Reviews of Life and Times of General China

“The Life and Times of General China: Mau Mau and the End of Empire in Kenya. Edited by Myles Osborne.

Few episodes in African history have attracted as much attention as Mau Mau. (The November, 2000, African Studies Association conference featured a panel called “Mau Mau in the New Millennium,” during which a senior scholar in the audience was heard to whisper in despair: “Great, another thousand years of Mau Mau!”) Over the past decade, the usual outpouring of books and articles has been complemented by lawsuits and rediscovered “lost files,” ensuring several more decades of Mau Mau scholarship. But Osborne’s edited volume is, to the best of my knowledge, the first collection of primary documents on Mau Mau, and as such is a worthy addition to our sagging Mau Mau bookshelves.

Osborne’s focus is Waruhiu Itote, better known by his nom de guerre, General China. China has long been a controversial figure in Kenya. He took the “Mau Mau” oath in 1950, and entered the forests of Mount Kenya with forty recruits to begin their military training a month before the Declaration of Emergency. On January 15, 1954, he was shot by colonial forces and taken prisoner. Either following up on discussions held in the forests (according to China) or acting traitorously to save his own life (according to some Mau Mau partisans), China agreed to assist the colonial government in peace negotiations with Mau Mau. Although unsuccessful in bringing the war to an end, China’s life was spared. He spent several years in detention with Kenyatta, who later rewarded his friendship and loyalty with a high-ranking position in the National Youth Service.

So who was China? Was he a traitor, or a patriot hoping to bring a bitter and bloody war to an end? In his 1967 “Mau Mau” General, China made the case for his loyalty to the cause and dismissed those who claimed he had cheated the hangman only by turning his back on the movement. Although not everything in his story rang true, most of us could check it only against the account of his interrogator Ian Henderson (fluent in Gikuyu, and I believe the only individual to be deported immediately upon Kenya becoming independent).1 Osborne brings together a series of documents that will not tell us who China was, but will help us discuss the question in new ways. Included in the volume is an abbreviated version of “Mau Mau” General, notes by Henderson, a transcript of China’s court case and appeal, and a letter China wrote to his former supervisor at the East Africa Railways. The book also comes with a typically insightful Forward by the disorientingly prolific John Lonsdale, and a eulogy written by John Nottingham at China’s death in 1993, while Osborne contributes an introduction to China’s life, a short (perhaps too short) historiographical essay on Mau Mau, and a series of “Study Questions” based on the documents.

The book is pitched toward college students, and will likely prove useful in that regard. Students will be introduced to the many versions of China, and refine their skills in reading, comparing, weighing, and collating different types of sources. I regularly teach a course on Mau Mau, in part because of the rich trove of primary sources available to use in class. I fully intend to use Osborne’s book in the next iteration of the course, offering as it does documents (especially the interrogation and the trial transcript) not otherwise widely available.

As helpful as Osborne’s work is, I would like to raise a larger issue: are physical books still the best means of disseminating important primary documents? As I was reading The Life and Times of General China, I imagined how it might work as a digital product. In such a presentation, there could be an interactive map of central Kenya: moving a cursor over the map would identify the location of Mau Mau battalions, significant battles, the site of China’s capture, and more. (As it is, the book includes a single, slightly blurry map of limited value.) I could imagine scans of the trial notes being presented alongside the text. Hovering over words could bring up Osborne’s helpful notes. As more works on Mau Mau are published—and there will be more, we know that there will always be more—Osborne could update his historiographical essay. Other documents relating to China, such as newspaper clippings or interviews, could be added over time. An interactive, lively, and living online archive offers advantages.

More important is the question of access. In the last millennium, edited volumes of primary sources were extremely valuable for scholarly research and teaching. Who among us have not relied on primary source readers for teaching large survey classes? The answer may be: some among us who teach in African universities with underfunded libraries and students on tight budgets. Will this edited volume serve Kenyan students and researchers (not to mention the wider public)? Osborne states that the book will be made available for sale in Kenya through Nottingham’s Transafrica press, which is certainly praiseworthy; too many of our books about Kenya are rarely found in Kenya. Still, I wonder if the text will be within the financial means of college students in Kenya. A digital version would be a very different matter. Smart phones and the like are, if not ubiquitous, at least increasingly common in Kenya. Imagine the difference if students could read online, or download as a PDF, documents from The Life and Times, rather than trying to share a single library copy with one hundred of their colleagues?

There are practical difficulties to creating digital projects, but they are hardly insurmountable. There are institutions in Kenya and abroad that have experience using the internet to make information available to the general public. Kenya Law, for example, is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in placing a huge amount of legal documents at the fingertips of Kenyans.2 My own institution is involved in two projects, one with Kenya Law and one with Moi University’s Center for Refugee Studies, to place primary and secondary materials on the internet, all of which can be downloaded at no cost.3 It is my hope that future primary document collections will appear in digital form. The product will be richer, and it is ethically the right decision. Such documents should be most easily accessed by the individuals to whom the documents truly belong: Kenyans.” — International Journal of Historical African Studies, April/May 2015


Brett L. Shadle

Virginia Tech




1 Ian Henderson, with Philip Goodhart, The Hunt for Kimathi (London: Hamilton, 1958).

2 See

3 See, and