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.

Anderson and Elkins are not, to be sure, the first to reveal the scale and horror of the British response to the rebellion, under the governorship of Sir Evelyn Baring, scion of the banking dynasty and son of the British Consul-General in Egypt. In terms of imperial brutality, it was on a par with the suppression of the United Irishmen in the 1790s and Indian mutineers in the 1850s. As well as informing such works as Ngu˜gY˜ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, the Emergency has been the subject of much scholarly investigation, above all in Kenya, over the past few decades. But whereas studies such as Robert Edgerton’s excellent Mau Mau: An African Crucible (1990) passed virtually unnoticed in mainstream consciousness at the time, the two volumes under review have received considerable coverage. What accounts for the shift? Much of the contemporary resonance of Anderson’s and Elkins’s books must stem from the renewed awareness of imperialism created by the Blair government’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Abu Ghraib, Falluja and British troops’ brutalization of prisoners in Basra all haunt these pages, in which the Empire’s disgraceful record in Kenya receives the scrupulous attention it deserves.

The Mau Mau revolt was in large part a response to white land-grabbing in Kenya. Settlement had been accelerated after 1902 as a means of repaying the exorbitant cost of the Mombasa–Lake Victoria railway, through the development of commercial agriculture in the colony. The British had established the East Africa Protectorate in 1895, and instituted direct rule in 1920. Asian immigrants had built the railway and provided the empire with dependable clerical staff and service-sector workers. But as in Rhodesia, white settlement was the core of imperial policy. It increased steadily after the First World War and accelerated sharply after 1945, the settler population going from 21,000 in 1938 to 40,000 in 1953, with about 2,500 white-owned farms. Astonishingly, the settlers’ numbers doubled during the course of the Emergency—making it plain that the Colonial Office had no intention of abandoning white rule. London’s arms-length system of government and investment in racial hierarchy had made the white settlers the most powerful actors in Kenyan politics, blocking any concessions to the black majority whose land they had expropriated. The ethnic group most affected by white settlement were the Kikuyu, who numbered 1.4 million by the late 1940s, and had increasingly been subjected to land hunger and wage squeezes as white settlement displaced them from their fertile highlands. Prevented from owning land outside the Native Reserves, as of the early 1930s most Kikuyu faced a choice of three forms of destitution: to return to the depleted soils and land shortages of the Reserves; work Europeans’ land outside the Reserves as insecure tenants; or join those flooding into Nairobi’s Eastland slums in search of employment.

The settlers’ stranglehold on the political system was strengthened by an agricultural boom during the Second World War, making less likely any compromise with the moderate nationalist movement that had emerged in the 1920s, led by such figures as Jomo Kenyatta. By the early 1950s, a space had been created for the development of the mass revolutionary movement among the Kikuyu that has become known as Mau Mau—the British label stuck, though it had a number of names and was often referred to by its own members simply as ‘the Movement’. Trade union activists were among its key protagonists, especially around the time of the 1950 general strike, and a prominent role was played by ex-servicemen, radicalized by the anti-colonial movement in India during the Second World War. (Waruhiu Itote, better known by his nom de guerre ‘General China’, recalled in his memoirs that he had also been influenced by the Haitian Revolution, recounted to him by an African American soldier.)

The Movement derived support from three overlapping sources. In the Reserves, there was bitter resentment against both the settlers and the British-appointed chiefs, who prospered through their collaboration with the authorities. A second strand consisted of the ‘squatters’—Kikuyu families who had moved to the white farms of the Rift Valley or White Highlands as tenant farmers, but were gradually pushed out, evicted or forcibly ‘repatriated’ from the 1940s on, their wages and living standards falling dramatically. They were to form the backbone of the insurrection in the countryside, where guerrilla forces were known as the Land and Freedom Army. These were complemented by a third, urban component—the Kikuyu living in Nairobi, either unemployed or working as railwaymen, street-vendors, taxi-drivers, porters. Activists here ensured that Nairobi was, in Anderson’s words, ‘the Mau Mau’s beating heart’.

The rebels’ distinctive mode of recruitment was the practice of oathing—a Kikuyu tradition designed to enhance solidarity in times of hardship, which had been taken up by squatters resisting eviction in the mid-40s. It had then spread to Nairobi and the Reserves, and was in the process transformed into an oath of fidelity to the anti-colonial resistance, broken on pain of death. British propaganda subsequently made much of the ritual elements of the oathing ceremony, as atavistic throwbacks among a semi-savage people; Anderson in particular draws attention to the often coercive nature of the oaths. But it is clear that by 1951, the Movement enjoyed broad mass support among Kikuyu; its militants soon wrested control of the Kenya African Union from the moderates and began to acquire weapons and cash, often by criminal means, to prepare for armed anti-colonial struggle. The government responded to raids and attacks on collaborators by levying punitive collective fines on villages, and violence escalated during 1952; in October of that year, the assassination of Paramount Chief Waruhiu prompted Baring, the colony’s newly arrived Governor, to declare a state of emergency.

The British were confronted with an underground revolutionary movement about which they knew very little, and which had already enlisted the great majority of the Kikuyu in its ranks and was looking to extend its influence to other tribal groups. Baring adopted the settlers’ line, identifying any African nationalists as ‘Mau Mau’—and immediately imprisoning Kenyatta as the man behind the rebellion, when he was in fact one of its leading opponents. Though the British initially thought cordon-and-search operations combined with mass arrests would decapitate the movement and bring about its speedy collapse, their hopes for a return to normality were soon dashed. For the moment, the Movement held the initiative in Nairobi, dominating the African districts of the city and organizing boycotts of public transport and collaborationist businesses. Anderson describes how urban militants ‘had taken their message to the mass of unskilled and illiterate Kikuyu’, appealing to ethnic solidarity, ‘but also to the embryonic class-consciousness of the unemployed, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed’. This proved ‘a potent mix’. One of the great strengths of Anderson’s account is his ability to get down to street level. We encounter Kariithi Muthomo, an activist arrested on his way to carry out an assassination in January 1954, and Hussein Mohamed, the Special Branch informer who betrayed him for ‘a handsome retainer of up to 100 shillings each month’ (the average African wage was 77 shillings). Mohamed was shot in broad daylight for his treachery and left to die in the gutter; Muthomo, by contrast, when sentenced to hang for possession of a firearm, defiantly told the judge: ‘I am dying for my land and I am not afraid to die for that.’