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New Left Review 32, March-April 2005


John Newsinger on David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged and Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag. Complementary accounts of British colonial crimes in Kenya. The throttling of a liberation movement by gallows and gaol, re-examined in the shadow of Abu Ghraib.

JOHN NEWSINGER

ENGLISH ATROCITIES

Amid the recent outpouring of books and articles rehabilitating the purposes and practices of empire, two works have stood out for their unflinching scrutiny of British colonialism in Kenya. David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Caroline Elkins’s Britain’s Gulag provide complementary accounts of the Mau Mau Emergency, the former an overall study of the rebellion, the latter focusing on the Kikuyu experience of repression, and in particular on the mass detention camps through which at least 160,000 Africans passed between 1952 and 1960. Anderson, a British Africanist, has mined the substantial body of court records of the Mau Mau trials preserved in the Kenya National Archive and reconstructs a detailed account of the rebellion, providing a vivid portrait of the struggle for Nairobi. His Histories of the Hanged is the best book to appear on the Kenya Emergency so far. Elkins, at Harvard, had originally intended to write ‘a history of the success of Britain’s civilizing mission in the detention camps of Kenya’ as her doctoral thesis; finding that British official records had been systematically destroyed on Kenyan independence in 1963, she was driven to attempt an oral history of the Emergency from the Kikuyu side. In her interviews with some three hundred men and women, which provide the bulk of the material for her trenchant book, she discovered an appalling catalogue of hardship, abuse, torture and murder.

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