IMPERIAL RECKONING

The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

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

HISTORIES OF THE HANGED

The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire

By David Anderson. Norton. 406 pp. $25.95

THE AFRICA HOUSE: The True Story

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."

The education of Caroline Elkins began in 1995, when she decided to write a doctoral dissertation on the 80,000 Mau Mau detained during the 1952-58 state of emergency. Knowing that three different government departments had followed the detainees, she expected to find 240,000 files in the British archives -- but found none. Even the Kenya archives yielded only a few hundred files, and the surviving records were duplicitous.

To cut through the systematic destruction and distortion of documentary evidence about the Mau Mau emergency, Elkins set out in search of its survivors. Her ambition in Imperial Reckoning was to shift the searchlight from the Mau Mau to the British, and she has succeeded spectacularly. In contrast, Anderson's Histories of the Hanged relies on more conventional written documentation, mainly surviving court records. Not surprisingly, his findings by and large confirm the official estimates of Mau Mau deaths.

Though at times it reads as an indictment, Imperial Reckoning offers much more than just outrage, including the rare chance to hear the voices of victims of the counterinsurgency. But because she writes with the conclusion very much in mind, Elkins, now a history professor at Harvard, weaves the narrative around the direct confrontation between Mau Mau militants and Kikuyu still loyal to British rule -- which is how the story ends but not how it begins. In the process, she loses sight of the battle for the middle ground -- for the loyalties of Kikuyu torn between the British, the Mau Mau and other factions. In spite of Anderson's conventional methodology, the great merit of his political and social history of the Mau Mau war is that it focuses precisely on that all-important fight for the middle.

Both books, then, need to be read together. Elkins's truly innovative research shows for the first time the enormous scale and murderous consequences of the British counterinsurgency campaign, but Anderson's political acumen gives us the clues necessary to reflect on the war's lessons.

Kenyan settlers, whom Elkins calls "some of the most aristocratic immigrants ever to populate the British empire," reveled in a life of "gentrified leisure" driven by a mix of hedonism and the lash of the infamous kiboko, the whip made of rhinoceros hide. One can glimpse some of their lifestyle from The Africa House, British journalist Christina Lamb's nostalgic biography of Stewart Gore-Browne, who came to Africa in 1911 to fight the Boer War, settled down in Northern Rhodesia on 23,000 acres of land and built himself a Tuscan-style mansion with over 40 rooms. Little by little, he shed his racism, enough to give parliamentary speeches on a partnership between blacks and whites but never quite enough to give up the big black stick he used to beat servants.

The books under review tell a composite story. In British-ruled Kenya, a battery of laws underwrote settler privilege at the expense of native lives. Herded into reserves, peasants were forbidden to grow the most lucrative crops, taxed so they would work at any pay and had their movements constantly tracked. The landless became "squatters" on settler farms, laboring for a third of the year in return for a plot to cultivate and permission to graze cattle. By 1940, there were 150,000 squatters -- one in every eight Kikuyu. World War II made matters worse as settler-dominated district councils limited squatter access to land. More than 100,000 squatters were forcibly "repatriated" between 1946 and 1952. They found it difficult to organize -- except in one place, Olenguruone, where squatters dipped into Kikuyu tradition to forge some unity. Taking an oath traditionally meant for male elders in times of crisis, these squatters administered it to men, women and children. The term "Mau Mau" was a European corruption of muma, the Kikuyu word for oath. The Mau Mau were the born-again Kikuyu.

As the Mau Mau oath spread to Kenya's cities, the British declared a state of emergency on October 9, 1952. The British isolated some 20,000 Mau Mau fighters in the forest by cutting off their supply lines to Nairobi and to the Kikuyu countryside, then confronted them with a roughly equal force. Every Kikuyu who was not a loyalist was treated as a confirmed oath-taker. In a month, almost half of the 50,000 Kikuyu screened had been detained -- without a single trial having been held. The number doubled within six months.

Meanwhile, the British set entire villages on fire. With their houses and property burnt, more than a million Kikuyu were forced into some 800 barbed-wire villages between June 1954 and October 1955.

To return to the books at hand, Elkins's Imperial Reckoning differs from conventional accounts, which argue that British tactics were aimed against Mau Mau militants. She recognizes that the British interned practically the entire Kikuyu population. But how do you detain an entire people without having to fight them all? Using their time-honored divide-and-rule strategy, the British tried to force the insurgency inward, into a battle pitting Kikuyu militants against Kikuyu loyalists -- thereby turning the Mau Mau uprising into a civil war.

The crisis came on the night of March 26, 1953, when two successive massacres -- one by the Mau Mau, the other by a Christian militia known as the Home Guards -- claimed more than 400 lives, mostly women and children. Anderson recounts a debate in the Mau Mau forest camps in July 1953, reflecting growing doubts about the morality and advisability of killing women and children. Did they sense that letting the pursuit of justice give way to vengeance might drown the struggle in its own blood? The spectacular expansion of the Mau Mau movement in Nairobi -- the British believed that 90 percent of the Kikuyu had taken the oath -- also helped dilute its focus. Criminal elements crept in; coerced fund-raising and oath-taking began. With the Mau Mau political leadership jailed from the outset of the crisis, and with parallel militias arising from rebels in the forest, the movement never again had a unified leadership.

After the March 1953 massacres, the Mau Mau began shifting their target away from the settlers on the Highlands and the colonial British government, and increasingly toward those they saw as its local beneficiaries: first a combination of Kikuyu chiefs, Christians and Home Guards, then those who sought to occupy the middle ground between rebels and loyalists. Neighbors -- even relatives -- found themselves on opposite sides in a rapidly brutalizing civil war. As the Mau Mau lost the middle, the British were able to implement a political settlement that would isolate them.

Unlike the French in Algeria, the British succeeded in turning the anti-colonial and anti-settler struggle in the White Highlands into a civil war among the Kikuyu. Torn between Mau Mau and loyalists, the Kikuyu were willing to submit to a political settlement. But its cost was astronomical. The emergency was a state of exception: Violence, not law, was its organizing principle. The widespread sanctioning of abuse gave plenty of room for perversions to flourish, including sexual torture. Though the regime of torture was authored by white settlers who directed Kikuyu loyalists, Elkins makes it clear that the campaign of abuse operated under the watchful eye of a British colonial establishment that wanted results at an acceptable political cost.

But ultimately few Kenyans found those costs tolerable. Elkins sums up the testimony of female survivors: "Today, many of these women think of the entire Central Province as a kind of mass unmarked grave." Each of these fine books has much to teach us about Kenya's tumultuous history. If they can trigger serious soul-searching about the crimes of modern Western empires, they will mark a major contribution to our understanding of the post-colonial world. *

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University. His books include "Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism."

Policemen stand guard over tribesmen suspected of committing Mau Mau crimes (1954).