Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“HISTORIES OF THE HANGED” David Anderson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)

I’ve got my historian’s hat on in this week’s posting and we’re talking about injustices from the colonial past. So it’s appropriate to recommend a book that appeared six years ago, but still contains material that will come as a shocking surprise to some people.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged is not a fun book. It’s a deeply serious and depressing one. Subtitled “Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya” it is a meticulously-documented account of the measures taken by British colonial authorities to suppress the so-called “Mau Mau” uprising in the 1950s.

Popular movies and novels of the 1950s presented the Kikuyu “Mau Mau” as barbaric primitives who spent their time attacking remote farms and massacring white farming families. The reality was quite different. A little over 200 whites (soldiers and civilians) died in the period of uprising, whereas nearly 20,000 Africans were killed by British and colonial troops and police.

To make matters worse, it is quite clear that the British tactic was to arm anti-Mau Mau Africans and encourage divide-and-rule civil war. The inevitable result was massacre and counter-massacre between different African factions.

Then there was the hideous fact that torture was liberally used on suspects by British colonial police. David Anderson gives the details, examines de-classified material from the archives of Britain’s old Colonial Office, and interviews survivors.

None of this makes for pretty or comforting reading. It might even seem perverse of me to recommend this as a book worth hunting out.

So what’s my point?

Basically to affirm that really good and accessible historical studies – like this one and like David Williams’ A Simple Nullity? – are the best possible defence against those myths that anaesthetise us against the reality of the past.

One common myth among English-speaking people is the idea that the British Empire imploded peacefully, in contrast with the violent collapse of the French and Dutch Empires in their prolonged wars in Algeria, Vietnam and Indonesia. Histories of the Hanged reminds us that the British Empire also resorted to dirty tactics when the world wasn’t watching too closely.

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