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Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire [Hardcover]

David Anderson
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

13 Jan 2005

This book tells for the first time the story of the dirty war the British fought in Kenya, in the run-up to the country's independence in 1964. In 1952, after years of tension and bitterness, the grievances of the Gikuyu people of central Kenya exploded into open rebellion. Only 32 European settlers died in the subsequent fighting, but more than 1,800 African civilians, over 3,000 African police and soldiers, and 12,000 Mau Mau rebels were killed. Between 1953 and 1956 Britain sent over a thousand Kenyans to the gallows, often on trumped up or non-existent charges. Meanwhile 70,000 people were imprisoned in camps without trial for between two and six years. Men and women were kept together in conditions of institutionalised violence overseen by British officials.

David Anderson provides a full and convincing account of a war in which all sides behaved badly, and therefore few of the combatants can be either fully excused, or blamed. His book contains the information the press, public and politicians need to decide for themselves about an important aspect of Britain's recent past. These events are still within living memory, and eye-witness testimonies provide the backbone of this controversial story.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; 1st. Edition edition (13 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297847198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297847199
  • Product Dimensions: 4 x 16.5 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 778,491 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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. (PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (22.11.04))

By calling for reconciliation in the early years of his presidency, Kenyatta understandably sacrificed the past for the future. But today young Kenyans know next to nothing about the Mau Mau uprising and how it led to independence. For them, these books are an incomparable record of what happened in, and to, their country. For others, parallels with American foreign policy today are apparent enough. (THE ECONOMIST (1.1.05))

David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged is the first full account of the guerrilla war that determined who should inherit Britain's most troublesome African colony. His evidence comes principally from the transcripts of the hundreds of Mau Mau trials that, in four years, resulted in more that one thousand executions, far more than in any other colonial conflict, even Algeria's. (John Lonsdale TIMES (8.1.05))

One reason why Anderson's book is...the better is that he traces the sad aftermath of Mau Mau in Kenyan life up to the present...At the least these two books should cause the government to declassify all remaining documents and lift the veil on what was probably the worst atrocity of the entire colonial period. (R W Johnson SUNDAY TIMES (9.1.05))

Anderson's account is much the more scholarly...[It] creates[s] a bleak record, describing the network of detention camps created in the 1950s to hold Kikuyu driven wholesale from their villages, and the systematic torture and cruelty employed by the counter-insurgency forces. (Max Hastings SUNDAY TELEGRAPH (9.1.05))

it is impossible to read on without sensing a deeper contemporary relevance. (Peter Preston OBSERVER (16.1.05))

The British responded with show trials and swift executions to demonstrate that counter-measures were in place. These trials form the centrepiece of Anderson's book. He has trawled through more than 1,000 of them in Kenya National Archive, emerging with a tale of rough justice and political manipulation that raises disturbing questions about the guilt of some of the accused. (Nicholas Best TELEGRAPH (15.1.05))

Anderson's research on Mau Mau trials and their victims...not only transform[s] our understanding of empire's end, but should produce political shock-waves...What Britain did in Kenya was - as...Anderson...make[s] clear in unprecedented and shocking detail - vicious, shameful and unforgivable. (Stephen Howe INDEPENDENT (21.1.05))

[a] considered and dispassionate account of the atrocities commited by the British on the 1950s. Anderson relies on court and other records to expose the shame of an imperial system of justice that led to more than a thousand Africans being hanged. Throughout HISTORIES OF THE HANGED, Anderson condemns the dirty tricks of the British and the Mau Mau with equal vigour. (Kwamchetsi Makokha NEW STATESMAN (31.1.05))

Anderson has reconstructed a a vivid slice of history from the court records of Mau Mau trials...Anderson gets inside the minds and passions of both sides and, best of all, inside the agony of those simply caught up in the horror and forced to make appalling choices. (Richard Dowden GUARDIAN (5.2.05))

These books are not only an important illumination of a half-forgotten war, they show how an empire that tries to crush dissent with brutality is ultimately doomed to failure. Since Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the stories of the Mau Mau have an unmistakable lesson for today. (Declan Walsh IRISH TIMES (12.3.05))

It is a powerful message, and a timely reminder of the brutal crimes of Empire. (Justin Willis TLS (18.3.05))

Anderson's book is the more meticulous and dispassionate of the two. (Robert Guest THE TABLET (12.3.05))

Book Description

The true story of the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952-60 in Kenya, told for the first time

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Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for anyone with interest in Africa 3 Dec 2006
Anderson presents his reader with a wonderfully detailed account of the Mau Mau trials and their concequences for all of Kenya. However Anderson's real strength is in his ability to put accross precise information in an interesting, engaging manner, and with a fantastic turn of phrase.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The struggle for land 15 Jun 2006
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 the truer 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 were overturned on appeal. Many of those convicted where in fact guilty of the crimes charged, and much of Anderson's objection seems to be to the use of the death penalty.

One of the less satisfactory parts of the book is Anderson's attempt to argue that Britain was hanging Kenyans when abolishing capital punishment at home, but this seems to misrepresent the general support for hanging in Britain until after the 1950s. Another is his treatment of the Lari massacre, where he says the killers (mainly of women and children) were calling to account the chiefs guilty of corruption in land distribution.
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Is this a true account of the Mau Mau rebellion? 10 Oct 2006
In my opinion the account is biased towards the sensational and does not give an historian the cool appraisal needed to distinguish the underlying problems for both the Kikuyu and the British Kenya Administration.
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