The 1950s Mau Mau war in Kenya was one of the bloodiest of the conflicts that ended the British Empire. The colonial authorities won, but the cost was too heavy to keep holding on. Still, the colonialists’ view of rebels as “debased creatures of the forest” became common.
Historians have challenged this view. Caroline Elkins’s 2005 book Britain’s Gulag exposes British use of torture and concentration camps. Maina wa Kinyatti has presented the guerrillas’ viewpoint. But the conflict was largely forgotten in Britain until five Kenyan war veterans won a 2012 court case, forcing the British government to accept responsibility for torture and pay compensation.
Since then several books have tried to reassert the traditional view. As an eyewitness and a senior police interrogator, Ken Lees demands to be taken seriously. He rails against the official 1960 Corfield report into the war, not because it whitewashed imperial crimes, but because he believes it underestimates “terrorist” killings. His memoir takes up less than half of the book. A longer afterword by David Elstein, chair of Open Democracy, attempts to undermine Elkins’s “revisionist” version of the war.
Lees comes across as a liberal among the white settlers, but he claims that “natives” couldn’t conceive of the “rational/objective” way that Europeans behaved. He arrived from Britain during the war and admits he knew nothing of Kenya. In the years since he could have read more rather than still relying on the impressionistic colonial views of Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley to understand the African experience.
You won’t read here that Kikuyu people were expelled from the best farmland, which became the “white” highlands, but then had to work on white farms there as “squatters”. Or of the thousands who joined up in the Second World War, and who came home to increased poverty. Meanwhile, the Kenyan government asked Italian prisoners captured in East Africa to stay and offered them farmland denied to Africans.
Lees maintains that prisoners in his district Fort Hall — now Murang’a — were well-treated and complains that Elkins wasn’t there. However, her book was built on interviews with 300 ex-detainees. The views and experience of Africans do not concern Lees and Elstein.
Indeed, Elstein blames Elkins’s book for the court case brought 50 years after the events. In fact the veterans were only able to organise after a colonial law banning the Mau Mau organisation was finally repealed in 2003. Post-independence leaders had no wish to remember such revolutionary disruption.
Elstein tries to use two leading historians, John Lonsdale and David Anderson, to discredit Elkins. Each has questioned certain facts in her book, but in Elstein’s terms both are “revisionists”. Indeed, Anderson exposed the vast scale of state executions and worked as historical expert for the veterans’ case.
Mau Mau Interrogator’s writers believe that the colonial government should have cracked down harder and earlier on the rebels. They believe this would have maintained the idea of “colonial benevolence”. This view totally ignores colonial Kenya’s apartheid policies.
Anyone who wants to understand the development of Kenya or the Mau Mau war should read the “revisionists” and steer well clear of this. A truth has been revealed of what it took to run an empire and it must not be buried again.
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