Daily Archives: December 30, 2015

‘Histories of the Hanged’ by David Anderson


2005, 406 p.

(I commenced this review in November immediately after finishing the book: I am now writing it nearly two months later, drawing mainly on the impressions that I took away from the book. I regret not writing this review earlier, because much of the nuance has escaped me.)

It was been a strange experience, reading this book in Kenya at this particular time.  The city teems with Kikuyu people whose parents (if not they themselves) would have most certainly be touched by the Mau-Mau rebellion in one way or another.  The battle for reparations from the British government now plays out in British courts  (see here and here)  and in September 2015 the British government funded the erection of a commemorative sculpture in Uhuru Park as part of reparation payments.  Most pertinently for me at the moment, the response to Mau Mau described in this book has resonances in the current political and legislative response to ISIS and religiously-inspired terrorism that we’re witnessing today.

So what was the Mau Mau rebellion, or uprising or revolt or Kenya Emergency (which ever term you want to use?) It was a military conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. As David Anderson, the author of this book explained in a short article for History Today:

The end of British colonial rule in Kenya was bloody and brutal. In October 1952 a state of emergency was declared to fight the Kikuyu insurgents known as Mau Mau. The rebellion was defeated by 1956, but emergency powers remained until January 1960.

The British made extensive use of detention without trial and applied the death penalty to a wide range of offences. The official rebel death toll was above 10,000, but the real figure may have been double this, while the rebels assassinated over 2,000 African ‘collaborators’. The story of this struggle has been presented in Kenya as one of nationalist heroism, and in Britain as an episode in the deconstruction of empire: but both views are under challenge. …

This gritty struggle divided the Kikuyu communities of central Kenya: many people were unwilling to support violence, and Kikuyu Christians in particular stood against the rebels. The British nurtured a ‘loyalist’ movement, recruiting more than 60,000 Kikuyu men: much Mau Mau violence was aimed at these ‘collaborators’. Loyalists gained considerably in terms of property, land and political rights, while rebels and their supporters were imprisoned and dispossessed.

– See more at: http://www.historytoday.com/david-anderson/burying-bones-past#sthash.pwr8RgXn.dpuf


Anderson commences his account by contextualizing it within the politics of empire and colonialism generally. World War II had given a huge boost to the settler economy, and capital was flowing into White Highland farm mechanization, boosting the confidence of white settlers to contemplate forcing Kikuyu squatters from what had been their traditional lands, thereby triggering the Mau Mau rebellions. He points out that in the 1950s Britain was moving towards independence generally for the former colonies, but that in both Rhodesia and South Africa, the white minority had managed to entrench its power and it seemed likely that a similar phenomenon would occur in Kenya as well.

Anderson draws upon court reports, both from the Supreme Court and the Special Emergency Assize Courts in order to populate his book with individuals, on all sides.  This emphasis on the individual, instead of the ‘mob’ is important, as it always is when fear of the ‘other’ is being evoked and whipped up.  The names of the Mau Mau generals are well known, but through the meticulously detailed court records, he finds the  shadowy and nameless “subalterns of the movement”: the food carriers, the oath administrators and the ordinary foot soldiers in the forest.

In Anderson’s focus on court records and processes, I found resonances with my own work looking at colonial courts during the 1830s-40s.  In Kenya in the 1950s, as in colonial courtrooms more than a century earlier, the court became the site in which the different political impulses of society were aired, but often shut down just as quickly to ensure that the political dimension of unrest was ignored. As in the 1830s slave colonies, Governors had to use legislation and special tribunals to circumvent settler (or in the case of the slave colonies, planter) dominance of the bench, and a small number of  judges sometimes raised their voices, albeit futilely, against legislative and political overreach. Many other judges, however, acted as the ultimate manifestation of systemic injustice  and repression, and became the state-legitimated enforcers of settler power.  In a foreshadowing of the emphasis of many governments today to ensure that punishments for terrorist offences are not ‘complicated’ by legal ‘niceties’ in the conventional legal system, the Special Emergency Assize Courts were promulgated in Kenya to ensure swift, uncompromising, consistent sentencing intended to quash Mau Mau action.

Local white settlers saw Mau Mau as a savage, depraved tribal cult. Certainly, this was intimate, close-up violence. However, in a foreshadowing of our current conceptualization of Islamic radicalization as an ‘evil’ that can be ‘cured’, Louis Leakey and other ethnographers advised the local and British governments instead that Mau Mau was an illness, innate to the African in transition. Emphasis was laid on confession and rehabilitation, which led in turn, to large-scale detention camps- a prospect not entirely impossible today in our present-day quest to stamp out extremism. The outlines of Abu Ghraib are detectable in the detention camps that swallowed up huge numbers of the population.

As Anderson presents it, there was violence on all sides, including within the Kikuyi themselves . It was, as he says “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides, a dirty war from which no one emerged with much pride, and certainly no glory.” p. 2  He questions the role of Jomo Kenyatta in the rebellion, and notes his influence in shutting down any discussion of Mau Mau in the years immediately following. Anderson is obviously ambivalent about the recent memorialization of Mau Mau as an expression of political liberation.

Anderson’s work in this book, as well as that Caroline Elkins in her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, are part of the ongoing debate about the nature and scope of  the Mau Mau rebellion. I read this book as an outsider, unfamiliar with the field, and I found Anderson’s writing engaging and easily accessible.  I know too little to assess his arguments, but I very much enjoyed his emphasis on the individual and the myriad influences that led all sides to act as they did. It strikes me as a balanced, nuanced appraisal, grounded in primary documents, with an eye to providing an informed and sober contribution to  current politics.

Bernard Porter has written a detailed review of both Anderson and Elkins’ work in the LRB that is far more erudite and detailed than anything I could hope to write.  There’s also an excellent podcast on Mau Mau at http://www.radiolab.org/story/mau-mau/