In Niall Ferguson's panegyric to British colonialism, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), Kenya gets just one significant mention. It comes in the introduction, and is a description of his time there as a boy. It was three years after independence, but, happily, 'scarcely anything had changed' since colonial days. 'We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili - and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango. I suspect my mother was never happier.' Glasgow, where the family returned after just two years, was a comedown. 'To the Scots, the empire stood for bright sunshine.' You can see that in the book. Yet less than a decade before Ferguson's idyllic stay there, Kenya had been wracked by war, with much bloodshed and unspeakable atrocities on all sides. It was wrong to say that 'scarcely anything had changed.' Not that the young Ferguson would have been aware of that in the 1960s; but by the time he came to write his book, some knowledge of it should have percolated through. The Kenya 'Emergency' is a major incident in the history of the end of the empire: it makes a difference to the whole story. But he doesn't mention it. Perhaps we should not be too hard on Ferguson. I can't offhand think of another modern general history of British imperialism or decolonisation that leaves 1950s Kenya out of the picture entirely, but none of them (including my own) makes as much of it as we shall clearly need to now, after the publication of these two brilliant, meticulously researched and shocking books.
LRB 3 March 2005 | PDF Download