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Reviews of The Life and Times of General China

“General China (Waruhiu Itote) was a controversial figure, denounced by some as a turn-coat who saved his neck by betraying others. As Miles Osborne makes clear, he was a man plagued by uncertainty and deep conflicts, characteristics he shared with many on both sides of the war: that is one reason that Mau Mau continues to haunt the imagination, and why Itote’s career deserves attention.

“Osborne has put together an important collection of documents, primarily for upper level undergraduate teaching but also of interest to scholars. It includes archival material that is not otherwise easily accessible, together with a characteristically nuanced and thoughtful forward by John Lonsdale, an introduction that explores Itote’s life and times and provides full context for the sources, and a short but useful discussion of the development of the historiography of Mau Mau. Wisely, however, Osborne does not venture too far into the thickets of historical debate, which have made Mau Mau as conflicted in memory as it was in life. Like all primary documents, the texts published here raise problems of interpretation and require careful analysis, with due consideration of the purposes they served and the circumstances under which they were produced. They include an [abridgment] of Itote’s memoir (“Mau Mau” General, published 1967), the notes of his lengthy interrogation after capture, the transcript of his trial, and a transcript of the only handwritten letter that appears to have survived. The interrogation notes were written up after the fact for wide circulation and drew on additional material. They focus almost exclusively on military matters, providing the fullest picture of Mau Mau organization then available. If Itote and his interrogator discussed other concerns, they were unfortunately not recorded. Even if the collection is necessarily focused rather narrowly on the war itself, undergraduates will get a good sense of the procedures that determined life and death during the Emergency.

“Osborne’s introduction is thorough and evenhanded, and it deals directly with the central issue of Itote’s career after capture: his involvement in an abortive government attempt to persuade forest fighters to surrender en masse. The fact that this move to end the war in early 1954 failed, through miscommunication or possibly sabotage, does not minimize its potential importance — much suffering might have been avoided — but it did perhaps cloud Itote’s reputation. His assertion that he was actually on his way to surrender (and to claim amnesty) when he was captured seems implausible and was rejected in court, but his expressed wish to end the fighting is far less so …

“In all this is an excellent and expertly compiled collection. Those teaching seminars on late colonial insurgencies or on Mau Mau and Kenya specifically will be glad to have it, and the volume also adds to the ongoing scholarly debates over Mau Mau.” — Richard Waller, Bucknell University, African Studies Review, April 2015

“Few episodes in African history have attracted as much attention as 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? … 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 [interrogator Ian] 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 [foreword] 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.” — Brett L. Shadle, Virginia Tech, International Journal of Historical African Studies, April/May 2015