MAU MAU An African Crucible By Robert B. Edgerton The Free Press. 298 pp. $22.95 THE MAU MAU rebellion in Kenya has fascinated scholars and the public for nearly four decades. The British colonizers in the '50s pictured it as an irrational descent into savagery by the Kikuyu people. With the coming of Kenya's independence in 1963, the rebellion was given its due as a war of liberation. Continuing research in the '70s and '80s, however, has revealed a more complex picture: The rebellion which sought to drive the colonizers from Kenya and reclaim lost lands became, in practice, a class war among the Kikuyu. Robert Edgerton has mined the recent scholarship and supplemented it with archival research to put together an account that integrates the varied strands of the Mau Mau rebellion. He writes lively prose and has a good eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote. The book places the rebellion in its historical context by beginning the story with the coming of the white colonizers and carrying it up to the present day. Many of the white settlers who came to Kenya in the wake of the colonial armies that drove Kikuyu and Masai from the fertile highlands were drawn from the aristocracy of Europe. They came to obtain cheap land and to profit from coerced African labor. The conquered Kikuyu, in contrast, were herded into reserves that quickly became overcrowded. By 1948 a million Kikuyu tried to eke out a living on less land than was owned by 3,000 white farmers. Shortage of land and the need for money to pay taxes compelled many of them to leave the reserves and work for white employers. The injustice of losing their lands and the humiliation of their day-to-day interaction with whites led to organzied political activity among the Kikuyu beginning in the 1920s. After nearly three decades of largely peaceful political activity that accomplished very little, the stage was set for the emergence of the radical Kikuyu leaders who organized the Mau Mau rebellion. At its peak, the Mau Mau rebellion mobilized more than 30,000 fighters, who constructed camps in the thickly forested areas of the highlands. Though poorly armed, they nevertheless coalesced into effective fighting units. Against them the British amassed over 50,000 troops. When attempts to bomb and attack the Mau Mau camps proved ineffective, the British tried to isolate them from their base of support. They forced nearly a million Kikuyu to leave their scattered farmsteads and resettle in villages surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The villagers were forced to dig a 50-mile ditch to separate the forest from the reserves. If the forest fighters were sometimes brutal, Edgerton argues that they were surprisingly well disciplined for a ragtag army. In contrast, settlers hunted down Kikuyu like animals and British soldiers committed atrocities that were officially hushed up. The most bizarre British strategy for fighting the Mau Mau was to put more than 100,000 Mau Mau suspects in concentration camps and torture them until they confessed that they had taken the Mau Mau oath. Since the British viewed Mau Mau as a sort of Satanic cult, it is no wonder that they tried to fight it with exorcisms. BY 1957, five years after the rebellion started, it was effectively over. Although the rebellion had failed to gain the land and freedom it sought, it hastened Kenya's independence in two ways. First, by getting the British directly involved in Kenyan affairs, it dashed settler dreams of establishing a settler-run state along the lines of Rhodesia or South Africa. Second, it reminded the British that holding onto its African colonies could be costly. The great irony is that when Kenya became independent in 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta, who had spent the rebellion in prison as the alleged evil genius behind the Mau Mau, treated the ex-fighters more as a nuisance than as heroes. He did nothing to help ex-fighters recover land that had been confiscated and redistributed to loyalists during the rebellion. When white farmers left Kenya, none of the vacated land was given to Mau Mau veterans; instead, it was sold to those who could afford it, most of whom had been loyalists during the rebellion. Many former freedom fighters, landless and penniless, ended up eking out a living in the Nairobi slums. This outcome becomes comprehensible only if we understand that Mau Mau had always been a movement of the poor and dispossessed, whereas the wealthy and landed Kikuyu had often remained loyal to the colonial government. Loyalist Kikuyu were targets of Mau Mau attacks far more frequently than were white farmers. Only 32 white civilians were killed during the entire rebellion, whereas over 1,800 Kikuyu loyalists lost their lives to Mau Mau attacks. The class antagonisms that pitted Kikuyu against Kikuyu during the Mau Mau rebellion remain alive in Kenya today. Robert Harms, professor of history at Yale, is the author of "River of Wealth, River of Sorrow: The Central Zaire Basin in the Era of the Slave and Ivory Trade."