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Britain's Gulag / Histories of The Hanged (Review)
BRITAIN'S GULAG: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya
by Caroline Elkins
Cape 20 pp475

HISTORIES OF THE HANGED: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire
by David Anderson
Weidenfeld 20 pp406

In the 1940s and 1950s, many Empire loyalists from Churchill on down wanted Britain to fight to keep its colonies. If one imagines the scale of the human disaster if Britain had tried to defeat Indian or African nationalism with the same means that the French fought to keep Indochina and Algeria, one realises just how much Britain and the whole world owes to the great decolonisers, Attlee and Macmillan. In popular memory the intervening Churchill and Eden governments, blinded by imperial nostalgia, both played Canute until brought to a sharp halt by Suez. What both these books show is that the price was far higher, that in Kenya, faced by Mau Mau, a classic peasant revolt born of land hunger, Britain was guilty of vast, systematic atrocities and that the cover-up has continued to this day. Caroline Elkins argues that as many as 320,000 Kikuyu were thrown into detention camps and that almost all the rest of the Kikuyu, living in "enclosed villages", suffered de facto detention, too. Moreover, Elkins not only points out that countless documents relating to the detention camps are either still closed or simply missing from the National Archives, but insists that a huge and deliberate bonfire of files took place before the British left Kenya in 1963.

While nobody doubted that Mau Mau was guilty of hideous murders and mutilation, both the colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, and the governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, refused to see the movement as having anything to do with the fact that white settlers had taken all the best land. Instead, Mau Mau was seen as a disease, a mental illness. Lennox-Boyd told the Commons that the movement's oath-taking "had such a tremendous effect on the Kikuyu mind as to turn quite intelligent young Africans into entirely different human beings, into sub-human creatures without hope and with death as their only deliverance". It followed that all means were legitimate in dealing with these untermenschen. The point of detention was to "break" Mau Mau suspects by forcing them to "confess".

This was an open invitation to methodical mass torture. Elkins describes the process of "night screening" at one camp: interrogation teams would go into the camp, handcuff their victims, smear soap into their eyes and then go to work on their testicles and ears with pliers. Hideous, prolonged beatings, rape, sexual abuse of every kind and, finally, murder were used on a huge scale. Even after being subjected to such treatment for a year, some 30,000 hard-core Mau Mau who refused to confess were isolated for special treatment. This in turn produced frequent prisoner revolts, usually terminated by mass starvation. Meanwhile, Jomo Kenyatta was detained for years on charges of leading and inspiring Mau Mau charges later admitted to be absurd. Some years ago Frank Kitson, who had been in charge of Kenyatta's detention, told me that the real decision was whether or not to let him kill himself by giving him the bottle of spirits he was then demanding and consuming every day. The decision Kitson took to refuse him drink and dry him out was a fateful one in Kenya's history.

According to the official figures, Mau Mau killed fewer than 100 whites and about 1,800 Kikuyu loyalists while some 11,000 Kikuyu were killed in return. Both Elkins and David Anderson regard these figures with derision Anderson points out that the mass hanging of 1,090 Mau Mau had no parallel anywhere in Malaya, Indochina or even Algeria, while Elkins suggests that the real number of deaths may have run into hundreds of thousands. This seems somewhat unlikely if only because it would have made it impossible for Baring and Lennox-Boyd to continue to deny all allegations of mistreatment. The game was finally up when the revelation of atrocities at the Hola camp resulted in condemnation of the government not only by the Labour opposition but by Enoch Powell, who undoubtedly spoke for many other Tories. <snip>,,2102-1426736,00...

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