.

It is the scale of the British atrocities in Kenya that is the most startling revelation of these books. We always knew about the Mau Mau atrocities, of course: assiduously retailed to the British public by the authorities in Kenya through the Colonial Office, and right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail. (Elkins calls the Daily Mail a ‘tabloid’, which isn’t strictly true for this period, but seems to fit in other ways.) But for years the equally savage abuses by British officers and their African collaborators in the detention camps, controlled villages and courtrooms of Kenya were mostly hidden from people at home. They knew some of it – indeed, did what they could to put an end to it after the scandalous British beatings of detainees at Hola camp in 1959, which left 11 dead and 60 seriously wounded – but nothing like the whole. Alan Lennox-Boyd, colonial secretary for much of this period, and one of the villains of both these books, can take much of the credit. First he denied abuses, then when that was no longer possible he dismissed them as exceptional (‘bad apples’), and appealed to his critics to remember what they were up against in Kenya: not an ordinary policing problem, but an outbreak of atavistic ‘evil’ – a useful word when you are confronting something you don’t understand. ‘Duplicity at its finest’, Elkins calls this. He also had a nice line in discrediting whistle-blowers. Then, when the British eventually left Kenya, they made bonfires of most of the incriminating material about the detention camps. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, connived in this, anxious in the interests of national unity to ‘erase’ the past, and not to encourage the ‘hooligans’ of Mau Mau. (It was a bit like South Africa’s ‘truth and reconciliation’, but without the truth.) Elkins tells us that she was taken in by Colonial Office propaganda at the beginning of her research, as she leafed through the files at the Public Record Office, and realised the extent of their mendacity only when she went out to Kenya to see and hear for herself. This may be part of the reason for the anger that suffuses her narrative, in contrast to Anderson’s more clinical, dispassionate tone. No one likes to be duped; on the other hand, there is much here to be angry about.

Anderson focuses mainly on the trials of Mau Mau suspects. He has read the trial transcripts and pieced together a picture of systematic injustice. Defendants were poorly represented, convicted on highly dubious evidence, often from dodgy informers, or after having confessions beaten out of them, by judges who were usually highly prejudiced. One judge was (effectively) bribed to reach a guilty verdict: he was paid £20,000 to come out from Britain to put Kenyatta behind barbed wire in 1953. Many defendants were hanged for much lesser offences than murder; often they were innocent. The number hanged, 1090, was a record for any British colony of the time, and more even than were executed by the French in Algeria. The reprieved and acquitted did not go free. Most were sent to camps for interrogation or ‘re-education’ – or just to rot away out of sight of nervous Europeans. Most of the rest of the Kikuyu population (including thousands from Nairobi) were herded into ‘emergency villages’ enclosed in barbed wire. All this turned Kenya into what Anderson calls ‘a police state in the very fullest sense of that term’.

The camps and emergency villages are where Elkins takes up the story. Some of her evidence comes from rare surviving documentation, but the most vivid is from the recollections of Kikuyu themselves. There are problems with this kind of testimony, of course. ‘Virtually all Kikuyus claim to have belonged to the Mau Mau,’ Kwamchetsi Makokha writes in his review of these books in the New Statesman, ‘regardless of whether they were even alive in the 1950s. Africans love stories; they tell them and retell them over and over again. Tales are communally owned, and it is not considered an abominable act of plagiarism to present another person’s story as your own. All this makes Elkins’s reliance on oral testimonies problematic.’ There may be something in this. But Elkins is aware of these pitfalls, and tells us she has done what she can to avoid them. She is convinced that her sources opened up to her because she is an American. Many of her accounts corroborate one another, and are corroborated in their turn by the surviving written evidence. More telling, perhaps, they are often confirmed by the white settlers she has interviewed, who ‘still seemed to take delight in their handiwork during Mau Mau. They spoke of heinous tortures as if they were describing yesterday’s weather; for them the brutality they perpetrated during the Emergency is as banal today as it was some fifty years ago.’ In case we think that they are merely winding her up in some perverse macho way because she is a woman, Anderson found exactly the same thing. As well as confirming many of the victims’ accounts, this seems to indicate that the brutality was endemic in what Anderson calls the ‘culture of impunity’ of the period; which in itself gives the lie to Lennox-Boyd’s ‘bad apples’ defence.

It was a culture of routine beatings, starvation, killings (the hanged represent only a small fraction of those who died in British custody during the Emergency) and torture of the most grotesque kinds. Alsatian dogs were used to terrify prisoners and then ‘maul’ them. There are other similarities with Abu Ghraib: various indignities were devised using human faeces; men were forced to sodomise one another. They also had sand, pepper and water stuffed in their anuses. One apparently had his testicles cut off, and was then made to eat them. ‘Things got a little out of hand,’ one (macho European) witness told Elkins, referring to another incident. ‘By the time we cut his balls off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him.’ Women were gang-raped, had their nipples squeezed with pliers, and vermin and hot eggs thrust into their vaginas. Children were butchered and their body parts paraded around on spears. Then there were the pettier deprivations: women forbidden to sing hymns in Komiti camp, for example, because they were putting ‘subversive’ words to them. All this while anti-Mau Mau and pro-British propaganda blared out at detainees from loudspeakers. Anderson quotes the testimony of a European officer in 1962, recalling an attempt to interrogate some ‘Mickeys’ – a slang name for the Mau Mau.

They wouldn’t say a thing, of course, and one of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept right on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. He went down in a heap but when he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped, I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I said something, I don’t remember what, and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys were standing there looking blank. I said to them that if they didn’t tell me where to find the rest of the gang I’d kill them too. They didn’t say a word so I shot them both. One wasn’t dead so I shot him in the ear. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him that the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleared up.’

The significant thing here (apart from the refusal of the three prisoners to co-operate) is that the officer had no qualms about describing all this.

Elkins has been criticised in some reviews for using the analogy with Nazism too freely. But nearly all the references in her book to ‘concentration camps’, the ‘Gestapo’ and so on come from contemporary accounts. Most were by critics, including some inside the system, but not all. In March 1953 a British policeman wrote a letter to his buddies back at Streatham police station bragging about the ‘Gestapo stuff’ that was going on in his new posting in Nyeri. All this happened a few years after the war, so such analogies came quickly to mind. The critics – many of whom had fought against Nazi Germany – knew what they were talking about. One relatively liberal police chief in Kenya claimed that conditions in the detention camps were far worse than those he had suffered as a Japanese POW. Comparisons were also made with the Soviet gulags, and, later on, by a former defence lawyer for the Mau Mau, with ‘ethnic cleansing’. The accepted view of Britain’s decolonisation hitherto has been that it was done in a more dignified, enlightened and consensual way than by other countries – meaning, of course, France. It will be difficult now to argue this so glibly. Kenya was Britain’s Algeria.

Was it typical? Possibly not. Anderson makes a big point of Kenya’s ‘exceptionality in the use of judicial execution’ compared with other British colonies, as well as in other ways. Elkins doesn’t entirely agree – ‘it was there,’ she says, ‘that Britain finally revealed the true nature of its civilising mission’ – but even she acknowledges that Kenya ‘stands apart’ from Britain’s other colonies in many respects. This had partly to do with the nature of the Mau Mau phenomenon, misunderstood at the time by those who refused to acknowledge the Kikuyus’ huge grievance about the land expropriated from them, which both these authors agree was at the root of the revolt. Mau Mau was described instead in terms of a disease (even by Kenyatta), or seen as an example of a peculiarly African, ‘primitive’ psychopathology. Elkins points out that this was the view in the United States. Perhaps there was a racist element to this kind of analysis, though many of the early manifestations of Mau Mau genuinely were savage: Mau Mau had many of the characteristics of a secret society – members had to swear a ritual oath and the punishment for breaking ranks, or even refusing to take the oath, was death. The Daily Mail did not make it all up.

Anderson gives more detailed attention than Elkins to all this: to the much publicised killings of white men, women and children around the turn of 1952-53; to the original massacre of Kikuyu ‘loyalists’ by Mau Mau at Lari in March 1953 (even more brutal loyalist reprisals followed); or to the practice of clitoridectomy among the Kikuyu, which was one of the main issues between them and the Christian churches early on. Mau Mau violence, as he points out, was more often directed against other Kikuyu – ‘traitors’ – than against the British authorities or the Kenyan settlers. To this extent the rebellion was also a civil war. Although Elkins denies none of this – ‘we should not romanticise the anti-colonial struggle,’ she says at one point – she doesn’t elaborate on it, which makes it difficult when reading her book to understand the panic that took hold of the settlers, the colonial administration and the African loyalists. The impact of Mau Mau terrorism can perhaps be compared with the effect of Hamas suicide bombings on Israelis today. It did not make a calm and considered response to the rebellion very likely.

Not that the white population of Kenya was likely to respond calmly and with consideration in any case. It is well known that settlers are generally the most problematic of colonists. (Again, look at Israel.) In Kenya this was exacerbated by their class origins. Most were upper middle class or even aristocratic; on their uppers before they left Britain, possibly, but social status in Britain has never been measured by wealth. A surprising proportion had been educated at public schools, including Eton. This is unusual in the history of British emigration. In Kenya, settled on fertile land taken from Africans, and with a huge pool of cheap African labour to work on their farms and as domestic servants, these odd characters could live the sort of life that their better-off chums in ‘socialist’ Britain were increasingly struggling to afford. The hedonistic, decadent lifestyle of many of them remains notorious today – ‘Happy Valley’ and all that. This may have been overplayed. More important, however, is the fact that they were cut off culturally from the majority of society in Britain, ‘strangely out of step’, as Anderson puts it, ‘with everywhere else’, with the exception perhaps of the white-dominated countries to the south of them. They were very often arrogant and brutal, and long before the Mau Mau revolt were accustomed to treating their ‘natives’ like dirt. It was they who started the violence. Their upper-class kin in Britain, on whom the settlers relied to defend them in Kenya (Elkins calls them the ‘Old Pals Protection Society’), ultimately lost patience with them. Churchill thought they were as much ‘the problem’ in Kenya as Mau Mau. (Churchill had a surprisingly favourable view of the Kikuyu: ‘not the primitive cowardly people which many imagined them to be’, he told one of the settler leaders, ‘but people of considerable fibre, ability and steel’.) The man he sent to sort the settlers out in 1953, General ‘Bobby’ Erskine, soon got the measure of them: ‘I hate the guts of them all,’ he wrote to his wife just a few months later. ‘They are all middle-class sluts.’ (How they would have hated that ‘middle-class’.) Kenya was ‘a sunny land for shady people’. By 1960 even the most reactionary of the upper classes back in Britain were ‘too embarrassed’ by their ‘excesses’ to defend the settlers any longer. The final nail in their coffin – though it turned out to be a pretty comfortable coffin, with Kenyatta letting them stay and hold on to their farms if they wanted – came when Lord Lambton, about as kosher an aristocrat as you could find in Britain, turned against them over Hola.

The puzzle is why they were allowed to get away with it for so long. It was not as if there were no protests in Britain. The British people have never been terribly interested in their empire, so a huge surge of feeling on the Kenya issue was unlikely. But the colony had more than its fair share of coverage in this period, both in Parliament (spearheaded by Barbara Castle, ‘that castellated bitch’, as a Kenyan attorney-general called her) and in the left-wing press. Castle and the others were helped by a stream of testimony from whistle-blowers in Kenya itself, which suggests a real unease there, among people who were decent (they would have said ‘British’) enough to object to what was going on. These included missionaries, as one would expect, although Elkins is critical of their unwillingness to speak publicly, mainly, she feels, because they needed government co-operation for their work of saving Mau Mau souls, and she accuses the Catholics of backing the colonial authorities. A number of judges, especially appeal court judges, spoke up. So did several soldiers and senior policemen, mainly those who had been sent in from Britain. Administrators like the Quaker Eileen Fletcher and even a few liberal settlers also raised their voices. They were not in time to save tens of thousands of African (and a few European) lives, though it was not for want of trying.

The critics lacked leverage over the Colonial Office, especially when the duplicitous Lennox-Boyd was in charge – a state of affairs compounded by the Colonial Office’s own lack of leverage over what was happening on the ground. This is an important and often underestimated factor in British imperial history. One thinks of an ‘empire’ as a system of control before anything else, but in Britain’s case, running its empire on a shoestring, the reality of control was very often compromised by the need to rule through – or at least with the passive connivance of – people on the ground. In Kenya, neither major group – the shady settlers or the aggrieved Africans – was an ideal vehicle for ‘indirect’ rule. The result was, as district officer Terence Gavaghan (nicknamed ‘Big Troublemaker’ by the Africans) put it, that ‘the gap between the supreme policy-makers with their grave political concerns, and the actions of local functionaries in a small remote place, was too wide for mutual comprehension or proper control.’ In other words, London would have found it difficult to change things even if it had wanted to.

At the same time, it seems clear that many in the Conservative government didn’t want to change things very much. Elkins has two, slightly contradictory explanations for this. The first is the conventional anti-imperialist one, that they simply wanted ‘to maintain colonial rule’. But Britain had already begun the process of decolonisation elsewhere, including in Africa. Lennox-Boyd certainly wanted to slow this down, and there seems to have been a ‘flicker of hope’ among some settlers that self-government, when it came, might give them disproportionate power, as in South Africa and (effectively) Southern Rhodesia, but that just shows how out of touch they were. (There were simply not enough of them.) The main consideration in Whitehall – Elkins alludes to this, too – was the place of the British Empire in the annals of history. That depended not only on what it could be claimed to have achieved while it was still living, but on the manner of its dying and the impression this made.

It had always been the proud boast of British imperialists (rather like American imperialists today) that their empire was uniquely beneficent; that its effect, if not its original purpose, was to spread ‘civilisation’ and even ‘freedom’ in the world. The upper classes believed they were specially fitted for this task. Anderson and Elkins both quote Barbara Castle’s observation that Lennox-Boyd was ‘imbued with the conviction that the British ruling class, both at home and overseas, could do no wrong.’ Many of those who witnessed the Kenyan atrocities, and deplored them, clung to this conviction. ‘I knew, I knew,’ an anguished Thomas Askwith confided to Elkins in 1997. ‘But how can I say it? . . . I just believed in our higher purpose . . . we had so much better to offer them. I thought our own bad hats would come around.’ They didn’t. Reporting from Kenya for the Daily Mirror, James Cameron saw among the settler community ‘the death of colonial liberalism, and the loss of the moral order that gave empire its only possible justification’. It seemed a terrible way to go. The Economist put it directly and succinctly in February 1959: ‘The one overriding consideration in treating any present-day colonial question must be what last memories of the British way of doing things are to be left behind before connections with Westminster are severed.’ It certainly ruled out any idea of upping and leaving – ‘scuttling’, it would have been called.

Britain’s broader colonial aim at this time was to transfer power to ‘moderate’ local leaders, which in Kenya meant defeating Mau Mau, an objective achieved, for the most part, by 1956, though no thanks to the repression, which was probably counter-productive. The revelation of the beatings at Hola finally tore away the government’s earlier papering over of its repressive behaviour – the evidence in the Hola case was just too glaring – and Iain McLeod, a new broom at the Colonial Office, made sure that there would be no more delays over African independence. There remained the haunting recollection of those dreadful Emergency years, but that was solved by Kenyatta’s reconciliation policy. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole affair is that the beleaguered British then opened their eyes, and the sunshine, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mangoes came suddenly flooding back. Not only the horrors, but all memory of the horrors, were gone. It was like waking up from a nightmare. The stain on Britain’s imperial character was hidden from view – for the time being, at any rate. The myth of a ‘dignified’ decolonisation was able to endure. It was, Elkins writes, ‘a scenario that the British colonial government had fantasised about for years’. The Mau Mau did not get the recognition due to them (there is still no official memorial to them in Nairobi) and Britain never got the comeuppance it deserved. Half a century later, a ‘revisionist’ historian like Ferguson, seeking to rehabilitate the empire after a decent interval, could still blithely ignore the whole affair. This is no longer an option. Anderson and Elkins have seen to that.

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Letters

Vol. 27 No. 6 · 17 March 2005

The Mau Mau practice of obliging its activists to swear secret oaths of allegiance, referred to by Bernard Porter (LRB, 3 March), was by no means confined to Kenya. The phenomenon was common to many rebel organisations throughout the history of the British Empire, and deliberately mirrored a long-established British tradition. Instead of swearing loyalty to the British monarch on the Bible, a procedure normally required of all colonial government officials of whatever grade, the rebels would swear loyalty to their cause and to each other.

In Ireland during the last decades of the 18th century, the peasant supporters of the Whiteboys, a secret anti-settler society well-entrenched among the rural Catholic population, were required to swear loyalty to Queen Sive, their leader, and threatened with punishment if they refused to obey her commands. Taking the oath was designed to break the relationship with the colonial power and to prevent government informers from joining their ranks.

The Whiteboys would send menacing letters to Protestant landlords in an effort to prevent them from seizing common land, and if these failed they would tear down the enclosures. The settlers’ cattle would be killed and the fences levelled (the rebels were sometimes referred to as the ‘Levellers’). In one of their oaths, recorded at the end of the 18th century, they revealed their wider political ambitions: ‘I sware, I will to the best of my power, cut down Kings, Queens and Princes, Earls, Lords and all such with Land Jobbin and Herrisy.’

Perceiving the dangers of allowing people to swear subversive oaths in a God-fearing society, the Irish Parliament passed a Whiteboys Act in 1775 and another, yet more draconian, in 1787. Those found participating in illegal oath-taking were sentenced to transportation for life to other colonies.

Richard Gott
London W11

Vol. 27 No. 10 · 19 May 2005

In the opening paragraph of his review of David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Caroline Elkins’s Britain’s Gulag, Bernard Porter attacks me and my book Empire, which he refers to as a ‘panegyric to British colonialism’ (LRB, 3 March). This misrepresents the book. My conclusion is explicit. ‘No one,’ I write, ‘would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the “ethnic cleansing" of indigenous peoples.’

What I do argue is that the British Empire was nevertheless on balance preferable to the available alternatives:

The 19th-century empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the 20th century too the empire more than justified its own existence. For the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese Empires were clearly – and they admitted it themselves – far worse. And without its empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.

I am still wondering what part of that argument Porter and other critics can credibly disagree with.

As to my memories of the two years I spent in Kenya as a child, I make it perfectly clear in the introduction that these are not the basis of the book’s argument, which is rooted in modern economic theory and historical scholarship, not least Porter’s own.

Porter wonders why I do not discuss Mau Mau in the last chapter of my book. The last chapter is concerned to explain why the British Empire declined and fell. I try to show that nationalist or other indigenous resistance movements, Mau Mau included, had very little to do with this, compared with Britain’s parlous financial position after 1945.

Niall Ferguson
Harvard University

Vol. 27 No. 11 · 2 June 2005

In his enthusiasm for Caroline Elkins’s Britain’s Gulag, Bernard Porter misses the glaring faults in her book (LRB, 3 March). He also misrepresents David Anderson’s account of the Mau Mau Emergency in Histories of the Hanged by aligning it with Elkins’s. Porter describes both as ‘brilliant, meticulously researched and shocking books’ in which ‘the scale of the British atrocities is the most startling revelation.’ Yet Anderson says that what is ‘most astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented’. All the ‘revelatory’ examples of atrocities quoted by Porter from both books were published during or immediately after the Emergency.

Porter is keen to emphasise that the number of Mau Mau hanged – 1090; 346 of them for murder – was a record for a British colony (though no other suffered an uprising so brutal). What he does not cite from Anderson is that hanging was commonplace in Kenya at the time: 247 non-Mau Mau murderers were hanged in the same period. And Anderson is not as dismissive of the judicial process as Porter implies (‘often they were innocent’). His careful account of the key Mau Mau trials demonstrates that the courts regularly threw out prosecution evidence: 48 men facing the death penalty had their convictions overturned at just one appeal hearing. Anderson spares us no details of the horrific massacre at Lari, where 120 Christian Kikuyu were burned alive or hacked to death by gangs of Mau Mau, 71 of whom were later executed, some having openly declared their involvement.

Porter claims that ‘the hanged represent only a small fraction of those who died in British custody during the Emergency.’ This is a misquotation from Elkins, who says ‘at the hands of the British government’, not ‘in British custody’. Neither version survives scrutiny. Elkins asserts that up to 300,000 Kikuyu died in the Emergency (the official figure is 12,000). Her only evidence, tucked away in a footnote, is a faulty analysis of the censuses of 1948 and 1962. She thinks these suggest that there were up to 300,000 ‘unaccounted for’ Kikuyu, who should have been alive in 1962 if the Kikuyu population growth rate had matched that for three other groups, not involved in the fighting. But this is true only if the Kikuyu-speaking Meru and Embu are included with the Kikuyu in the calculation: what Elkins does not reveal to her readers is that the Meru population grew by only 35 per cent between the two censuses, and the Embu declined by 15 per cent; and no one, including Elkins, suggests this had anything to do with the fighting. The Kikuyu increased in numbers by 56 per cent during the same period. This is only 5 per cent below the average for other groups, and can be explained by the number of Kikuyu held for years in detention and so unable to father children.

Elkins further undermines what case she has by claiming that the number of detainees was between double and quadruple the official estimate of 80,000. Porter offers a figure of 150,000, and says Elkins claims that ‘up to 100,000 died in the camps’ (in fact she makes no such claim). As it happens, Anderson provides the detainee numbers: 71,346 was the daily average in December 1954; it declined steadily to 19,535 by December 1957, then rapidly diminished. The little we know about rates of intake and release suggests that between 15,000 and 25,000 new detainees were added in the interim. There is no evidence to support a total higher than 100,000.

If Elkins is right about the 320,000 detainees (she offers no details of her calculations) then the birth rate among the non-detained Kikuyu must have been very high, as the Kikuyu population grew from one million in 1948 to more than 1.5 million in 1962. Yet Elkins claims ‘tens of thousands’ died in the Kikuyu villages as a result of ‘torture, disease, exhaustion and starvation’ caused by near-genocidal British policy. The numbers make no sense: Elkins is forced back on anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’.

Porter does not begin to challenge these contradictions. What’s more, he excuses Elkins’s continual references to Nazi camps and Soviet Gulags (for which she has been roundly condemned by other reviewers) by asserting that they ‘nearly all … come from contemporary accounts.’ This is untrue. Nearly all such references are introduced by Elkins, and she cites at least a dozen secondary works on the Holocaust and the Gulag while drawing increasingly overwrought parallels with the camps and villages in Kenya.

David Elstein
London SW15

Bernard Porter writes: I’m happy to defer to David Elstein on the question of numbers. I too was unconvinced by Elkins’s, but didn’t have the resources at hand to check them. I thought that stating the 100,000 figure as a ‘claim’ of Elkins’s would let me off the hook. Obviously not. Otherwise I think I’ve represented both books accurately, apart from the slip confusing ‘the hands of the British’ with ‘British custody’. For example, I mention Anderson’s account of the Lari massacre. I also tried to indicate some of my problems with certain aspects of Elkins’s approach. I had heard the complaint about her ‘Nazi’ analogies before but what impressed me in reading these two books was that so many contemporaries made the comparison too. That, I think, is the more important point. I agree that the ‘Gulag’ comparison is inappropriate.

Niall Ferguson (Letters, 19 May) complains about the brief mention I made of his book Empire at the beginning of my review. The point I was making there was that British imperial historians generally have given these events less attention than we can now see – from Anderson’s and Elkins’s books – they deserve. I included myself in this criticism, quite specifically, and if Elstein is right about the long availability of much of this evidence maybe I was even more culpable than I thought; but I singled out Ferguson’s Empire because it doesn’t even mention the Emergency. I might not have made so much of this if it hadn’t been for a long passage in his introduction where he describes his own boyhood in Kenya, just a few years after these terrible events, in idyllic terms, including the claim that ‘scarcely anything had changed’ since colonial days. How could he leave that uncorrected later on? His excuse is that his book was not about Mau Mau, and that he was arguing that decolonisation was brought about by Britain’s poverty, not nationalism in the colonies; but even if that were true (or as simple as he presents it) it is irrelevant, because Anderson’s and Elkins’s books are not centrally about Mau Mau either, but about the British colonial state’s repression of it. That is a vital aspect of ‘empire’; which is what Ferguson’s book, after all, is called.

Ferguson also takes issue with my use of the word ‘panegyric’ (‘to British colonialism’) to describe his book more generally. In the same issue of the London Review that carries his letter, Eric Foner uses the word ‘sanitised’ to describe Ferguson’s treatment of American imperialism in his later book Colossus. That will do just as well. If Ferguson really doesn’t see what parts of his main argument – the empire bringing peace, the rule of law, markets etc – historians like me ‘can credibly disagree with’, he obviously hasn’t read all his reviews. (My own starting point would be to question his view of the extent of British ‘power’.) Even if we accept all this ‘civilising’ stuff for the sake of argument (and there’s a case to be made for some of it), we also need to be aware of the enormous pain that trying to achieve this through imperialism can cause, and the atrocities on all sides (Kenya saw some of the worst) that are almost bound to come in its train. This is especially so when you are urging present-day America to follow Britain’s 19th-century example, which of course is the message of Colossus. Americans have enough myths of their own without having ours foisted on them too.

Vol. 27 No. 12 · 23 June 2005

David Elstein’s claim that ‘hanging was commonplace in Kenya’ at the time of the Mau Mau rising is no doubt right, but it is wrongly based on the claim that during the period in which 346 Mau Mau were hanged for murder, 247 non-Mau Mau were hanged for the same crime (Letters, 2 June). This is not so; the correct figure is 99. This information is available in the capital punishment returns in the National Archives, CO 822/1256. The real point to be made from the figures is the extensive use of capital punishment under the emergency regulations for offences which would not normally have attracted a death sentence – between the declaration of emergency in October 1952 and September 1959 there were 744 such executions. These included more than 50 people executed for taking part in oathing ceremonies.

A.W. Brian Simpson
Sandwich, Kent

Vol. 27 No. 13 · 7 July 2005

I have one or two things to say in response to David Elstein’s letter regarding Bernard Porter’s review of Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins (Letters, 2 June). I was a British district officer in Kikuyuland for half the period of the Emergency and directly witnessed some of the events about which Elkins writes. Forty years ago I wrote, with Carl Rosberg, The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: Nationalism in Kenya, the first revision of the British colonial government’s official history of Mau Mau, as expressed in the Corfield Report of 1960.

Elkins had to go to extreme lengths to research the history of detention in Kenya because the British colonial government, on the eve of decolonisation, and with the imminent advent of African ministers in senior cabinet positions, deliberately and comprehensively destroyed much of the documentation related to the detention camps and barbed-wire villages. As acting district commissioner in Nyeri, I received orders to destroy all files remotely linked to Mau Mau, and I was aware that other officers received and carried out similar orders. In the years immediately after the Emergency, when I was conducting research, it was already clear that there were enormous gaps in the archival record.

Elkins’s use of the demographic data – her comparison of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru population figures, taken as a whole – is perfectly sound. The British colonial government levelled its counter-insurgency policies against the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru, three closely related ethnic groups who speak the same Kikuyu language. In the documents still available one will find constant reference to the ‘Kikuyu, Embu and Meru’, the ‘K.E.M.’, or even simply the ‘Kikuyu’, which was often used, and is still, as a shorthand way of referring to the three groups as a whole during the Emergency. To disaggregate them when making a demographic comparison would misrepresent the nature of the war. Analysing the demographic figures for the groups separately would in any case be difficult to do with any accuracy: there have never been precise figures for the different ethnic groups in the camps, nor do we know how many Embu were counted as Kikuyu in the 1962 census.

Elkins argues that the demographic figures, when read alongside the empirical data, are suggestive. As she rightly points out, we will never know precisely how many Africans died during the war, but we can use the remaining historical evidence to make informed revisions of the official death figures. Those preferred by both the colonial government and most scholars appear to be based on the estimates at the end of the Corfield Report, which probably originated from military sources. Today they are unacceptable, excluding as they do the complex network of non-military, semi-official and private bodies associated with the anti-Mau Mau struggle. These, as the episode at the Ruthagathi Post revealed, often acted outside the law.

Elstein also questions Elkins’s figures for the number of detainees held in the detention camps. He approves as accurate David Anderson’s daily average figure of 70,000 for December 1954. But what Elkins and others have pointed out is that, as a daily average figure, this does not take into account the intake and release rates of the detainees. Indeed, in his recent book Anderson concurs with Elkins that the actual number of detainees in the camps was ‘at least 150,000 Kikuyu, perhaps even more’.

John Nottingham
Nairobi

Vol. 27 No. 14 · 21 July 2005

John Nottingham gallantly comes to the aid of Caroline Elkins, the author of Britain’s Gulag, but to no avail (Letters, 7 July). The more he insists on the legitimacy of grouping together the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru (KEM) populations in 1950s Kenya, the harder it becomes to use census evidence to argue that 300,000 ‘Africans’ (his word) were ‘unaccounted for’ (her words) during the Mau Mau period, and so must be assumed murdered by British forces.

Contrary to Nottingham’s assertion, each of the KEM populations was counted in both the 1948 and the 1962 census, as were the Kamba, Luo and Lahya (KLL) used by Elkins for comparison. There is no more reason to doubt the separate components of the KEM or KLL totals in 1962 than in 1948. It is not disaggregating the KEM numbers that ‘misrepresents the nature of the war’, but aggregating them, when their respective growth rates between 1948 and 1962 were so dramatically different: an increase of 56 per cent for the Kikuyu and 35.1 per cent for the Meru; the Embu declined by 15.7 per cent. Indeed, Elkins herself makes clear that Meru province experienced only a small amount of the ‘villagisation’ which she believes led to much of the supposed death rate.

Of the ‘unaccounted for’ 300,000, more than 80 per cent were Embu and Meru according to the census, even though these groups represented only a third of all Kikuyu speakers. If the British were busy killing Africans by the hundred thousand, why would they seek out the Embu and Meru, rather than the ethnic Kikuyu who were the core of the rebellion? As the demographic material is the only evidence adduced by Elkins to substantiate her claim that hundreds of thousands were killed, we cannot conclude that such mass murder happened.

David Elstein
London SW15

Vol. 28 No. 11 · 8 June 2006

The Hola camp massacre took place in Kenya, not in Nyasaland, as Bernard Porter has it (LRB, 25 May) – and as he knew, and you knew, since he wrote about it in the LRB, 3 March 2005.

Ramnik Shah
Epsom, Surrey

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