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A familiar tale of uprising and bloody suppression

January 16, 2005|Stanley Meisler | 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.

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