Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category


Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

2 March 2010

My working knowledge of Britain’s African colonial history comes mostly from my research on Rhodesia before and after the UDI — a case with its own set of peculiar circumstances that do not exactly reflect the British colonial experience its other African possessions. So I’m always interested in books such as the following that may help to fill in the gaps in my education, particularly regarding non-European history.

The London Review of Books, as always, has another good review of this book in conjunction with Caroline Elkins’ more confrontationally named Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

Histories of imperialism and colonialism frequently run into the difficulty of finding and intepreting source materials in a way that balances the stories told by very local, personalised accounts (such as oral histories) and the much broader and more anonymous archival collections. Both aspects are equally crucial to the writing of history, but blending them into a single coherent narrative is no easy task — especially when the narrative involves a history of startling violence, brutality, and contradictory justifications from all parties concerned. So when a work of colonial history comes along that manages to combine excellent research with fluid storytelling, it more than deserves attention from both historians and general readers.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire is one such a book, a tightly-written, hard-hitting account of a particularly grim chapter in Britain’s retreat from empire: the Mau Mau conflict that wracked Kenya in the 1950s and left a trail of killings and brutal judicial and extrajudicial punishments in its wake. Anderson carefully marshals court records, archival materials, contemporary journalism, and other public and private documents such as published memoirs and private letters to shape his history of the conflict. This is no small task, because the Mau Mau conflict’s origins were complicated and multilayered, involving land disputes between and among Kenya’s white and nonwhite populations, an institutionalised regime of racism and tribalism, bitter religious disagreements that dated back many decades, and a general air of semi-benign neglect from the Colonial Office back in London. Anderson manages to pull all of these aspects together in order to depict how long-standing feuds within African communities fueled grudge-killings and guerilla warfare on a massive scale, and how the reactions of the white settlers and British officials only deepened and perpetuated the conflict. This focus on the origins and underpinnings of the conflict ensures that Histories of the Hanged is a highly readable book even for those who are not generally familiar with colonial history.

The Mau Mau conflict — or ‘uprising’, or ’emergency’, or ‘insurrection’, or ‘civil war’, or ‘rebellion’, depending on who you talk to — eventually caused enough concern back in Britain that politicians as disparate in views as Labour MP Barbara Castle and Conservative MP Enoch Powell were united in their condemnation of the colonial authority’s handling of the situation. By the end of the hostilities, about two dozen white Kenyans and several thousand more black Kenyans had been killed in various random attacks and planned massacres, some of which encompassed the inhabitants of entire villages and towns. The justice system added to this number, sending more than a thousand black Kenyans to the gallows — about twice the number executed by the French during their own colonial crisis in Algeria — and rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others in squalid detention camps that more than a few historians have called ‘Britain’s gulag’. And yet even though David Anderson adds his voice to those who condemn the atrocities committed by both sides, Histories of the Hanged is not a book that spends all its time pointing fingers and searching for the guilty parties. Rather, it is more interested in examining the conflict of loyalties that created the political vacuum which allowed the Mau Mau to attract its followers, and the reasons why colonial authorities in Kenya were so quickly overtaken by events. It is a bloody and racially charged history, certainly, and it makes for difficult reading at times. All the same, it is a part of British imperial history that has been overlooked (in some cases, deliberately so) until very recently, and a book like Anderson’s is a welcome insight into the often-confusing background and battles of a bitter civil and colonial war.


The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

23 June 2009

I seem to be on a roll with the Canto imprint reviews, though I think this is the last of the ones in my current queue.

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

Traditions, to coin a simile, are rather like onions: if you make a deliberate effort to keep peeling away their numerous layers, you will be left with very little by the time you finish. Fortunately, most people are not overly concerned with peeling away the layers of traditions as long as those traditions seem relatively plausible or promote a favourable history or worldview. As a result, one common means of rapidly strengthening a shaky claim to legitimacy or solidifying a sense of group identity is to actively promote ‘traditions’ that have been developed or invented in the quite recent past. On occasion, these traditions develop into something quite different than their original inventors expected. In The Invention of Tradition, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and postcolonial African historian Terence Ranger have brought together a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve, and what societies can gain by taking a closer look at the origins of the traditions they cherish so highly.

The contributions in this volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century Welsh nationalist movement, explode the myths of the supposedly ancient origins of certain traditions such as tartan kilts and eisteddfods. Both authors link the Welsh and Scottish traditions with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing how groups of enthusiastic and enterprising individuals all but invented certain ceremonies and trappings out of whole cloth — quite literally, in the case of kilts. Other articles focus more on the process through which certain traditions were invented, describing how cross-cultural misunderstandings about existing traditions (such as the durbar gatherings held by India’s Mughal rulers) led to the creation of entirely new ceremonies designed to provide a sense of continuity between the old ruling classes and the new colonial ruling classes. The books also includes contributions on the effects of invented traditions, such as David Cannadine’s essay describing changing public attitudes towards the British monarchy in response to invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony and the sale of commemorative objects for royal weddings, births, and jubilees. There is quite a lot to ponder in these essays, and the authors provide plenty of sources for further exploration and follow-up.

The Invention of Tradition, for all its depth, is an undeniably Anglo-centric book. With the exception of Eric Hobsbawm’s contribution on the invention of national traditions in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe, all of the essays focus on either domestic (Scotland, Wales) or colonial (India, Africa) traditions of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say whether the book would have been ‘improved’ with a little more variety in its subject matter, or whether the more narrow focus is preferable because it allows the different essays to overlap and reinforce each other. Regardless, the collected essays in The Invention of Tradition provide an informative and thought-provoking assessment of how traditions are made and perpetuated, and how they often take on lives of their own.


The Human Factor by Graham Greene

28 September 2008

I keep meaning to read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I’ve had a difficult time finding it in the library of late. I picked up this other espionage-based work of his in its place, and I found it to be a more than acceptable (if rather less humourous) substitute.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Maurice Castle, to all outward appearances, leads a life that is so well-ordered that it might easily be described as boring. He takes the same train to work every morning, eats the same lunch in the same pub that he has frequented for years, arrives home around the same time each evening, drinks the same amount of whiskey (rather too much, but not enough to prevent him from functioning in the morning) before bed, and starts his next workday with the same routine. Even his work for British intelligence, monitoring the trickles of information that come from scattered agents and observation posts in southern Africa, is far from exciting. The only real colour in his life, so to speak, comes his wife Sarah and son Sam. Castle had met Sarah in South Africa almost a decade ago, when he was stationed there, and both of them had fled the country barely a step ahead of BOSS, the South African intelligence service — because Sarah is black, and their relationship had violated South Africa’s race laws. Castle had hoped that returning to England would mark the end of his and Sarah’s troubles, but his escape had come at a terrible price, and not all of his debts had been paid in full. So when Castle’s superiors suspect that someone in his department has been passing information to the Soviets, and the calm and orderly life that he has tried so hard to protect is in danger of crumbling around him, Maurice Castle takes the greatest risk of his life in a frantic, last-ditch effort to salvage his marriage, his family, and what little remains of his freedom.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is based on Greene’s experiences in British intelligence during World War II, as well as his travels to remote locations in British colonial outposts in Africa and elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s. In his introduction to the book, he states that had hoped to write a novel that depicted intelligence work as a normal and relatively mundane working world, one which deliberately contradicted the popular image of espionage as violent, glamourous, and full of action. His other purpose in writing The Human Factor was his interest in exploring the various contradictions present in international relations, which in the book take the form of British intelligence’s collaboration with the South African security services. The hypocrisy of officially denouncing apartheid while simultaneously working with the South Africans against Communist influence and black African nationalism is a constant theme. Castle’s struggle with the paradox of his work, as he is ordered to grit his teeth and work with the same South African intelligence officer who had threatened to imprison both him and Sarah, provides much of the driving force of the plot.

Greene builds the story slowly and methodically, ratcheting up the tension by careful and agonising degrees as Castle gradually realises the depth of the trap he has laid for himself. The climax culminates in a sickening plot twist that somehow manages to be both unexpected and oddly inevitable, and gives The Human Factor a frustrating but nonetheless realistic ending. Much like his earlier novel The Quiet American, Greene’s primary thematic interest lies in the effects of international politics on the lives of individuals — particularly those who are drawn into the game against their will. And even if one or two moments within the story push at the edges of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, The Human Factor does a very thorough job of stripping the intelligence community of its glamour and reducing it to the cold logic of its outcomes. It feels very plausible, which makes Maurice Castle’s fate all the more sobering to consider after the fact.


The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

16 December 2007

A bit of humour for this Sunday’s posting — not exactly social satire, unless you think that bad Victorian-era writing satirises itself. In this case, it might just qualify as such.

The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

The word ‘Victorian’ can be and is often used as something of a pejorative term, with the meaning ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘prudish’. It’s safe to say that there’s a good reason for doing so at times, especially in connection with clothing styles, moral instruction, or anything related to Oscar Wilde. Victorian cautionary tales for children are as grim and ghoulish as the more traditional fairy-tales, always reminding the young that death is an ever-present part of life and that wicked boys and girls are always punished severely (and good isn’t always rewarded in equal measure). So in that respect, it may not be so surprising that a Victorian children’s book that talks about the various peoples of the world would be long on criticism and short on pleasantness.

This is where Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer’s books come in: three books, to be precise, all written in the mid-nineteenth century. Each book purports to be a guide to the different countries of the world and the people who inhabit those countries (one book deals with Europe, one with Africa and Asia, and one with the Americas and Australia), and Mrs Mortimer manages to find some kind of fault with just about everything and everyone. Each description of a country comes complete with a slew of disapproving comments. Norway might be a beautiful country, with kind and good-hearted and honest people, but ‘The greatest fault of the Norwegians is drunkenness‘. Amsterdam is noteworthy mostly because ‘there is no city in which there is so much danger of being drowned, because it is full of canals‘. The Irish are (horror!) Roman Catholic, which is ‘a kind of Christian religion, but it is a very bad kind‘. When Greeks are unhappy, they are known to ‘scream like babies‘. Mrs Mortimer doesn’t even have many kind words for her own countrymen, though she does take pains to remind her young and impressionable readers of a very simple thing: ‘What country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do‘. Not surprising, considering her overwhelmingly negative opinions on the various bits of Europe that aren’t England proper.

The world outside of Europe is really far worse, though, in her eyes. Most of Africa can be written off as a land of ignorant savages, nasty cannibals, and Mohammedians who read a very wicked book that is made of evil stories and lies. Australia is full of convicts and colonists, of course. The people of Siam resemble the people of Burma, ‘but they are much worse-looking‘. The Chinese are elegant people, but are quite mad. In North America, Washington, DC, is ‘one of the most desolate cities in the world‘ — and most Americans keep slaves, which is an abominable sin. The list goes on and on, to the point where you almost can’t decide whether to laugh at her opinions or bang your head against a wall to get her prissy, disdainful tones out of your ears.

Why is this book worthy of a read-through, then? Well, for starters, Mrs Mortimer wrote the book without ever having left England and with only a limited knowledge of England itself. All of her opinions came from other works and from a mass of different sources — one look at her writings gives a hint as to how respectable Englishmen and Englishwomen of the day looked at other countries within the comforting blanket of the waxing British Empire. Her books went through several editions in her lifetime, and it’s safe to say that Mrs Mortimer’s bad-tempered guides to the Victorian world had a marked influence on young children’s first impressions of other lands and other people. Echoes of her sentiments appear even today in classical stereotypes of ‘foreigners’. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to go back and see where and how certain stereotypes have been reinforced over the years…and with Todd Pruzan’s careful editing of these mostly-forgotten children’s books, it’s possible to look at the world through a decidedly ‘Victorian’ lens.


Dead Politicians: Ian Smith, 1919-2007

21 November 2007

The former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith has died at the age of 88.

I wrote my master’s dissertation on the renewal of oil sanctions on Rhodesia in 1971, so the death of Ian Smith makes this something of a red-letter day here at To Bed With a Trollope. And yet as I remarked to a friend, I honestly don’t know what I can say about him now that he’s dead.

The link to the BBC’s Web site gives a general overview of Smith’s involvement in the white-minority government that unilaterally declared Rhodesia’s independence from Britain on 11 November 1965. Smith’s government chose UDI rather than accept the British government’s prerequisites for Rhodesian independence under black majority rule. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government slapped oil and other economic sanctions on Rhodesia, and for the next fifteen years or so the Rhodesian regime was a general thorn in the side of most any Labour or Conservative Government that attempted to find a solution that wouldn’t be regarded as a complete sell-out (cf. this cover of Private Eye, featuring Smith and the then Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home). For a country that was largely insignificant to Britain’s greater economic or strategic interests overseas, Rhodesia’s negative effect on British domestic politics (and for that matter, on its relationship with other Commonwealth countries) was disproportionately large.

I can of course make the cheap and easy comment that one can directly trace a line from Ian Smith’s actions to the chaos that’s going on right now in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But as with any historical cause-and-effect scenario, it’s a good deal more complicated than villifying one person as the mastermind behind the current sorry state of affairs. No matter what one might say about ‘old Smithy’, as some of his contemporaries referred to him, he certainly wasn’t the only one whose actions left much to be desired…and much room for a historian’s criticism.


The Mitrokhin Archive (Vols. I and II) by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

30 August 2007

I have more than a few previously written reviews, so I’m going to attempt to post at least one a day or every other day until I clear out my backlog and can start adding my current reading matter. If you’ve followed my reviews before elsewhere, please be patient — I’ll get to new material soon enough!

The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Britain and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin
The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

The story of Vasili Mitrokhin is so extraordinary that it is rather difficult to accept at face value. It is a truly stunning intelligence coup of Cold War history, even though it took place in that murky time at the end of the Cold War — a time when the various espionage networks in Europe were just coming to terms with the fact that the world was changing out of all recognition.

Simply put, Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who worked in the intelligence service’s archives, holding one of the less glamourous but no less important posts in the espionage hierarchy. He had held that position for many years, and in his time countless documents and files on the inner workings of the KGB had passed through his hands. But Mitrokhin had become disillusioned over the years with the Soviet system, having seen firsthand how the KGB manipulated the Soviet justice system and worked to stifle any and all attempt to truly reform society and improve the living standards of the ordinary Soviet people. And so, at great risk to himself, he began to smuggle different documents out of the archives and copy them by hand, returning the originals and hiding the copies in various locations around his home. He carried on this secret copying for nearly twelve years until his retirement in 1984, and though he often considered possible ways to escape from the Soviet Union and get his precious documents to the West, he remained patient. In March of 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin packed up sample of his documents, drove them across the newly-opened border into the new Baltic republic of Latvia, and visited the Western intelligence services to present his papers to those who might find them of interest. And once SIS got its hands on the papers and discovered the extent of Mitrokhin’s note-taking….

Both volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive are a fascinating attempt to make sense of all the documents that Mitrokhin copied. Some of the secrets in the files were utterly shocking revelations at the time — one example being the case of Melita Norwood, a British woman who had been one of the longest-lasting spies in KGB history, and who had passed low-level secrets on nuclear research to the KGB ever since the Second World War. Other documents reveal Soviet involvement in other Western European countries, particularly in connection with the French and Italian Communist parties. Still other documents shed light on Soviet counterintelligence during events like the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the clampdown on the ‘Prague spring’ in 1968, including information on how Soviet agents posed as sympathetic Westerners to infiltrate dissident groups throughout Eastern Europe.

The Mitrokhin Archive II focuses on the rest of the world, most specifically on the ‘Third World’ nations that the Soviet Union regarded as likely locations in which to build socialist or communist states. The book is divided into sections on Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with chapters focusing on either a specific country or time period for the KGB’s activities. For instance, Mitrokhin and Andrew devote two chapters to India, one of the premier targets for KGB activity, pointing out the extent to which the KGB promoted Indira Gandhi’s paranoia that the CIA and various other Western intelligence services were plotting to depose or murder her. The Soviet war of attrition in Afghanistan also gets two chapters of coverage, attempting to untangle the complicated connections between various factions and rival groups in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Other countries and regions also receive a careful study, with some intriguing revelations:

  • Soviet espionage in China after the Sino-Soviet split was made all but impossible by the fact that the Chinese secret police knew all the identities of the KGB’s agents in the PRC and proceeded to kill them all off — a lesson on why it’s not always good to share everything with your allies
  • Attempts to spy on China by way of Japan ran into problems when the Japanese Communist Party chose to ally itself ideologically with Beijing
  • KGB involvement in starting and spreading the urban legend about Latin American children being kidnapped and killed to provide donated organs for rich Americans

(I’m not entirely certain if it’s a reflection on the fact that I’m not as ‘genned up’ on Third World Cold War history as I thought I was, but I found the second volume to be a little less readable than the first. It may simply be that I’m not as familiar with the names and events mentioned and discussed, in which case a little outside reading might be in order to see if the research makes more sense to me then. Just a bit of qualification that might explain why I preferred the first volume to the second.)

Vasili Mitrokhin died in 2004, shortly after the publication of the first volume of The Mitrokhin Archive. Christopher Andrew completed this second volume on his own, working with Mitrokhin’s original notes. There has been some controversy over the archive, particularly from scholars who question Mitrokhin’s credibility. How, they ask, could someone who never managed to rise above a middling rank in the KGB manage to evade the strict security surrounding the archives and spend the better part of his career making notes on extremely sensitive case files? When I think about some of the real-life spy stories that have shown up in the press since the late 1980s, I’m a little more inclined to take Mitrokhin’s archive at face value. Even if it’s exposed as a fraud at some point in the future, the Mitrokhin Archive would still be a great set of books to show just how engrossing a fraud can be.

Regardless, anyone with any interest in espionage and intelligence history will want to read these books. They are thorough and painstakingly detailed, remarkably comprehensive and written in a crisply academic style that suits the subject matter well. Mitrokhin’s vast collection of papers sheds light on Soviet intelligence activities around the world, from the early days of the October Revolution to the events leading up to the coup that all but toppled Gorbachev. Some of the real stories told in the archives would put any writer of spy fiction to shame.