Truly inglorious end to Britain's 'dark, gritty and nasty' days of Empire in Kenya

February 11, 2005

David Anderson's research into the Mau Mau uprising suggests the end of the British Empire was far from orderly. Huw Richards reports

David Anderson points out that "war is a process, not an event. One thing leads to another". The same might be said of the research that underpins his book Histories of the Hanged . The book deals with the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, when Kenyan rebels rose up against the British colonial administration over land rights issues.

Anderson, lecturer in African studies and research fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, began his quest with a cache of folders in the Kenyan National Archive in Nairobi. It led him to other grimmer relics, such as 475 still-unburied skeletons of victims of what British authorities insisted during the 1950s was a civil disturbance. In so doing, they placed it outside international law on the conduct of war, but for Anderson it was a civil war.

His archive discovery accompanied and accelerated a shift in his academic interest. Anderson initially worked on East African environmental history. It was a field that led to a post at Birkbeck College, London. The year was 1983 and, at 25, Anderson became the youngest history lecturer in the UK.

He says: "There was great interest in what the records of civil courts could tell us about social relationships, but nobody was looking at the criminal records. I went on an archive hunt and eventually stumbled across this deposit in the National Archive, which turned out to be the files for all the capital cases tried by the special emergency courts created to deal with the Mau Mau rebellion. They were initially hard to identify as they weren't clearly labelled - each simply had the name of the accused - but they contained the records of all the trials on capital charges."

The discovery launched a six-year research project aided by archive staff, whom Anderson describes as being "of phenomenal quality and working under very difficult circumstances". He recalls: "The trials alone filled 900 files, while there were another 400 files on related matters. Some were remarkably complete, with photographs of the body and the accused, transcripts of police interviews with witnesses and the accused, police evidence, judges' notes, lawyers' letters, depositions from families seeking pardons - everything up to the hanging certificate. For some cases, there were transcripts amounting to more than 1,000 single-spaced pages. I read the lot."

From these archives he constructed a detailed and disturbing picture of 1950s Kenya, the more vivid because it told for the first time rank-and-file Mau Mau stories. His findings, says fellow Oxford end-of-empire expert Stephen Howe, will "transform our understanding of how the British Empire ended... and force a wide re-evaluation of Britain's modern history".

The received version is, Anderson says, "one of orderly retreat and deals done at conferences in Lancaster House" (contrasts have been drawn with the bloody terminal disarray of French Algeria, the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola). But he demolishes this picture, for Kenya at least. He says: "Empires are not glorious. They're dark, gritty, nasty and concerned with power relations, the domination, often the dehumanisation, of one race by another. The British Empire was no different."

When challenged by a former Kenyan district officer, who argued that the British authorities' actions were a legitimate response to a violent insurgency that caused about 2,000 deaths, Anderson replied: "My problem is not with the right of the state to react to this, but with the methods it adopted." In his book, he writes: "Between 1952 and 1956, when the fighting was at its worst, the Kikuyu districts of Kenya became a police state in the very fullest sense of that term." Kenya saw twice as many state executions, 1,090, as the infamously savage civil war in Algeria, two thirds of them while Britain was debating the abolition of hanging. More than 10 per cent of the Kikuyu population, about 150,000, was interned.

Emergency justice, he argues, was bloody, crude and racist. Contrary to persistent folk memory of this as a race war, white settler victims were a small minority. Anderson notes: "Thirty-two settlers were killed, fewer than died in road accidents over the same period." Nobody convicted of killing a settler was ever pardoned or reprieved, while about one third of those convicted of killing Africans were. His investigations show many of those convicted were hanged on flimsy evidence and/or had been coerced into their actions, while British national servicemen have recalled their reluctance to hand Mau Mau suspects over to settler-dominated local forces knowing a savage beating was all but certain.

Anderson points out a minority of British officials who emerge with credit, notably Arthur Cram, a judge who "started off with conventional views and by the end was calling Kenya a Gestapo state, something of which he had first-hand knowledge from four years as a prisoner-of-war", and John Whyatt, attorney-general in the colony's government. Whyatt, however, had to deal with a governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, who readily gave into the demands for summary justice of frightened settlers, whose leader, Michael Blundell, Anderson argues, had a wholly misleading image as a liberal. The British authorities, Anderson says, made the cardinal error of failing to understand what they were dealing with. The Mau Mau rebels, he says, were "dehumanised, regarded as a mental disease". To this day, images of them are influenced by contemporary sources, such as Robert Ruark's best-selling novel Something of Value and the film based on it, which "portrays atavistic, indiscriminate African savagery and leaves it at that".

Savagery there undoubtedly was, but Anderson maintains it was far from indiscriminate: "Most assassinations were targeted on individuals or groups, and often very public. Those most at risk, in a parallel with the assassination of Iraqis who work with the Americans, were Africans who worked with or for settlers and were regarded as, in some sense, collaborators."

He says there has been no formal cover-up of events during the 1950s; the records are freely available, and there are still many survivors. But it has suited neither Britain nor post-independence Kenyan governments dominated by loyalists to encourage the exploration of those memories. Yet they have left a deep mark on Kenya and its politics. "There are people in Nairobi who can look at the social pages of the weekly magazines and tell you which event is Mau Mau and which non-Mau Mau," Anderson says.

Anderson views the campaign for compensation for those robbed of property while interned in connection with the Mau Mau rebellion as well founded but potentially divisive. "These are people who were guilty of nothing, but found when they came out of the camps that loyalists had seized their property. They have a just case, but there are immense problems about who would pay compensation and to what level." Any settling of grievances will also inevitably anger some people, such as the chief's wife who pointed out to Anderson that "Mau Mau murdered my children".

Anderson wants to see Britain hold an open debate and discussion of what happened in Kenya in the 1950s. "There has been a serious debate over Algeria in France over the past couple of years, after admissions that the army was involved in torture and other violations. If the French can do it, so should we," he says. Kenyans who disagree on other aspects of the conflict concur. "There is a sense of national denigration and anger, whether people were Mau Mau or not, that the British have never admitted the importance of what happened. The British Government should recognise that it was a war and not merely a civil disorder, admit to the suppression that took place and apologise," Anderson says.

Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £20.00.

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