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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire Hardcover – January, 2005


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Anderson's authoritative history of the last days of the British Empire in Kenya focuses on the colonial judicial system, which sent over 1,000 native Kenyans to the gallows between 1952 and 1959, during the state of emergency triggered by the Mau Mau insurrection. At the heart of the tale, along with blustering colonial ineptitude, is white settler ignorance of how its land grabs wreaked havoc on the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest ethnic group and a people viciously targeted by the British, who were intent on rooting out Mau Mau activism at all costs. Anderson, a lecturer in African studies at Oxford, shows how paternalistic land reallocations and relocation of the Kenyan tribes to settlements fostered deep resentment, sewing the seeds of a bloody black-on-black massacre in 1952. Brilliantly analyzing the hierarchies and nuances of Kenyan society, Anderson traces how the Mau Mau hijacked the nationalist Kenya African Union, how the British scapegoated moderate leader Jomo Kenyatta and finally how the British herded virtually the entire Kikuyu population into horrific concentration camps, where thousands perished. Anderson's information-rich history vividly depicts the complex political and social dynamics of the Kenyan nationalist movement as it was confronted by the brutal waning British Empire. This is vital reading for any student of British colonial and African history. B&w photos not seen by PW; maps.
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From Booklist

Anderson's history of the violence in 1950s Kenya overlaps slightly with that depicted in Caroline Elkins' Imperial Reckoning [BKL N 15 04], which covered the detention-and-camp system established by the British colonial administration. In Anderson's effort, the entire Mau-Mau rebellion comes into view, including aspects of warfare and judicial punishment, particularly the application of the death penalty. Anderson's close analysis of capital trials supports his narrative of the origin of the anticolonial Mau-Mau movement, its perpetration of the gruesome murders of white settlers, and the state of emergency and military countermeasures that defeated the insurgency. Anderson weighs the evidence in concluding that these trials were an expedient means of retribution rather than models of legality. They also reflect the fact that it was a civil war within the Kikuyu community, exemplified in the war's "iconographic moment," a ghastly massacre and a subsequent revenge-massacre that convulsed the Kikuyu town of Lari. A dispassionate but disturbing account, Anderson's history will be vital to understanding Kenya's terrible endgame of colonialism. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059863
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393059861
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,050,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Keith Rowley on January 11, 2009
Format: Paperback
The most striking aspect of this book for me, was that despite the author's appropriately neutral narration, the savagery of Mau MAu still shines like an evil beacon. Anderson makes it perfectly clear that Mau Mau violence was primarily directed against the people of its own Kikuyo tribe, whom it butchered, man woman and child with absolutely no mercy. Infants and mothers, elders and babies, all fell to the bloodied panga of Mau Mau. This was as shocking to Africans as it was to Europeans - and this, Europeans failed to understand. It is this lack of comprehension that makes this book an excellent study of the cultural shock and misunderstanding that arose at the interface between colonist and colonizer.
Mau Mau represented not just rebellion against the injustice inflicted by British colonials, but against traditional African leadership and culture. The question I am left with is why the extreme brutality of MAu Mau arose? The absence of an explanation for this reflects perhaps that although Anderson recounts the history superbly, he really does not succeed in analyzing the mental frameworks of either the settlers or Mau Mau MAu. He never gets to grips adequately with the internalized fears of settlers in Africa or the cultural dislocation arising between Mau MAu and the rest of the Kikuyu tribe. What we are left with is a narration of evil that has sound historical underpinning but an almost non-existent cultural and psychological framework that would permit us to understand the actions of the protagonists at an emotional level. But the murderous actions of all parties remain clear and remain instructive to us in the current age.
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41 of 51 people found the following review helpful By John C. Landon on February 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This expose of the English colonial history of Kenya does a good job setting the record straight on some key issues, and brings to light the suppressed shadow side of the endgme during the period of the Mau Mau. The infamous reputation of the Mau Mau always deflected attention from the totally inept and repressive nature of the last hurrah of the colonialists in the sunset of the British Empire. The colonialization of Kenya was ill-conceived and predatory from the start, and the whole history was a riddled with a set of contradictions, such as the artificial creation of the exploitative white settler culture dooming Kenyan development from the first. You cannot let loose such a gang of people such as the white settler crowd, poor white trash in a true sense, without the rapid appearance of a malignant culture and infrastructure. This account brings to light what was quickly downplayed, the massive repression of the Kikuyu during the Emergency, with the creation of acutal Gulags. The depiction of many of the judicial processes of the period, including the trial of Jomo Kenyatta, is of a mockery of justice. The Kenyan style colony was really an instance of the Empire in decline from its nineteenth century peak and at least the British had the sense after Suez not to prolong the inevitable. See also _Imperial Reckoning_, by Elkins
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31 of 40 people found the following review helpful By W. Pue on August 8, 2006
Format: Paperback
As a professional legal historian with an interest in both social history (I was nurtured in "Warwick school" historiography) and in colonial legal histories I have a strong professional interest in the subject matter of David Anderson's account of the Mau Mau period in Kenya. The book is first-rate in all respects.

It is more than this however. Thoughtful and learned, it nonetheless reads beautifully.

The book resonated with my own family history however - as it will for many readers around the world. Born into the British Empire of the 1950's, I was raised in a British settler society (Canada), saluted the Union Jack in school each day, and heard stories of Dominion and Empire as I grew up. The British Empire was the best of all possible Empires and its treatment of subjects more humane than others (the USA "Indian Wars" provided particularly strong contrast for one raised in the prairie west). Part of an Irish diaspora family, my cousins lived and live in the old country but also in Canada, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand. One uncle lived out his days in India and one black sheep dedicated herself to a communist liberation of Ireland (another served Scotland Yard arresting suspected IRA terrorists: I think they never met).

Anderson's account of Mau Mau is disturbing, not just for explaining the violence on all sides and the state excesses conducted in the cause of "security" in times of "terror", but for its account of settler society in a colony where the "native" was in the numerical majority.

Ever-smug, Canadians are too prone to celebrate our country's commitment to civil liberties, human rights, and anti-racism.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By S. Smith on August 18, 2014
Format: Paperback
The early chapters of Anderson book give a concise background to the Mau Mau emergency, rooting it in the land hunger of the Kikuyu people, exacerbated by land seizures, population growth and the expulsion of Africans from white-owned farms and the towns. He includes a survey of Kikuyu political mobilisation from the 1920s and their growing frustration with government stonewalling.

The main section contains a harrowing account of the use of the death penalty to combat the Mau Mau insurrection. Anderson draws particular attention to the extension of the death penalty from murder to new offences, and its use as a political weapon.

Anderson is best when he lets the testimonies of the trials speak for themselves. Although he is generally fair in presenting the evidence, his conclusions seem to treat those condemned largely as victims. There were something like 2,000 Kenyans murdered by Mau Mau, who were more truly the victims. He presents some evidence of judicial bias, dubious evidence, excessive punishment and failure to follow due process, although many of the most unjust sentences he mentions were overturned on appeal. Many of those convicted were in fact guilty of the crimes they were charged with, and much of Anderson's objection seems to be to the use of the death penalty in general, rather than in specific cases.

One of the less satisfactory parts of the book is Anderson's attempt to argue that Britain was hanging Kenyans in the 1950s when it was abolishing capital punishment at home, but this seems to misrepresent the general support for hanging in Britain until the 1960s and later.
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