David Anderson is a historian, researcher and author whose book, Histories of the Hanged, is a seminal work on the Mau Mau’s liberation struggle in Kenya, and the colonial administration’s brutal response to the demand for independence. Stephen Williams interviewed him.
For a start, could you talk about the background on how you got involved with Kenya and the Mau Mau story?
Well, I first began research in Kenya in the late 1970s as a doctoral student doing my thesis research. But I didn’t start working on the history of the Mau Mau period until the mid 1990s when I discovered some archives within Nairobi on legal trials of Mau Mau suspects in Kenya, and I used those materials in writing ‘Histories of the Hanged’ that was published finally in 2005.
But in the late 1990s, I began giving public lectures and talks on the sort of atrocities that occurred during the campaign. Then in 2000, I was first approached by the Mau Mau veterans’ association and then by the Kenyan Rights Commission to get involved in the legal case.
So I talked to them in 2000, but I did not at that point get involved in the case. I used to write from time to time and I helped them as best as I could but I was not directly involved. And then in 2010, by which time the legal firm Leigh Day had taken over the management of the case, they approached me to ask about doing a statement for the court.
By then I had been in discussion with Leigh Day about trying to trace the documents on the case that I suspected were somewhere in the UK. So Leigh Day made a succession of applications for these documents but they were all rejected.
So eventually I was asked by Leigh Day to write a witness statement for the court that would identify what I knew about the records, and how I knew that they had been moved to Britain. So I did that in November 2010, and that was what led directly to the discovery of the Hanslope Collection in January 2011. The reason for that was that the court had ordered people to make full disclosure on the basis of my statement. And at that point, having spent literally two years denying that any documents existed, the UK government made the Hanslope disclosure.
Do you think the UK government was reluctant to part with the documents or to give you sight of them? Or was it a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing?
I think that knowing the way our Freedom of Information Act operates in the UK, government departments have literally two-dozen different excuses that they can make for not locating a set of documents. It is very easy for them simply to say, “I’m sorry, we cannot find them”. And that in effect was what the people in our government were doing with these documents.
And the truth was that someone in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office knew exactly where the files were all the time. But they chose not to technically find them! And I think that was a matter of a decision by someone, whether on the diplomatic side or on the records management side, I do not know; but it is impossible to believe that they didn’t know that they had the documents.