African History

Colonial Legacies

Policemen stand guard over tribesmen suspected of committing Mau Mau crimes (1954).
Policemen stand guard over tribesmen suspected of committing Mau Mau crimes (1954). (Popperfoto/
Reviewed by Mahmood Mamdani
Sunday, July 3, 2005


The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

By Caroline Elkins. Henry Holt. 475 pp. $27.50


The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire

By David Anderson. Norton. 406 pp. $25.95


of an English Gentleman and His African Dream

By Christina Lamb. HarperCollins. 352 pp. $25.95

These important new books offer a grim look at a sour, often neglected chapter of colonial abuse: the bitter "dirty war" the British waged in Kenya in the 1950s. Even the scale of the atrocities here is slippery. During the conflict, the Mau Mau, an armed movement by militant members of the Kikuyu people against settler power in the White Highlands of Kenya, killed 32 white settlers. ("More European civilians would die in road traffic accidents between 1952 and 1960," notes Oxford lecturer David Anderson in Histories of the Hanged .) Other Mau Mau victims included some 200 British troops and police and 1,800 African civilians.

But the numbers explode when we count the Mau Mau dead. The official figure is 12,000, but Anderson places it at "more than 20,000." Matters got bloodier as the Mau Mau turned from fighting the British to waging a civil war among their fellow Kikuyu. In Imperial Reckoning , Caroline Elkins presents a radical reappraisal of the counterinsurgency's scale and human cost, finding that "somewhere between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are unaccounted for." British tactics went beyond counterinsurgency warfare, she argues, to become "a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people."

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