In Cold Blood
Although tens of thousands were imprisoned without trial, some suspected Mau Mau were arrested, charged and tried for their alleged crimes. But as David Anderson, a lecturer in African studies at Oxford University, reveals in a vivid and comprehensive new account of the war, Histories of the Hanged, the trials testify as much to the brutality of the British counteroffensive as to the Mau Mau crimes themselves. Anderson, whose book is based largely on the documentation of 800 capital cases of accused Mau Mau that survive in the British archives, acknowledges the huge challenge the British faced trying to uphold justice when terrified witnesses recanted their testimony and the courts were overwhelmed with the volume of cases. But he also finds strong evidence of severe brutality by police against prisoners in 80 percent of those cases. The pressure to convict led to a complete abandonment of the most basic British principles of justice. More than a thousand men were sent to the gallows as convicted Mau Mau terrorists, many on the flimsiest of evidence. "In no other place, and at no other time in the history of British imperialism," writes Anderson, "was state execution used on such a scale as this."
What happened at the settlement at Lari was emblematic. One night in March 1953, the British-trained African vigilante force known as the Home Guard came upon the mutilated remains of a Kikuyu loyalist nailed to a tree. Then, they noticed fires breaking out in the direction of their own homes back in town. They raced back to find 120 of the leading male elders, their wives and their children either dead or seriously wounded in the ruins of fifteen homesteads. It was the largest-scale attack by Mau Mau to date.
The response was not mourning but vengeance. That night, with the apparent complicity of European commanders, the Home Guard murdered some 200 suspected Mau Mau in an orgy of beatings and summary shootings, the mangled bodies left in the bush to be picked over by stray dogs for days afterward.
Eventually, more than 300 men gave confessions to the Mau Mau killings at Lari. But as Anderson documents, it's impossible to know what sort of coercion might have extracted them. Recognizing that their statements would be suspect, police encouraged traumatized survivors to corroborate their testimony. Anderson finds that unreliable testimony provided the basis for eighteen hangings. Still, in the end, after appeals through the British legal system, acquittals in the Lari cases outnumbered convictions, and outraged settlers pressed for and won even harsher measures and more summary justice. The story of the countermassacre and the increasing use of systematic state counterterror, meanwhile, was buried.
With outrage growing, the British stepped up their assault, now taking it to the urban centers. During two weeks in Nairobi in 1954, the government imprisoned more than 20,000 suspected Mau Mau and sent them to screening camps, deporting another 30,000 to Kikuyu reserves. By the end of Operation Anvil, as it was known, nearly half of all Kikuyu in the city had been imprisoned without trial.
But it is the conditions of that imprisonment that reveal the depths to which the British sank to maintain the illusion of their great empire, and which would ultimately prove its undoing. Elkins has bravely done justice to that history. Her book provides a painstaking and painfully detailed look at the British detention system in Kenya, a pipeline of overflowing prison camps where inmates routinely died of infectious disease, starvation and the harshness of forced labor--if they made it through the interrogations. Those "screenings" grew progressively harsher, with guards torturing inmates by using electric shock and fire, shoving broken bottles, snakes and scorpions into their private parts, and employing a range of other sexual and scatological humiliations and brutalities in a systematic effort to physically and psychologically break the Kikuyu population.