Blogs > Cliopatria > Kikuyu Revisionism

Jan 24, 2005 9:13 am

Kikuyu Revisionism

It's not often that a history dissertation makes national news, but a book which came out of a Ph.D. thesis was featured on Weekend All Things Considered yesterday. Caroline Elkins, assistant professor at my alma mater department (which has hired and even tenured some fantastic female historians in the last few years), did herresearch on the last decades of British rule in Kenya (that's the 1950s and 1960s, for those of us not up on African decolonization), particularly on their treatment of Kikuyu peoples after the radical Mau Mau attacks on white settlers. Among the points made in her interview:

  • The Mau Mau attacks, while vicious, were grossly overstated in the British press, which based their reportage on British government sources, resulting in a popular image of the Mau Mau attacks as much more widespread and damaging than they actually were
  • The British response was to screen 1.2 million Kikuyu people for Mau Mau sympathies, which involved dislocating them -- sometimes for years -- and interrogating them.
  • British claims of" civilizing mission" were grossly contradicted by their treatment of Kikuyu moderates, including Jomo Kenyatta, and the long-term damage done to the population by the heavy-handed, decade-long"state of emergency."
This probably isn't terribly suprising news to my Africanist colleagues, though I'd very much like to hear their take on her work. It's certainly interesting stuff.

The road to stardom is not direct, though: Prof. Elkins' research was also the subject of a BBC documentary. So you might still need a good publicist if you want to make it on to NPR.

[They also had a story on composer Philip Glass's attempt at Ancient Mesoamerican Music. Maybe the Toltecs would have enjoyed it. But they're dead now.]

Non Sequitur: The World Economic Forum in Davos has a blog which is apparently for use by some/all/many? of the participants. [via Rebecca MacKinnon]

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Derek Charles Catsam - 1/24/2005

A historiographical example might be Maloba's Mau Mau in Kenya, which broaches these ideas in some form. It was published in 1993. As the old cliche goes, "move on people. There is nothing to see here." This is whay, however, i have always thought that tusing the term "Mau Mauing" to describe what is perceived as playing the race card is nonsense. Unless, that is, you believe that the goo0d guys in 1950s kenya were the British, the bad guys the Kenyans who wanted liberation from colonial rule.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 1/24/2005

Like the other Africanist types here, I certainly don't see anything in Elkin's work that contradicts what I've learned about Mau Mau (aka "The Land and Freedom Army") in the past.

What has come to my attention in the past couple of years, however, is that the US Military apparently utilizes the British suppression of the Mau Mau as an example of a "successful counterinsurgency." I would be most interested to see exactly how Mau Mau is presented by military trainers and exactly how the "success" of the counterinsurgency was judged.

David Lion Salmanson - 1/24/2005

In Harry Wright's (Tim's predecessor at a certain small liberal arts college) African History seminar I did a historiography paper on Mau-Mau and none of this is news to me 20 years later. I did read one article for the paper that was very interesting and never saw any follow-up. It was a sort of low-level conspiracy theory that following the disaster of the 56(?) Suez war, Britain manufactured Mau-Mau as an excuse to have troops in the area. The cite is boxed up in the basement somewhere, any thoughts?

Derek Charles Catsam - 1/24/2005

Tim is right -- this ties things together that historians of Africa have long known. I'll re-look at the best, most recent work on Mau Mau to see if that in fact does the job of tying together.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/24/2005

Sounds good. Though I wonder, from what you've said, what the original material in the book was. I get the impression from the book descriptions that she did considerable oral history research, so perhaps that -- and a coherent narrative -- is what she's contributing.

Timothy James Burke - 1/24/2005

My impression of the book is that it ties together a significant amount of material that has been discussed in the secondary literature in a compelling package and addresses a wider public. A good thing. The argument per se about the misrepresentation of Mau Mau or the brutality of the British reaction is not a new thing in the Africanist literature, but the material is dispersed across a wide range of monographs and articles. I'm very glad to have a strong single work available that brings it all together.

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