The British Empire Library

Histories Of The Hanged - Britain's Dirty War In Kenya And The End Of The Empire

by David Anderson

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr T H R Cashmore {Colonial Administrative Service, Kenya 1953-62)
This review is written with reservations, since I am parti pris having served in Kenya for ten years (1953-63) as a district officer in ten administrative districts, including some affected by the Emergency.

After World War 2, an illusion grew up that empires were for seafaring states alone. A senior Colonial Office official termed this the "saltwater fallacy" and cited instances of landbound empires. In 1996 there was a very fine American TV documentary on the winning of the American West, produced by Kenneth Burns. After the American Civil War, the Federal Cavalry moved west under Sherman and Sheridan to deal with the Red Indian problem (and Sheridan's belief was that the only good Indian was a dead Indian). In the process much Indian land was lost to settlers. There was, of course, violence and victims on both sides. But it is one of the ironies of history that Federal Cavalry, who had fought in a civil war which was to free the slave, played a very different role in the West. History has lessons to teach us all.

David Anderson's book contains much by way of solid research, but it tells a one-sided story. He uses such terms as "Gulag" and "Belsen" (pages 311 and 297). He does not seem to fully understand that civil war breeds its own horrors on all sides. Anderson is very dismissive of the theories of government's "Psycho Docs" on the effects of MM oaths which he terms "bunk". The policy of villagisation was designed to "protect" the population from Mau Mau not to create mini-Belsens. In settled areas such as Thika the policy aimed at protecting a labour force which was largely non-Kikuyu. In the Manyani detention camp, where there was a serious outbreak of typhoid. Doctor Barton was moved from Kilifi to take temporary charge, and his published account as an eyewitness, without glossing over the unpleasant aspects of the regime, is very different from that given by Anderson. Anderson also labels the recruits to the pseudo-gangs as "turncoats". His treatment of "General China" is favourable up to his surrender, but not thereafter. European eyewitnesses tend to be quoted rather selectively as in the case of a single reference to the book: Of Lions and Dung Beetles.

I hope that others, better qualified than I, will in due course join the debate. The argument around the conflicting views about the end of Empire in Kenya, and elsewhere, will continue. But in time, a balanced and impartial view may emerge; for the quest for the truth must remain the ultimate goal.

Professor Pascal James Imperato adds:

Anderson has attempted to write a revisionist history that sharply challenges the conventional wisdom concerning the 1,090 men who were hanged for Mau Maurelated offences. His book reflects both meticulous and comprehensive research and a sincere effort at a balanced rendering of conclusions about the judicial processes through which these men were condemned to death.

He proves himself remarkably diligent in examining the trial records of the 1,090 hanged. His examination reveals some instances of judicial bias and corruption, tainted testimony, questionable evidence, confessions extracted under torture, and seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent judgements. However, these occasional imperfections in judicial processes do not support the author's claim of widespread victimization due to a mass miscarriage of justice.

One comes away from reading Histories of the Hanged with enormous respect for Anderson's meticulous research and for the rigor of his scholarship. However, while he gives voice to those who were hanged, he does not persuade us that they should not have been punished in some form.

British Empire Book
David Anderson
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
0 297 84719 8


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