They used to say the sun never set on the British Empire because God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark. And when darkness fell on the empire after the Second World War, that was proven unsettlingly true. While politicians in the post-war period spoke of a “wind of change” blowing gently through the forelocks of the colonial governors as African and Asian nations gained their independence, the end of empire was a far more violent affair, as Nicholas Rankin powerfully evokes in his new book Trapped In History: Kenya, Mau Mau and Me.
Rankin, a BBC journalist, witnessed the collapse of the British Empire in east Africa through a child’s eyes. In 1954, when he was four, his family moved from drab Sheffield to an idyllic house in the “White Highlands” of Kenya after his father got a job there working as an estate manager for the colonial settlers. They arrived just as the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule was at full tilt.
In hindsight the rebellion seems almost inevitable. Since their arrival in the late 19th century the British settlers in Kenya, who numbered about 30,000 by the Fifties, had appropriated a quarter of the colony’s land, the most beautiful and fertile parts, and left millions of Kenyans to subsist on the remaining rump. In 1952, when resistance got violent, the colonial government suspended civil liberties and turned the colony into a police state, hunting down suspected rebels. This period, known as “the Emergency”, lasted for eight years and, by 1963, Kenya was an independent country.
As Rankin recalls, combining memoir with historical research, the colonial government established a network of detention centres where suspects were interrogated, tortured and in some cases killed. More than a thousand Kenyans were executed during the rebellion, a record in the history of the British Empire. Inter-ethnic violence was also callously encouraged through the “divide and rule” strategy.
While 32 white settlers were killed in the course of the Emergency, thousands of Kenyans are estimated to have died as rebels and loyalists fought each other. Rankin makes no excuses. There are none to be made. Britain knew it did great wrongs in Kenya, that’s why the government shredded, burned and classified most of the documentation related to the Emergency.
But, in this smart and nuanced book, he is also not interested in telling a morality tale of good versus evil, or literally black versus white. Mau Mau violence was brutal and often directed at Kenyan civilians who were suspected of British sympathies. In 1953, the Mau Mau massacred 97 people in the village of Lari because they were thought to be pro-British. For these reasons the first leader of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, made great efforts to forget the wounds of the past. In Britain too, we forgot. It is odd to think that, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney were writing their first songs, the British government was spending £60 million trying to cling on to this colony, with a terrible human cost.
Toward the end of his memoir, Rankin and the family return to Britain just as the Sixties are beginning to swing, finding their country has entered the modern world. Many of the horrors of empire, the author reminds us, are firmly within living memory. Now is a time for remembering. The King made his first state visit outside Europe to Kenya last month and spoke of his “deepest regret” about “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence”. And there is a wider glut of work on forgotten bits of our recent imperial past like Philippe Sands’ The Last Colony about the Chagos Islands, whose people Britain dispossessed as recently as the Sixties. Here’s to more excellent books like this that remind us of our own history and that of the Commonwealth with which we are inexcusably bound.