Review of “Trapped in History: Kenya, Mau Mau and Me” by Nicholas Rankin – a Perspective on Empire Through the Eyes of a Child
My father’s trip to Kenya was only due to a mishap by a businessman in Nairobi who accidentally shot himself while reaching for his car keys. This event serves as the starting point for Nicholas Rankin’s unique combination of personal reflections and historical analysis of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. As a result of the accident, my father was able to secure a job.
Historians don’t write history, they curate it, and in Trapped in History Rankin challenges his own childhood absorption of propagandistic accounts of Britain’s imperial past. Nearly 70 years after his arrival in Kenya from Sheffield as an intensely curious boy, Rankin, a former BBC World Service producer, writer and consummate storyteller with a flair for drama, has composed an insightful tale of hubris in colonial east Africa, underpinned by rigorous research.
In 1953, Tennant Rankin, a stockbroker, informed his pregnant wife, Peg, that he had been offered a job as general manager of Buchanan’s Kenya Estates. Despite the country being in a state of emergency, Peg eagerly asked “When do we leave?” The family, including their three young children and three-year-old Rankin, arrived in 1954 during Operation Anvil. During this time, British soldiers were patrolling the capital and detaining thousands of Kenyans suspected of supporting the Mau Mau anti-colonial armed uprising.
During the nine years of relocating to this “beautiful country [but] contested land”, the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. Like many others who left postwar Britain, the Rankins experienced a social improvement in Kenya, although there was also the possibility, as CLR James observed, of becoming an aristocrat without proper training.
Tennant’s initial automobile, driven by a highly decorated ex-soldier of the King’s African Rifles, was described as a “limousine with blinds covering the rear window”. At times, Tennant would don a “rigid satin cummerbund” appropriate for a man of his stature. However, not everything was going smoothly; amidst Tennant’s gin-drinking peers, frustration disguised their disappointment, boredom, and hushed concerns about Mau Mau pledges.
In the beginning, a conflict arises in the book between the historian’s desire for caution and the memoirist’s need for honesty. While Rankin is not afraid to reveal personal information, he defers to older writers like Margery Perham, a Rhodes scholar who first visited Nairobi in 1930, for their recollections of the past. Perham noted that wealthy white individuals in Kenya – including Tennant, who had struggles with alcohol and gambling – were affected by “a hidden form of moral decline that they cannot see, both for themselves and their offspring.” This idea continues to trouble Rankin.
Reflecting on his own memories brings up a constant feeling of guilt for his involvement, despite being an innocent child, in a society where any African American would be referred to as “boy” and where a false accusation of “threatening a white woman” could result in being beaten with a hippopotamus-hide whip.
Although the book contains personal anecdotes, Rankin makes a deliberate effort to include a diverse range of perspectives, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who is regarded as Kenya’s most esteemed author, and other African voices that were previously overshadowed by the romanticized portrayal of Britain’s civilizing mission in its colonies. At one point, when discussing the shortcomings of Kenya, Rankin specifically highlights the Kikuyu, the largest and most widespread tribe in the country, and enlists the support of pioneering Kikuyu writer and nationalist Parmenas Mockerie. In his influential book An African Speaks for His People (1934), Mockerie politely criticizes those who maintain the typical British mentality of prioritizing the interests of white European settlers as the rightful guardians of the land.
The issue of land is a major focus in Trapped in History, as Britain’s refusal to acknowledge the Kikuyu view of ownership and squatting rights caused frustration among local Africans. The colonial approach of relocating them from their traditional lands into labor for British settlers was met with resistance, but was ultimately enforced. The implementation of the hated registration system, known as the “neck box”, also contributed to African discontent. Rankin writes that this system forced individuals to wear identification tags, treating them like animals for the sake of social control.
The constant instances of racial discrimination were never-ending. In the 1930s, Rankin draws attention to a story from Perham where a local leader was unfairly punished for holding a prohibited meeting. Despite appealing against a two-month sentence, he was instead given a longer two-year sentence. Perham noted that the Kikuyu people, who listened intently as the white judge passed judgment on their leader, were filled with fear for what the future held.
Twenty years later, members of the Mau Mau group murdered numerous white colonists and thousands of Africans who were perceived as traitors and enemies. They brutally attacked, set fire to, and disfigured their victims. However, the idea that the British were always just and did not commit such heinous acts has been proven false in recent times. In 2013, the UK government compensated over £20 million to over 5,000 Kenyans who had survived torture and mistreatment during the rebellion.
Rankin’s depiction of the violence is uncompromising, including graphic accounts such as that of 15-year-old Jane Muthoni Mara, who was subjected to horrific sexual assault at the hands of those who suspected her of being part of the Mau Mau movement. While she was spared from the fate of over a thousand of her fellow countrymen who were executed by hanging, her experience was still deeply traumatic.
During the Mau Mau conflict, Britain resorted to using harsh methods such as detaining a large number of suspects in barbed wire camps, monitored by watchtowers. As a child in Kenya, Rankin would have found this difficult to comprehend, even if he had been made aware of it. Sitting in his father’s study in his shorts and shirt, wearing Bata sandals, he never could have imagined that the British, who he believed to be brave and victorious in ‘The War’, would be involved in building concentration camps.
Rankin seeks to question his privilege and rid himself of it, leading him into the realm of disgraceful pasts explored by fellow writers like Alex Renton in Blood Legacy and Rian Malan in My Traitor’s Heart. These works appear to be fueled by the authors’ determination to, as historian Peter Fryer puts it, “think black” and embark on a journey of understanding in order to shed light on their own prejudices. In Trapped in History, Rankin breaks free and invites readers to join him on a thought-provoking journey through a complex and controversial shared history between Britain and Kenya.