Sixty years ago this month, the Union Flag came down in Kenya for the last time. A 250,000-strong crowd in Nairobi’s Uhuru stadium would, after two minutes, roar their approval as Kenya’s new black, green, red and white flag took its place. On its way up the pole, however, the Kenyan flag was momentarily stuck. As Nicholas Rankin relates, the then-Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip – representing Elizabeth II – “leaned across to [new prime minister Jomo] Kenyatta, smiling. ‘Do you want to change your mind?’”
There can’t be many British Kenyans still around from those days, but Rankin is one of them. He was a teenager when Kenya won its freedom, and his family returned to England soon afterwards; yet part of him always remained mentally in east Africa. After a career working for the World Service, he sat down to write a memoir of his time there, trying to make sense of a childhood dominated by the civil war associated with the words “Mau Mau”.
Kenya has spawned more British colonial memoirs than any other part of Africa, but the majority are dull and clumsily written. Trapped in History stands head and shoulders above the pack. Anybody with an interest in Kenya will want to read it; students of the Empire should as well. The book is only tangentially about Rankin and his family: it’s mostly a quiet history of the British presence in Kenya, followed by a gripping account of the Mau Mau years, when Kikuyu guerrilla fighters rose up against the colonial administration, and a state of emergency was declared that lasted from 1952 until 1960.
For the Mau Mau – formally known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army – land was among the main issues. The taxes on the big European-owned farms in the highlands paid for schools and hospitals; the Mau Mau wanted to see those farms broken up into untaxable smallholdings, so that everyone could have a patch of ground to call their own. There would be no meeting of minds. Terrible things were done by both sides, before the Mau Mau eventually admitted defeat. They claimed later that they had hastened Kenya’s independence, but the colony was the last of Britain’s three east African territories to be set free. The guerrillas were bitterly resisted not only by the British, but also by thousands of peaceful Africans who wanted nothing to do with violence. Under the new governments of Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, the Mau Mau movement was outlawed for the next 40 years.
That is the background against which Rankin tells his story. Like many British people in Kenya, he remains in two minds about what happened. On the one hand, thousands of perfectly decent Britons lived sensible lives and never did any African any harm. On the other, a handful behaved badly and won undeserved notoriety for their peers. During the carnage of the 1950s, the Rankins were onlookers rather than participants; Rankin himself grew up supporting the British against the atrocities committed by the Mau Mau. Yet in later life, he began to think again. Should he feel colonial guilt about what had happened, as many now profess to do? And if so, how much?
The bones of Rankin’s story will be familiar to old hands, but Trapped in History is none the worse for that. He occasionally goes into too much detail about his colonial childhood, but he is one of the last people alive able to leave any such record. One of this book’s great strengths is his ability to re-examine well-known events and come up with fresh insights, and he’s particularly adept at fleshing out the characters, making real human beings of those involved. He provides an entertaining picture, for instance, of a delegation of African Kenyans in culture-shock as they visited Britain for the first time and came across the London traffic and Underground escalators. Their shock was often shared by white colonial children making the same journey. Kenyans black and white all wondered why on earth the English would choose to live like that.
A footnote. Among the Mau Mau fighters who emerged from their forest hideouts to join Kenya’s independence celebrations 60 years ago was a group of chancers who had played no part in the struggle. They had, Rankin relates, slipped into the forest for a few weeks, in order to reappear as heroes in due course and claim any compensation or land that was going. Petty criminals imprisoned by the British for theft or burglary also reinvented themselves as “Mau Mau veterans”. Today, the numbers of claimants appear to be growing, as pressure is put on the British government to continue offering financial compensation. The situation should be handled with care, if those with real grievances are not to be dispossessed.
Trapped in History: Kenya, Mau Mau and Me is published by Faber at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books