The British Empire Library

Kenya: The Evolution of Independence

by R.L. Collins

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Professor John Lonsdale (Trinity College, Cambridge)
A frontispiece shows the author, among other members of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Council, meeting President Kenyatta in Nairobi in 1971. Was it then that the author was smitten with Kenya? Certainly, this long book - with 16 appendices ranging from a nineteenth-century Anglo-Zanzibari slave-trade treaty to no less than six on different facets of the Mau Mau 'Emergency' - is a labour of love. The author readily admits that he has relied on published secondary authorities rather than on original research. But there is no slipshod superficiality here: the detail is meticulous and is the main value of the work.

The book's character is most concisely seen in its bibliography. Of the 68 books or reports listed only eleven were published since 1990; of these six are military histories and five focus on Kenya's white settlers, three being on such outstanding figures as Elspeth Huxley, Ewart Grogan and Wilfred Thesiger. None of Jomo Kenyatta's three biographies is mentioned and the only two works that focus exclusively on Mau Mau are Frank Corfield's officially blinkered report of 1960 and Fred Majdalany's State of Emergency (1964), which relied largely on Corfield in answering the question 'What was Mau Mau?' At least eight academic histories of Mau Mau and Kenya's decolonisation, fully researched in British and Kenyan archives or in oral tradition or reminiscence, were published between 1990 and 2012; not one seems to have been consulted.

So this is an old-fashioned story, with old-fashioned virtues, especially its insistence on the nuts and bolts of economic and social development. The one constant theme is the Kenya-Uganda railway, its finances and freight rates, and how these shaped both white settlement and African production. Shipping lines, airlines and telephones all have their subsidiary parts to play. And all these means of communication, as also their political corollary in colonisation, are shown to have had their origins in the nineteenth-century British campaign against Indian Ocean slavery. The railway's finest hour came in its industrial support for Kenya's role in the Second World War. Nearly one hundred pages are devoted to the Eastern African campaigns in both world wars.

But it is difficult to find an argument here for the evolution of Kenya's independence promised in the title - even in the soberly Interesting Afterthoughts, where African politics is seen as subversive rather than evolutionary. Indeed, independence under African majority rule seems to come as rather a surprise - after a detailed account of the Mau Mau 'emergency', which makes the crucial, often overlooked point, that the British won the 'forest war' by means of Operation Anvil in the city of Nairobi (page 451).

This book, therefore, does not explain Kenya's independence. With loving detail it accounts for the country's colonial development in terms that colonial officials and white settlers would have understood. The African side of the story is looked at, somewhat askance, from over the fence.

British Empire Book
R.L. Collins
Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd


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