The British may have acquired their empire absent-mindedly, but British governments took great care over giving it up. That is not to say that they agonised long over the fate of ex-colonial peoples or the utility of the constitutions they bequeathed them. But they did pay great attention to the appearance of withdrawal. From the independence of India onwards, Whitehall's first concern was that when the time came to leave, the departure should be dignified and not demeaned as a "scuttle". It was equally vital that the handover of power should be to those who could be plausibly described as deserving recipients, who would carry on "British" traditions or at least stay in the Commonwealth. Soothing opinion at home and preserving prestige abroad demanded no less.
But the end of empire was not always a matter of tea and farewell on the governor's lawn. In Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, British colonial rule faced armed insurrections. Palestine and Aden apart, the British bottled up insurgents. Before the handover came, the insurgents' cause was lost. In Malaya and Kenya, but much less convincingly in Cyprus, the British retained sufficient local initiative to shape the terms of the transfer and escape the colonial ignominy that descended on France. Politically, at least, the Malayan and Kenyan emergencies were a striking success for imperial policy. The question is: at what human cost?
Kenya occupied an ambiguous place in British colonial Africa. It had white settlers, but they were denied the self-government conceded to Southern Rhodesia. Kenya's white society was widely regarded as an unseemly liaison between gin and adultery. The official doctrine of government proclaimed the priority of African interests. But the colony's land policy reserved a huge swath of land for the tiny white minority - the so-called White Highlands. By the late 1940s, the colony's most industrious black farmers, the Kikuyu and the Embu, faced a social crisis as the supply of land dried up, and the stigma of landlessness raised intractable problems of status and honour. As a large scholarly literature now exists to explain, the violent insurrection, known as Mau Mau, broke out among those for whom access to land (and social esteem) was blocked partly by settlers and partly by the new class of Kikuyu landlords backed by the colonial government. Until now, however, there has been no full account of how this huge rural revolt, enjoying the sympathy of more than a million people, was broken by a gimcrack colonial state strapped for cash and competence and soon in its death throes.
This large gap has been partly filled by two powerful books, one by an American historian, Caroline Elkins, and the other by a British historian, David Anderson. When Elkins began her research, she says she expected to find documentary confirmation for the official version of the Emergency. This stressed the redemptive aims of the camps, where those suspected of Mau Mau loyalties were carefully "rehabilitated", and the need for "villagisation" to protect innocent Kikuyu from intimidation by gangs based in the forests. It was only when the discrepancies began to pile up that she found herself writing a drastically different story, in which the oral testimony of her Kikuyu informants, many of them women, played a crucial part.
In Anderson's case, it was the chance discovery of the trial proceedings of those tried for murder in the colonial courts that opened a window on how Mau Mau were defeated, the true extent of the violence deployed by both sides, the brutal economy of colonial justice in the matter of evidence, and the culture of deceit that permeated the colonial Government and ran up to the top of the official machine in Whitehall. Taken together, the evidence of both books is a savage indictment of a campaign of repression waged with scant regard for the civilised values colonial rule was supposed to embody and one that at times descended into licensed atrocity. Let us examine the charges.
The most striking, perhaps, is the sheer scale of the onslaught by the colonial state on those suspected of Mau Mau sympathies. Perhaps one quarter of Kikuyu adult males were detained at some point and passed through the camps. In the rest of Kikuyuland, about 1.5 million people were subjected to forms of surveillance mainly applied through the fortified villages to which tens of thousands of people were forcibly removed. This is the point of Elkins's emotive title: that the whole of Kikuyuland became, in effect, a vast detention camp.
Second, the "justice" meted out to Mau Mau suspects was very rough. In 80 per cent of the hundreds of Mau Mau trials, there was evidence of "regular and systematic violence" against the accused (to quote Anderson). Death sentences could be passed on the evidence of one witness, and frighteningly often on very slim evidence. And the number of death sentences (more than a thousand) was extraordinarily high.
Third, torture and other kinds of extreme brutality were commonly used by the Kenya Regiment and the Kenya Police Reserve, both formations drawn from local whites. So-called screening for Mau Mau sympathies was a euphemism for beatings or murder or other forms of atrocity.
Fourth, the Kikuyu Home Guard, recruited by the Government to defend the fortified villages, had extraordinary freedom to kill, maim and torture on the flimsiest pretext. Far from "defending" the villages, it acted more like an occupying army: abusing, raping and stealing food, which was scarce.
Fifth, in the rehabilitation camps administered by the Kenyan Government - along with the crimes of disregard and neglect that led to food shortage, overcrowding and death from disease - the regime came to depend on the punishment beatings eventually exposed in the Hola camp outrages in 1959.
Last, the colonial Government at its most senior levels was complicit in the atrocities committed in the camps and by its security forces, took no action against them, and engaged instead in a cover-up.
The weight of evidence is crushing that on the Government's side, as well as on Mau Mau's, this was a dirty war, viciously fought. Both authors make mincemeat of claims that government atrocities were committed behind the back of officialdom and against its instructions. However, Elkins wants to go further. While both writers suggest that the moral climate that permitted such terrible cruelties was the product of racism, she would have us believe that racist attitudes and ideology were the peculiar crime of the Kenya whites, forgetting perhaps that they were then widely shared across the whole "white world", and nowhere more than in the United States.
However, the most striking difference between these two books is Elkins's frequent insinuation that behind the war against Mau Mau was something much more sinister. British attitudes towards the Kikuyu amounted, she suggests, to "incipient genocide". There was an "eliminationist mentality". There was "a competing impulse to punish, debilitate and even exterminate the Kikuyu population". There was "a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people". The work camps set up by the British were "not wholly different" from those in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. At one point in the text, the Kenyan Government is absolved from genocidal intent; but the Nazi analogy recurs often enough to leave the opposite impression on an unwary reader.
If the Kenyan Government did indeed have such far-reaching aims, it certainly pursued them with extreme incompetence. Here we approach another puzzling contradiction in Elkins's account. She repeats several times with obvious approval an estimate by Fitz de Souza (a defence lawyer used by some Mau Mau suspects) that "several hundred thousand" Kikuyu died in the Emergency. But buried in her footnotes are the figures from two censuses in 1948 and 1962. They show that during the decade of Emergency, the number of Kikuyu rose from just over 1.5 million to more than 2.2 million. Elkins makes the reasonable point that other ethnic groups in Kenya grew significantly more and that the Kikuyu population "ought" to have been between 136,000 and 301,000 higher. But because some of this shortfall (perhaps a very considerable part) must have been due to a lower birth rate - due to separation, disturbance and malnutrition - what is the evidence on which the headline claim of "several hundred thousand" dead (first made in the preface) is based?
Why did the Emergency take the savage form that it did? And why was Mau Mau defeated? Both authors provide vital clues but seem to draw back from the conclusion that seems to follow. Elkins points out (and it is a crucial insight) that the colonial Government fought its war on a shoestring; London's help was stingy. Some of the horrors that she documents arose directly from the painful inadequacy of colonial resources. In a fascinating chapter, Anderson recounts the origins of the Lari massacre, when Kikuyu "loyalists" were murdered by Mau Mau and savage vengeance was taken against supposed Mau Mau sympathisers. The point that emerges is how heavily the Government depended on its local allies (both Kikuyu and whites), and how little it dared to restrain their excesses. In Elkins's story, the anti-Mau Mau Kikuyu are a small greedy minority. Yet it is hard to explain on this line of argument why the Kikuyu Home Guard outnumbered the Mau Mau fighters, and how the revolt in the countryside was so quickly defeated. The other uncomfortable truth about the Emergency is that it was also the moment at which the Kikuyu post-colonial elite was able to consolidate its social power.
The history of colonialism may be a record of crime, but there were lots of fingers in the colonial pie. Its historians can rarely be sure that they have caught all the criminals.
John Darwin is a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and is writing a history of the British Empire since the 1830s.
Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya
Author - Caroline Elkins
Publisher - Cape and Pimlico
Pages - 475
Price - £20.00 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 224 07363 X and 1 8441 3548 9