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The Breaking of the Mau Mau


I met Pordy Laneford in Cyprus. We had arrived on the same flight from Africa, and were assigned a room to share in the Astoria in Nicosia. It was in the late 1950s, that decade of colonial wars. In Cyprus, the British were struggling to crush the EOKA nationalist movement; the Astoria had grenade screens over the windows and a bomb hole in the garden. The French were fighting in Algeria, the British colonial “emergencies” in Malaya and Kenya were winding down but still shedding blood, and President Nasser had just nationalized the Suez Canal. The Suez War, the ultimate fiasco of Franco-British imperialism, lay a few months in the future.

Pordy Laneford had come from Kenya. He sat on his hotel bed, a chinless wonder with watery blue eyes and a small moustache, and chatted about himself. He was even younger than I was. Pordy had been named after a Devonshire trout stream which ran past his family home, a bankrupt farm (as he described it) run by a military father who collected medals and taught his children about the Empire. Pordy also took up medal-collecting and Empire. He signed up with the Rhodesian police. But soon, to his surprise, he was discharged ignominiously for torturing an African suspect. He looked around for “something which was good fun and sort of helped to hold the Empire up.” In Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion had begun, so Pordy joined the infamous Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the “red tape” of trials and witness statements. “Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.”

It had been fun, he said. He went on to describe the mauve bubbles brought up by a Mau Mau suspect speared in the throat, and gave a rendering of the accompanying noises. But Mau Mau was winding down now, and Kenya was duller. What did I think of his chances of getting antiterrorist work in Cyprus? What sort of gun would they issue him? “It does feel so absolutely marvelous to have a gun, I mean you really feel you’re somebody, sort of thing.”

I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season. Addicts are treatable. Fun-lovers will always hanker for more fun.

My advice to Pordy was to try Algeria, where French settlers were advertising for private gunmen. I thought he might not survive long there. But years later, I read in The Times that one Pordy Laneford had been charged in Nairobi with murder, having allegedly tied up a Kikuyu, placed him in a wooden chest, and left him to suffocate.

The two books under review are about what Pordy did. It must be said that they are about much more as well. They tell the history of a remarkable African people, the Kikuyu, and how an anticolonial movement fragmented into a civil war which nearly destroyed them. Both authors recount the antecedents and nature of Mau Mau, and reintegrate it into the mainstream of Kikuyu and Kenyan history. (This is a decisive movement away from the old interpretation, adopted by colonial and postcolonial Kenyan governments alike, that Mau Mau was a fearful collective disease, an invasive infection, which had no authentic political roots in the Kikuyus’ grievances about land and authority.) Caroline Elkins and David Anderson both study the development of colonial policy as the rebellion spread: the complex tensions between the Colonial Office in London, the Kenyan administration in Nairobi led for almost all the period by the elegant Sir Evelyn Baring as governor, the rabid white settler lobby headed by Michael Blundell, the Christian missionaries, and the gathering British opposition to Kenya policy, which emerged principally from the left wing of the Labour movement and the Quakers. But at the core of the two books is an intention to expose the nature and extent of British repression during the Mau Mau rebellion, between about 1952 and 1959.

It is a story of shameful and widespread atrocities, of mistaken policies that led to massive brutality and suffering. Some of those who devised and enforced these policies were well-meaning. Some, like the British-raised Kikuyu Home Guard, obeyed orders because they had come to see the conflict not as a “national liberation struggle” but as an African civil war in which a Mau Mau victory meant the extermination of themselves and their families. But there were also the Pordys, having fun. Increasingly, as the Mau Mau conflict went on, the colonial administration resorted to policies that could only be carried out—especially in the prison camps—by men who felt it safe to use lawless, systematic violence on Africans in their power.

It is fair to say that even now, fifty years later, the British public is not really aware of what went on. Elkins and Anderson, published at almost the same time, should make some dents in this ignorance. They are not, in fact, anything like the first academics or journalists to publish the “hidden history” of Mau Mau and the Emergency; there have been many studies in the last twenty years or so, and Caroline Elkins let her research be used for a television documentary shown in Britain a couple of years ago. But British ignorance about Mau Mau is of a peculiar, resilient kind. It is breached every so often, but then heals over again. As David Anderson writes, there was a period in the later 1950s when everyone knew, or could know, what was going on: “What is astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented.” All that seems to have been forgotten. The British need to believe that their Empire was run and eventually dismantled with restraint and humanity—as opposed to the disgusting brutality of the French, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, and German colonial empires. Punctures in that belief have to be mended.

Caroline Elkins is wrong to assume that British opinion, even in the 1950s, identified with the white settlers in Kenya or Rhodesia. Ordinary people, as I well remember, regarded them as pampered parasites who had run away to escape the rigors of their own country and who, up to a point, deserved what they got. But they also assumed, and still do, that British colonial administration was civilizing, honest, and—after the excesses of Victorian conquest by the Maxim gun—generally decent to “the natives.” With this assumption have come, in recent decades, books and journalism marketing nostalgia for the supposed achievements and probity of imperial civil servants and soldiers. There did exist some noble colonial visionaries, and some colonies or protectorates which were happy places for all their inhabitants. I have met several of them, and lived in several of them. But the myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward “natives” cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.

These two books, by a British and an American scholar, tell the same story from different sources. David Anderson went into the surviving trial archives of Emergency Kenya. In recounting the most sensational or disgraceful of these trials, he examines the grounds on which at least 1,090 Africans were sent to the gallows within a few years—a total without parallel in the late British Empire. He then uses the evidence to reconstruct in detail the story of the Mau Mau rebellion, with its intricate background and its terrible consequences. Caroline Elkins bases her book on very different material. After long research in archives in Kenya and London, she decided to go after the oral testimony of survivors (Mau Mau veterans, “loyalist” Kikuyu, uncommitted villagers who were sucked into the vortex of the detention camps, white settlers, and retired police or government officers). Oral history is famously unreliable, but the landscape of brutality revealed in her interviews is in all too many cases corroborated by witnesses without mutual contact. And Imperial Reckoning shows how powerfully, at last, the African voice has entered African historiography. Chroniclers of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State,” for example, have always lamented that the firsthand witnesses to its atrocities were all European or American, and that almost no African testimony existed (it did of course exist in the heads of survivors and their descendants, but nobody let the Congolese speak for themselves). Only in the late twentieth century did Africans make sure that oral memories were recorded; the popular experience of the Kenya Emergency, to take only one example, has recently been the subject of histories and fictions written by Kikuyu authors.


The Mau Mau movement did not suddenly explode, but smoldered for years before bursting into flame. Its roots lay in the early years of the century, as European settlers, mostly British, took over large areas of fertile land in the so-called White Highlands. By 1953 there were about 40,000 settlers, and some 2,500 white-owned farms. The inhabitants of this region of Kenya, the Kikuyu, were pushed back into “native reserves,” which rapidly proved inadequate for their expanding population (some 1.4 million by 1948). The pressure was partly relieved by the migration of about 150,000 people (“squatters”) onto white farming land, where they established their own smallholdings and worked as laborers for the settlers. Elkins and Anderson agree that settler farming was uneconomic, supported by government subsidies for most of the colonial period, whereas early Kikuyu cash-crop farming was efficient and undercut settler prices. But Africans were soon banned from growing tea, coffee, and sisal, and a minimum price set for maize removed their advantage.

In 1934, a land commission studied the crisis of overcrowding and made a fatally wrong choice. The brave but obvious course would have been to return at least some “white” areas to the Kikuyu. Instead, the commission decided that expansion of the reserves was politically impossible, and advocated a “husbandry” campaign—including more intensive farming methods in the existing reserves in order to make them more productive. For the next twenty years, the colonial government stuck to this policy, as the population of the reserves was swollen by steep natural increase and by the arrival of huge numbers of evicted and landless squatters from white farming regions. Overstocking, soil erosion, and hunger spread. “Improvements” like the digging of terraces by female forced labor were bitterly resented.

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