Trapped in History: Kenya, Mau Mau and Me by Nicholas Rankin - review by Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter

State of Emergency

Trapped in History: Kenya, Mau Mau and Me


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The colonisation of Kenya is generally acknowledged to represent the worst of all the criminal enterprises that helped form the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1950s, the colony underwent an ‘Emergency’ – others would call it a war – so bloody that afterwards the British government sought to spirit away most of the official documentation on it to a highly secret archive in Buckinghamshire (in the 2010s it was eventually opened up as a result of a court case pursued by some of the conflict’s African victims). The government of the day and the general public, informed by the tabloid press, attributed the whole affair to the innate barbarism of an African organisation known as the Mau Mau, whose atrocities both shocked and thrilled readers brought up on popular imperialist novels and films. Those atrocities were genuine. The Mau Mau administered dark ‘oaths’ reinforced by bloody rituals, and slaughtered – often ghoulishly – men, women and children, both white and native (the latter if they were seen as ‘collaborators’ or simply because they refused to take the oaths). White settlers lived in terror of these monsters, who at any moment could emerge from the forests, dressed in animal skins and wielding huge knives, to slay them in their beds (apparently the Mau Mau could smell their victims out from two miles away). ‘Only’ twenty-odd settlers were murdered in this way, as against thousands of Africans shot and hanged in reprisal, but the fear was real. It was exacerbated when the Mau Mau came under suspicion – as most protest movements did in that paranoid age – of being Soviet backed.

An alternative way of regarding the rise of the Mau Mau was as an extreme and deplorable but nonetheless understandable ‘nationalist’ response to the crimes of the white colonists, first of all in stealing the best lands from the Africans, and then in subjecting them to appallingly racist treatment as

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