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THE EMPIRE STRIKES FIRST,
This review is from: Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (Paperback)
This book is about the last years (1952-9) of British colonial rule in Kenya. It is the story of the battle with Mau Mau terrorism, but it is not about the Mau Mau or how their brand of terrorism compares or contrasts with Britain's own species of enforcement. I would call this wise - stick to one topic at a time, especially when this side of the matter had been subjected for many years to a great deal of official British creative editing and selective reporting. Undoubtedly Professor Elkins is unsympathetic to the British imperium, but I have no problem with that. All historians can be expected to bring their ordinary political mindsets to the periods they discuss, and so long as they remain professional in their reportage and comment they are as entitled as the rest of us to their own opinions.
This is an expose, but of the academic variety and not the tabloid kind. Professor Elkins provides, as we would expect, a note on her research methods together with the usual academic parade of sources. I am not expert on the period and I feel no obligation to validate the claims that Elkins makes. Sure, other authors have disputed some of these, and something strange would have happened in the academic world if they had not. What seems to me to matter is whether Elkins is broadly right, and I fear there can be little doubt of that. I am just about old enough to remember the main dramatis personae - Sir Evelyn Baring the Governor of Kenya, Alan Lennox-Boyd the Colonial Secretary, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Oginga Odinga, Daniel Arap Moi and latterly Britain's own ineffable leader Harold Macmillan. In my family home the daily newspaper that we took was none other than the Daily Express, whose proprietor Lord Beaverbrook was the Empire's own tribune. It is not significant that I swallowed uncritically the regular accounts of dedicated British colonists together with a holy retinue of Christian missionaries battling diabolic forces of Darkest Africa embodied in the Mau Mau and their terrifying blood-oaths. What is significant is that nearly all of us did, dupes of as systematic and relentless a regime of news management as we have yet witnessed in the dear old `free world'.
Official disinformation is at is most effective when its disseminators really believe it themselves. Elkins says at one point that Baring and Lennox-Boyd had pat answers to every charge, either that it was unfounded or that the fullest investigations were underway. When some inconvenient detail somehow escaped the zone of silence they trotted out the standard line that it was an isolated incident, a rationale recently attempted by News International in the phone-hacking scandal and I am surprised that anyone took it seriously even then let alone now. The aura of Britishness neutralised the brutishness and allowed these cultivated gentlemen to persuade themselves of what they must have known, at some deep level, was not true, and thus project their air of conviction on the public at large. They could not, really, have been unaware that the law of the jungle was more prevalent in the British colonial administration than in the jungle properly so called, and that violence rape and murder were commonplace but sanitised with professional diplomatic phraseology. However to call them liars or question their legitimacy would have been unthinkable and outrageous: the taboo against that was deep and it pervaded all strata of British society. As Housman says somewhere, it gradually came about that what could not be said could not be thought, and when Baring took his daily Communion I am sure he prayed sincerely for the eventual triumph of the British dispensation over the barely human forces that threatened it, before he went to his desk to endorse the latest round of repression and (wholly necessary and justified) deception.
A great deal of material had been destroyed when British rule came to an end, and if it was accurate small wonder, which it probably was. Elkins has still had no shortage of input from word-of-mouth sources, and also from the surprisingly copious letters that managed to evade the system one way or another. The whole magic realm of make-believe could not last indefinitely, and certain Labour politicians began to smell something rotten, although to start with that could be easily brushed aside by calling them liberals, socialists or whatever, epithets that were convenient because they were accurate. When the bubble finally burst it was in connexion with the revelations regarding the Hola camp. British outrage was aroused now among bien-pensant society. It would not be true to say that it was mass indignation because then as now the British were more concerned with matters nearer home and because ingrained British racialism was even more prevalent then than it still is. However what Hola meant was that the game was finally up. Nobody could now believe any persiflage about its being some isolated and untypical manifestation.
I find the book well written. The style is clear and literate, and the expression quite often apposite and telling. What is wrong with the narrative is that it is too long and needs drastic editing to organise the material in a way that would be less repetitive, or repetitive-seeming at least. The final section on the accession to power of Jomo Kenyatta is particularly interesting, and I am not going to offer an opinion of my own on Professor Elkins's opinion that this iconic figure not only was not any radical when released from prison but that he was never any radical at any time. `Let us join hands' said he to the racist settlers. What a moderate he must have been.