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The End of the Mau Mau

In response to:

The Breaking of the Mau Mau from the April 7, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Neal Ascherson [“The Breaking of the Mau Mau,” NYR, April 7] criticizes Caroline Elkins for likening British policy in pre-independence Kenya with the Nazis (in her book Imperial Reckoning, published in the UK as Britain’s Gulag). But what he calls “bizarre declarations” are actually clues to deeper concerns.

Elkins disbelieves the official figure of 12,000 Mau Mau deaths and 80,000 Mau Mau detainees in the seven-year Emergency. She suggests “hundreds of thousands” of Kikuyu died at British hands—perhaps 300,000. She claims detainees numbered up to 320,000. She offers minimal evidence.

Her statistics on death derive from the Kenya censuses of 1948 and 1962. In those fourteen years, the population of Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru (all Kikuyu speakers) grew more slowly than three groups further from the fighting, the Kamba, Luo, and Lahya. The different rates were 42.4 percent and 61.4 percent. Elkins simply applies the percentage gap (18.9 percent) to the 1948 population level of 1.555 million for the first three groups, and concludes there were 300,000 “unaccounted for” in 1962.

What she does not reveal is that the three “Kikuyu” groups grew at very different rates. The real Kikuyu (two thirds of the total) actually grew by 56 percent, with the Meru increasing by only 35 percent and the Embu declining by 15 percent. Neither Elkins nor anyone else has suggested that the Meru and Embu suffered disproportionately in the Emergency. The “missing” Kikuyu turn out to be a statistical sleight of hand. It is hard to believe that Elkins was unaware of the underlying figures.

Elkins’s detainee estimates compound the problem. The official figures show that the combined numbers of convicts and detainees in the camp system peaked at over 70,000 in 1954. Allowing for new intakes during the Emergency period, there could have been over 100,000 detained in total. Without revealing her calculations, Elkins puts the “true” number at up to 320,000.

The 100,000 figure would have been enough in itself, over a seven-year period, to explain the modest 5 percent gap in population growth between the Kikuyu and the three groups unaffected by the war, as these men could father no children while detained.

If Elkins’s estimates are right, however, then not only must hundreds of thousands have been secretly murdered in the camps, but population growth among the non-detained Kikuyu must have been spectacularly high, puncturing claims they suffered terrible losses as a result of Britain’s protected villages policy.

Elkins’s other evidence of torture and brutality is the three hundred interviews she says she conducted during an impressive eight years of research. However, only 139 interviews are cited in her book, and 80 percent of those were compiled in just thirty-four days, between January and March 1999 and in August 2003. Of the 139, just fifty refer to violence. A scholar who inflates the scale and significance of her research undermines her own case.

One of Elkins’s interviewees is Terence Gavaghan, who took charge of rehabilitation in the Mwea group of camps for twelve months in 1957–1958. She claims “several dozen” conversations “between 1998 and 2000.” In fact, she cut off contact with Gavaghan in late summer 1998, seemingly having concluded that he had supervised systematic violence to force hard-core Mau Mau to renounce their oaths. She describes the Mwea camps as the worst of all in the system.

Yet during Gavaghan’s year at Mwea, there were no deaths or serious injuries—just 20,000 releases. It emerges that none of Elkins’s eight interviewees who had anything to say about Mwea accused Gavaghan of even striking a single blow. One interviewee describes being beaten by a rehabilitation assistant, Isaiah Mwai Mathenge, and another claims Mathenge and Gavaghan “always walked together”: yet Mathenge and Gavaghan were based at camps five miles apart.

Elkins also interviewed Thomas Askwith, who was nominally in charge of rehabilitation, and asserts he was part of an official visit to Mwea, where—according to her—he “incredulously…directly witnessed” Gavaghan’s men “beat detainees senseless,” and goes on to give vivid details.

Yet according to the lengthy ministerial report of the visit, Askwith was not even part of the delegation. As for what Askwith allegedly told Elkins, she offers a footnote mentioning an interview and correspondence, but no actual quotation. What she says he allegedly “directly witnessed” is simply recycled from her previous interviewees: but only a careful reader of her footnotes will spot this devious construction.

All of this—and many other crude errors—Elkins could have corrected by simple checking (NYR readers who want a fuller account can obtain it from me at elsteindavid @aol.com). That she failed to do this leads one to conclude that her book, far from being “scholarly and very important,” in Neal Ascherson words, qualifies more as propaganda than as history.

David Elstein

London, England

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