Revealing the shameful secrets of a dirty war

History: When I lived in Kenya, until last year, it puzzled me how little attention was paid to the Mau Mau

History: When I lived in Kenya, until last year, it puzzled me how little attention was paid to the Mau Mau. After all, the 1952-1960 guerrilla war was colonial Africa's bloodiest uprising and a cornerstone of modern Kenya.

Yet it was curiously neglected. There were hardly any books or plays on the Mau Mau.

Kenyan friends told me their history teachers hastily skated over the subject. Newspapers published stories infrequently (although that is now changing). Politicians generally avoided the subject. In short, the Mau Mau seemed to be a vague embarrassment.

Two new books, Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins and Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson, prise open again the bloodied pages of this shameful period in colonial history. There is a common belief that the British disengagement from Africa was elegant and dignified - unlike, say, the Belgians in Congo or the Portuguese in Mozambique. These books prove it was nothing of the sort. Faced with a small but determined uprising, and infused with notions of racial superiority, the British fought a dirty war.


Approaching the same ground from different angles, both works lay bare ugly truths: about the injustices that stoked the rebellion, the propaganda war that clouded it; and the murderous cruelties committed in its name - crimes for which still today not one British official has been tried or imprisoned.

Land was at the heart of the Mau Mau uprising. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s British settlers flooded into Kenya to carve out vast ranches on the best land around Nairobi and in the "white highlands". Many were retired soldiers from the World Wars, drawn by the promise of profit and privilege.

As Anderson writes: "every white man who disembarked from the boat at Mombasa became an instant aristocrat". Cheap African labour underwrote the dream. Their land seized, several million Kenyans were squeezed into ever-smaller "native reserves". Movements to other areas were limited by the "pass book", a hated system later notorious in South Africa. The populous Kikuyu tribe suffered most. As the pressure continued to build, political demands for fair play were contemptuously brushed aside and outspoken organisations suppressed. Something had to give.

The Mau Mau first emerged around 1950, the militant expression of failed nationalist politics. Adherents, bound together by an old tribal oath, mounted a string of attacks on settlers and Africans who were loyal to the Crown. The first killings were horrific - a model white family brutalised at their remote farmhouse; an African chief and his family slaughtered on Christmas Eve - and sent shockwaves of fearful repulsion across the settler community.

The haughty governor, Evelyn Baring, responded uncompromisingly. A state of emergency was declared and the army was mobilised to flush the rebels from the forests around Mount Kenya. Tens of thousands of Kikuyu were rounded up, many on the basis of a whisper or a glance, and sent to a network of "rehabilitation" camps. Once there, many were tortured and some were killed.

Meanwhile the colonial authorities launched a propaganda campaign to demonise the Mau Mau. The insurgents were a primeval, anti-Christian force, rooted in the inscrutable darkness of the African wilds - "a yell from the swamp", as the colonial writer Elspeth Huxley put it.

But in reality, the Mau Mau never posed a significant threat to white rule.

Within two years the British army, supported by RAF bombers, had flushed most of the rebels from their forest hiding places. By 1957 the rebellion was all but spent. Yet the brutal suppression of the Kikuyu, a concerted effort to "break" 1.5 million people, continued apace. One statistic is starkly instructive. Over the course of the eight-year uprising only 95 Europeans were killed, 32 of them civilians. The death toll for Africans, according to official figures, was 11,503 - a figure Anderson now estimates at more than 20,000 while Elkins, controversially, puts it at more than 130,000.

Elkins focuses principally on atrocities in the rehabilitation camps.

Several hundred thousand Kikuyu passed through the "pipeline". There they endured forced labour, torture and sometimes death, often at the hands of African warders but sometimes from their white superiors. One settler describes taking a suspect to an interrogation centre, then helping to "soften" him up: "By the time I 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." She searches through the remnants of the colonial archive - most of it was torched before independence in 1963 - for evidence of official cynicism. For example British officials refused to declare the Mau Mau rebellion a "war" and refused to call the detainees "prisoners" - exempting them from international human rights treaties signed only years earlier, and less than a decade after the horrors of Auschwitz.

But Elkins's main source is oral testimony, painstakingly collected from ageing Kikuyu survivors. Their graphic accounts make for often difficult reading. One chapter opens with an inmate lifting his bloodied head from a bucket of faeces as a torturer looms overhead, ready to strike again. Other former detainees describe being thrown into a pit of snakes, eaten by scorpions, electrocuted on the genitals or towed by Land Rovers.

For Elkins, the abuse was not only symptomatic of the camps, but of the colonial project itself. "The hypocrisies, the exploitations, the violence, and the suffering were all laid bare in the Pipeline," she writes. "It was there that Britain finally revealed the true nature of its civilising mission." Yet the highly-charged prosecutorial tone also brings significant flaws . Armed with a glut of damning evidence, Elkins allows anger to inform her writing and cloud a more cool-headed analysis. The repeated Nazi comparisons are inappropriate. White characters are drawn in two-dimensional terms using threadbare clichés. For example, Nairobi residents "drank champagne and pink gin for breakfast, played cards, danced through the night, and generally woke up with someone else's spouse in the morning." And the bitter schisms within Kikuyu society are inadequately explored.

Although the Mau Mau killed 2,000 civilians, Elkins rushes past these episodes and simply writes off most African loyalists as self-interested sell-outs. Also, the relentless stream of stomach-churning torture stories - all accepted unquestioningly - feels too much like a courtroom exposition, dulling the impact of any single account.

Anderson's account, while less pugnacious, throws a broader net to offer greater insight into the motivations of both whites and Africans. The Oxford lecturer relies on the documentation of more than 800 Kikuyu hanged during the emergency, often following highly questionable trials. This evidence provides the backbone for an investigation of Britain's first "war on terror", with its cast of virulent racists, ultra-violent militants and many terrified Kikuyu, hopelessly trapped in the middle.

And both writers highlight how the British media and parliament, with a few exceptions such as the Labour MP Barbara Castle, reacted woefully slowly to the crisis. The murderous scandal of Hola camp exploded into the public domain in 1959. But by then it was too late.

The emergency ended on January 12th, 1960, three weeks before Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's famous "winds of change" speech in Cape Town. Anderson offers an explanation for the silence that has surrounded the Mau Mau history. As independence dawned the new president, Jomo Kenyatta, a conservative nationalist, decided to bury the past forever. "Mau Mau was a disease which has been eradicated and must never be remembered again," he wrote. But Kenyatta was wrong.

These books are not only an important illumination of a half-forgotten war, they show how an empire that tries tocrush dissent with brutality is ultimately doomed to failure. Since Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the stories of the Mau Mau have an unmistakable lesson for today.

Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins Jonathan Cape, 475pp. £20

Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 406pp. £20

Declan Walsh is a former Africa correspondent for The Irish Times. He is currently Pakistan/Afghanistan correspondent for the Guardian