Elkins is a very capable historian who endeavours to shed some light on the plight of the Mau Mau organization in Kenya as it experienced significant repression at the hands of the British in the 1950s. With the use of oral accounts provided by a number of its key members, Elkins pieces together a sad and tragic story of a terrorist movement that was both intentionally demonized, systematically villified, and unnecessarily persecuted out of existence. While some of her research is compelling, she has made the fatal mistake of looking at the white settlers and the colonial government as the terrorists and the Mau Mau as the unfortunate victims of genocide. If she spent a little more time, like Anderson did in "Histories of the Hanged", and set the stage for this conflict, the reader might have better idea as to why the Mau Mau rebelled in the first place. It was the fear of losing their squatter rights on white farms that enticed some of them to resort to violence. Many,who were normally peace loving people, were intimidated into taking the secret oath of allegiance to the Mau Mau cause. The rash of murders and assassinations in the early 50s caused the British governor in Nairobi to quickly enforce emergency rule and all its stringent effects. Conveniently forgetting this, Elkins portrays the British as schoolyard bullies and villains of the piece in their unscrupulous campaign to divide and conquer the Kikuyu tribe in the Rift Valley. According to her, the colonial adminstration missed out on a golden opportunity to negotiate a truce with the moderate Mau Mau Kenyatta. For Elkins, the whole sorry mess of seven years of civil unrest could have easily been avoided if the British had tempered their treatment of a poor defenceless people. All that heavy-handed use of torture, detention, and expropriation only led to a humiliation of a people who cause was just though its methods dubious. It is Elkins' belief that Britain was guilty of conducting an unofficial act of calculably and ruthlessly destroying the heart of Kenyan culture in order to support the claims of the white settlers and reward the loyalists for their support. Her motive for making this claim is that someone, as a white knight, has to stand up and tell the world of all the terrible atrocities the British visited on its subjects in the interests of the Empire. The only thing wrong about this book is that its reporting of the facts are skewed so as to create the impression that the British overreaction made a bad situation worse. Even Kenyatta, upon becoming president of Kenya in 1962, conceded that he would have done the same as the Brits in imposing martial law in an attempt to curb the growing mayhem.
on September 12, 2009
The British have up until recently been very proud of their imperial achievements. The only problem was that empire-building involved a certain amount of heavy-handed tactics, and like other imperialists like King Leopold, the French, and the Germans knew that sacrifices needed to be made for their "civilizing mission."
Like France's "dirty war" in French Algeria, or the British Malay, or the Belgian Congo, the British war against the Mau Mau movement turned savage very quickly. Many of the details that Elkins describe are too shocking to repeat, suffice to say that thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, suffered horrible deaths.
Overall, an important, if sordid, look into another regrettable chapter of British imperial historiography.