The Last King of Scotland

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The Last King of Scotland
Giles Foden

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland, published in 1998 to high praise from critics, is a novel encompassing both historical fact and fiction. In the novel, Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan tells the tale of how he came to be Idi Amin's personal physician and of his subsequent adventures. One of the novel's major concerns is Garrigan's relationship with Amin, a brutal dictator, and why Garrigan is so fascinated by the leader that he does not leave, even when faced with the certain knowledge of Amin's atrocities.

Garrigan is a fictional character who participates in historical events and interacts with real people, including Amin, the brutal president of Uganda between 1971 and 1979. Amin has been accused of cannibalism and of issuing orders that resulted in the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Some historians believe that Amin's erratic and violent behavior stemmed from an acute case of syphilis, but others (including the fictional Garrigan), refute this.

Using his twenty years in Africa and his background as a journalist, Foden researched the events surrounding Amin's rise to power and downfall, interviewing many of those who watched and participated in the Ugandan ruler's eight-year reign. Foden makes the book feel like the memoir of an actual person by inserting fictional newspaper articles, journal entries, and authentic events.

During a 1998 interview with the online magazine Boldtype, Foden mentioned that he used conversations with Bob Astles, widely perceived to have been Amin's closest advisor, to construct Garrigan's character. As a British soldier who worked his way into Amin's favor, Astles was much more "proactive than Garrigan," according to Foden, but paid the price by spending ten years in a Ugandan jail after Amin's fall.

Author Biography

Born to farmers in Warwickshire, England, in 1967, Giles Foden moved to Africa when he was five years old. The family lived in various African countries for about twenty years. One of the countries they lived in was Uganda, the setting for Foden's first novel, The Last King of Scotland. Foden told the on-line literary magazine Boldtype that he relied upon the "vivid experiences" he gained while traveling with his father to rural African outposts when writing the novel.

For about three years, Foden worked as an assistant editor for the British publication the Times Literary Supplement, and he continues to write for a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Guardian. Upon its publication in 1998, critics hailed The Last King of Scotland as the work of a bright new literary talent. The novel won several awards, including the 1998 Whitbread First Novel Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Prize, and the Winifred Holtby Prize. Foden's second novel, Ladysmith, is set in nineteenth-century South Africa.

Plot Summary

Part One

The Last King of Scotland opens with Nicholas Garrigan describing how he happened to become the personal physician to Idi Amin, president of Uganda in the 1970s. While Garrigan is serving as a physician at a "bush surgery" in the western Ugandan provinces, he is called to the scene of an automobile accident. Lying on the ground next to his wrecked Maserati is President Amin, who needs his wrist bandaged. A few months later, Garrigan is asked to come to the capital as Amin's personal physician. He complies because "you couldn't say no" to Amin.

Garrigan writes this account of his experiences, he says, "to provide a genuine eyewitness account" of the strange things that happened to him and to others during Amin's rule in Uganda. He explains how he decided to go to medical school and how his childhood love for adventure and interest in foreign lands put him on the road to practicing medicine in Africa. He is writing this story from his cottage in Scotland long after the events in Uganda have taken place.

Garrigan arrives in Kampala, Uganda, on January 24, 1971, to begin his job as a doctor with the Ugandan Ministry of Health. During his first night in Kampala, he hears shouting and tanks moving on the streets under his hotel window. The next morning, he hears a radio broadcast stating that, "our fellow soldier Major-General Idi Amin Dada" has taken power from President Apollo Obote. Frightened, Garrigan searches the town for some guidance on how to get to Mbarara, where he is due the next day. At the British Embassy, Nigel Stone suggests that he take a bus to Mbarara and asks him to "keep a weather out for anything untoward."

The bus trip to Mbarara is extremely uncomfortable and cramped. On the way, two events occur. Garrigan meets a young resident of Mbarara, Boniface Malumba, also known as Bonney, who invites him to visit his family's house. In the second incident, soldiers board the bus and demand money from the passengers. The scene is calm as everyone cooperates with the soldiers, until one man refuses to pay. The soldiers beat him, but when Garrigan tries to help the man with his injuries he chastises Garrigan for not coming to his assistance earlier. He angrily yells at Garrigan, "What good are you to me now? You said nothing when you should have come forward."

In Mbarara, Garrigan meets Dr. Alan Merrit, head of the clinic; his wife, Joyce; and the clinic staff, including Sara Zach, an Israeli physician. Garrigan falls into the clinic's routine, treating patients and learning more about tropical diseases than he ever thought possible. William Waziri, a Ugandan physician, takes Garrigan on a field trip during which they travel the countryside and conduct vaccination clinics. Garrigan realizes that he is falling in love with Sara. He spends a pleasant evening dining with Boniface Malumba's family.

Amin arrives in Mbarara and holds a huge rally at the town's stadium. Sara and Garrigan go together to listen, and he notices that she takes notes. A number of days later, he is in Sara's bungalow and notices a shortwave radio, one like everyone else owns, except that hers has both sending and receiving capabilities.

Time passes quickly, and Garrigan is now in his second year in Mbarara. He and Sara have become lovers. Meanwhile, a number of unsettling events occur. The sounds of gunfire and explosions come from the local army barracks one evening. Two Americans are reported missing and suspected murdered by Major Mabuse, a local military leader. While Garrigan and Sara are picnicking, a contingent of Ugandans dressed "in full Scottish paraphernalia" emerges from the jungle and marches past the couple, playing bagpipes.

Garrigan takes another vaccination field trip and returns to Mbarara to discover that rebels sympathetic to former President Obote have staged a raid on the town. There are numerous civilian casualties, including his friend Boniface and the Malumba family. Gugu, Boniface's brother, is the only survivor. Garrigan and Sara take in the traumatized child and create a sort of temporary family until Gugu's relatives from the countryside come to claim him.

After Gugu leaves, Sara and Garrigan's relationship deteriorates. Garrigan notices that she spends time with the nearby Israeli road-building crew. Waziri never returns from his vacation, and part of the clinic burns down. Sara leaves the clinic without telling anyone, probably because Amin demands that all Asians and Israelis leave the country immediately. Garrigan hears a radio broadcast in which Amin claims to be "the last rightful King of Scotland." The incident in which Amin wrecks his Maserati occurs, and Garrigan is soon on his way to Kampala to be the president's personal physician.

Part Two

Even though Garrigan is now Amin's personal physician, he rarely gets to see his patient. He spends most of his time working at the Mulago Hospital and getting to know Kampala. Garrigan explains part of Amin's history, including how Amin's past military training with the Scots explains his obsessive interest in the nation. One afternoon while Garrigan is relaxing by a pool, Amin appears suddenly, rising up through the pool on a mechanized fountain of water. Later, Amin calls Garrigan to his house to treat his son who, as it ends up, simply has a small toy lodged in his nose. Amin is so happy with Garrigan that he gives him a van to drive around town. With increasing frequency, Amin behaves oddly and against the interests of the Western embassies in Kampala.

Stone, a member of the British Embassy in Kampala, calls Garrigan to a meeting where he asks him to help them control Amin's behavior via the use of drugs. Garrigan is stunned and rejects the idea.

Amin expels a number of British citizens from the country and forces others to "carry him in a litter through the streets as a sign of their devotion." Garrigan is attracted to the British ambassador's wife, Marina, and the two go on a boat ride and picnic together. Garrigan kisses her but she reacts angrily and demands to be taken home. A week later, Garrigan gets a call that Amin is terribly ill. He arrives to discover that Amin only has a bad case of gas. Garrigan figures out a way to burp Amin like a baby, despite the ruler's huge size. This creates a closer bond between Amin and Garrigan. An assassination attempt is made against Amin, and his reprisals are random and violent.

Though he is currently married to three other women, Amin, outfitted in full Scottish regalia, marries his fourth wife in a Christian ceremony. Garrigan remembers that during this period "life went on as normal with these little bizarre interventions butting up between." For example, Amin begins to send telegrams to different world leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher and the Queen of Eng-land. Amin marries again, bringing his total number of wives to five. One of Garrigan's medical colleagues begs him to perform an abortion on his lover, who also happens to be Amin's second wife, but Garrigan refuses. Later Garrigan learns that Amin's second wife has died from blood loss and that his medical colleague has committed suicide. All of this strains Garrigan's nerves, yet he does not make any solid plans to leave the country.

Stone asks Garrigan to kill Amin, citing reports of Amin's atrocities. More British citizens are expelled. Amin calls Garrigan in for a talk and puts him in prison for a day. While in prison, Garrigan sees torture and atrocities, one involving a friend and fellow physician from Mbarara. Garrigan plans to leave Uganda but still does not.

It is now 1976 and a group of hijackers with the Palestinian Liberation Organization have commandeered a plane to Entebbe Airport near Kampala. Amin negotiates with the hijackers to have the non-Jews released, but it is eventually left to the Israeli government to storm the airport and rescue the Jews and Israeli citizens. Garrigan is called to the airport to treat some of the passengers. Later that day, Garrigan receives a phone call from Sara, who is now a colonel in the Israeli army, and he realizes that she was not only a doctor while in Mbarara but also an Israeli spy. Amin asks Garrigan to deliver a box to a small plane taking off from Entebbe. Later, Garrigan hears that the plane exploded in flight.

Garrigan begins making plans to escape Uganda by driving across the border into Tanzania, which is now at war with Uganda. He decides that he must try to find Gugu in Mbarara and take him away. On his way out, Garrigan loses his van, is bitten by a mamba snake and cared for by locals, and discovers that Gugu has become a murderer for Amin's regime. He passes out during an attack on Mbarara and awakens to find himself with the Tanzanian Defense Forces. He stays with them during their advance toward Kampala, serving as a medic for the soldiers.

Garrigan finds Amin hiding in Kampala, speaking to the severed head of the Archbishop of Uganda. Amin asks Garrigan to help him escape and Garrigan agrees, but Amin never shows up at the appointed meeting place. Giving up on Amin, Garrigan steals a boat and rows across the lake to Kenya.

Once in Kenya, Garrigan is treated like a war criminal, but the British Embassy is able to get him on a plane to London. Stone meets him as he disembarks from the plane. Stone, who Garrigan now realizes is an intelligence operative who has helped arrange for his release from Kenya, tells Garrigan that, because he gave up his British citizenship in Uganda at Amin's request, he cannot simply return to England. "There is the question, in any case, of whether you are now a fit person to be admitted to Great Britain at all," says Stone. Garrigan must sign an agreement stating that he acted on his own in Uganda.

Because Stone wants Garrigan to state publicly that his actions in Uganda were his alone and not directed by the British government, he places the doctor in the care of a public relations expert who arranges for a few well-orchestrated press conferences. As soon as possible, Garrigan leaves London for a small cottage in Scotland he has inherited. Here he begins writing the memoir that is The Last King of Scotland. The book closes with Garrigan receiving a phone call from Amin, now living in Saudi Arabia. Amin asks if he should intervene on behalf of the Americans to help them rescue hostages taken by the Iranian government. Garrigan does not answer but puts the receiver down and goes outside to do some gardening.


His Excellency Idi Amin

Idi Amin is the president of Uganda, having seized power from President Apollo Obote in early 1971. He is an actual historical character, but Foden has given him fictional qualities in the novel.

Garrigan treats Amin for an injury sustained in an automobile accident, and the president is so impressed that he demands that Garrigan be his personal physician in the capital city of Kampala. At first, Amin has little use for Garrigan and his skills, but soon he calls Garrigan in for a number of minor medical concerns. When Amin is in severe gastric pain, he calls for Garrigan, who proceeds to burp him "like with babies." From this point, a bond develops between the two men.

Amin suffers from delusions of grandeur, believing that everything he says and thinks is of monumental importance; his full title is President for Life Field Marshall Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, King of the Scots and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. He sends telegrams of advice to world leaders and makes statements that sound both crazy and frightening—especially when they come from a ruler with absolute power. Foden gives an immediate sense of Amin's personality at the book's start as he describes some strange moments at a state dinner. During a monologue about wigs, Amin states, "I do not want Ugandans to wear the hair of dead imperialists or of Africans killed by imperialists." Amin later launches into an even more uncomfortable topic, noting, "I have eaten human meat. It is very salty."

Amin's rule eventually deteriorates. Near the story's end, most nations have placed an embargo on trade with Uganda, and the country is suffering from extreme poverty and disease. When Tanzanian troops enter the capital city, Garrigan finds Amin hiding in the basement headquarters of his secret jail and torture facilities, begging for help to escape. Garrigan hears from Amin for the last time when Amin calls him from Saudi Arabia, where he has found refuge, asking whether he should help the United States negotiate a deal with Iran for the release of American hostages.

Kay Amin

Kay Amin, another character based on a real person, is Idi Amin's second wife. (He was a polygamist who ultimately had five wives.) She is the daughter of a clergyman and was once a university student. She becomes Peter Mbalu-Mukasa's lover. When Kay becomes pregnant, Peter asks Garrigan to help him perform an abortion, but he refuses, afraid of what Amin might do. The next week, Garrigan hears from colleagues that Peter failed to do the abortion properly and that Kay bled to death. Peter commits suicide the next day with an overdose of sleeping pills. Despite rumors to the contrary, Garrigan insists that Amin had nothing to do with Kay's death or Peter's suicide; yet when Garrigan sees Kay's body at the morgue, it has been dismembered.


See Boniface Malumba

Doctor Garrigan

See Nicholas Garrigan

George Garrigan

George Garrigan is Nicholas Garrigan's father. He is a Presbyterian minister and a rather solemn man. When Garrigan left for Uganda, his father was displeased that his son was not planning to stay in Scotland and set up a general medical practice, further straining the already tense relationship between the two men. George Garrigan dies during Nicholas's second year in Uganda, but his son decides not to fly to Scotland for the funeral.

Jeanie Garrigan

Jeanie Garrigan is Nicholas Garrigan's mother. Garrigan claims that he has inherited his mother's capacity for hard work and "worry." According to her son, she dies from "pure grief" soon after the death of her husband. He does not leave Uganda to attend her funeral in Scotland.

Moira Garrigan

Moira Garrigan is Nicholas Garrigan's sister. While he is serving as Amin's physician, she asks her brother, "How did you let yourself get so close to such a man?" Garrigan mails to Moira the tapes and journals he has made of his experiences, and she is able to send them on to the cottage where Garrigan writes his memoirs.

Nicholas Garrigan

Nicholas Garrigan is the novel's narrator, a young Scottish physician who goes to Uganda working for the Ministry of Health through the British Overseas Development Agency. After serving at a clinic in a small provincial town for nearly two years, Garrigan is called to treat the country's leader, Idi Amin, who has suffered a sprained wrist in an automobile accident. Amin is so impressed by Garrigan that he demands that the doctor move to Kampala to become his personal physician.

Garrigan finds Amin both charming and repugnant. The major struggle in the novel is within Garrigan, between the part of him that is aware of Amin's brutality and the part of him that is "more fascinated than frightened." He must either leave Uganda or take action against the atrocities. Even before Garrigan meets Amin on the road outside Mbarara, he is curious about the man. After he hears Amin refer to himself as "the last rightful King of Scotland," Garrigan begins to feel a special connection with the ruler, as if "it had some special relevance for me. As if I were his subject." Garrigan develops a particular affection for the leader, despite Amin's reputation for ruthless murders and bizarre statements and behaviors.

Garrigan is not a typical hero; in fact, he bears many of the qualities of an antihero. He has little courage and spends much time worrying about his own personal safety. He fails at many of his relationships, and both of his love interests eventually reject him. Ties to his family and friends back in Scotland are almost nonexistent, and when the going gets tough, he usually runs away. For example, he leaves for Kampala and Amin once the rural clinic in Mbarara falls on hard times. When Amin's brutality and insanity become obvious, Garrigan resolves to "build a castle" within himself. After arriving in England, having escaped Uganda and possible prosecution for his actions as part of Amin's staff, Garrigan seeks refuge on an isolated Scottish island where he writes his memoirs and lives the remainder of his life.

Ed Howarth

Ed Howarth is the public relations manager Stone assigns to Garrigan upon his return to London. Howarth arranges a few press conferences for Garrigan and coaches him on what he should say.

Colonel Armstrong Kuchasa

Colonel Kuchasa is an officer with the Tanzanian forces that move on Kampala at the end of the book. He rescues Garrigan from a battle in Mbarara and lets him stay in an armored personnel vehicle during their march from Mbarara to Kampala.

Major Mabuse

Major Mabuse was simply a taxi driver before Amin's coup, but in Amin's regime he is a feared military leader. He is reported to have been involved in killing two young American tourists who got in his way.

Boniface Malumba

Garrigan meets Boniface Malumba, a young Ugandan student of food science from Mbarara, while on the bus from Kampala to Mbarara. Malumba is friendly and gives Garrigan advice about living in Uganda. He also invites Garrigan to his family's house for lunch, where Garrigan meets the entire family and spends a pleasant afternoon. Malumba is killed in the fighting that breaks out between pro-Obote forces and Amin's army.

Gugu Malumba

Gugu is Boniface Malumba's fun-loving younger brother. He is the only member of his family to survive the fighting between pro-Obote forces and Amin's army that spreads to Mbarara. Sara and Garrigan take him in at the clinic after the attack, but he is so traumatized that he will not speak. A distant relative arrives one day to take him away. The next time Garrigan sees Gugu, he is one of Amin's murderers in the Mbarara region. Gugu dies during a battle with the Tanzanian forces.

Peter Mbalu-Mukasa

Peter Mbalu-Mukasa is one of the African doctors at Mulago Hospital and a colleague of Garrigan's. Mbalu-Mukasa becomes Kay Amin's lover and one night begs Garrigan to help him perform an abortion on her. Garrigan is too frightened that Amin will discover his role in their illicit affair and refuses to help. Garrigan later hears from his colleagues that Kay has bled to death and that Mbalu-Mukasa has committed suicide, but there are rumors that Amin had them both murdered.

Doctor Alan Merrit

Garrigan works for Alan Merrit at the Mbarara clinic. Merrit is about fifty years old and has what Garrigan calls "a bizarre white streak down the middle of his brown hair." He is married to Joyce Merrit, and they have lived and worked in Uganda for more than twenty years. Joyce calls him by his nickname, Spiny. Merrit is displeased when Garrigan decides to leave Mbarara and become Amin's physician. The Merrits are eventually expelled from Uganda along with other British citizens.

Joyce Merrit

Joyce Merrit is Alan Merrit's wife. She is very hospitable to Garrigan when he shows up at the clinic, providing him with meals and a place to stay until he is settled in his own bungalow.

President Obote

Idi Amin seizes power from Ugandan President Obote on the day Garrigan arrives in Uganda. Apollo Obote was the actual president of Uganda until 1971, when Amin overthrew this government.

Marina Perkins

Marina Perkins is the wife of the British ambassador to Uganda. According to Garrigan, Marina is a moderately attractive woman, although he describes her mouth as being like "a little fig." She accompanies Garrigan on a boat trip and picnic, where Garrigan makes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce her. She becomes angry and doesn't want to have anything to do with Garrigan after this incident. Later, Garrigan sees her sitting with Freddy Swanepoel's hand on her knee. She is eventually expelled from Uganda, along with her husband and other British officials.

Ambassador Robert Perkins

Ambassador Perkins is the British ambassador to Uganda and is married to Marina Perkins. Garrigan is not impressed with the overweight ambassador and refers to him as a "sponge" and the "standard Foreign Office issue: plastered-down hair, a large body shifting in its bristly suit."

Ivor Seabrook

Ivor Seabrook is an "old Englishman" and physician working at the Mbarara clinic. When Garrigan first meets Seabrook, he notices that he has the look of a "long-term tropical alcoholic."


See Doctor Alan Merrit

Nigel Stone

Nigel Stone works at the British Embassy in Kampala and asks Garrigan to "keep a weather eye out for anything untoward" at the Mbarara clinic. When Garrigan returns to Kampala as Amin's doctor, Stone asks him to give Amin a drug to moderate his behavior. A while later, after the full extent of Amin's massacres is apparent, Stone asks Garrigan to kill Amin and promises him that the British government will put a large amount of money in his account and "look after" him.

Stone is also the official who arranges to have Garrigan freed from a Kenyan jail on charges of conspiring with Amin, and he meets Garrigan at the airport when he returns to London. Stone also forces Garrigan to sign a statement swearing that all of his actions in Uganda were done of his own accord, not at the direction of the British government.

Freddy Swanepoel

Freddy Swanepoel is a South African pilot based in Nairobi who works for Rafiki Aviation. He describes his job as transporting "things for the Kenyan and Ugandan governments. And other bits and pieces." Garrigan first meets him at the hotel bar when he arrives and notes that everything about Swanepoel is "chunky and muscular, even his face."

Later, Garrigan sees Swanepoel and Marina Perkins having a tryst at a restaurant. Swanepoel dies when Garrigan unknowingly delivers a package containing a bomb from Amin to Swanepoel, just as Swanepoel is about to take off from Entebbe. The plane explodes and both Swanepoel and his passenger die.

Jonas Wasswa

As Idi Amin's minister of health, Jonas Wasswa appoints Garrigan to his position as Amin's personal physician. Amin eventually has Wasswa killed.

William Waziri

Garrigan becomes good friends with William Waziri, a Ugandan doctor trained in the United States who works at the Mbarara clinic. Waziri speaks to Garrigan about local lore and history while they make their regular trips to the countryside to conduct vaccination clinics. At about the time that fighting between pro-Obote forces and Amin's army increases near Mbarara, Waziri takes a vacation but never returns. Later, when Garrigan is dragged down into Amin's secret jail and torture chambers, he sees that Waziri is one of the victims and witnesses his death.

Major Archibald Drummond Weir

Major Weir is a British intelligence officer, originally from Scotland, stationed in Kampala. Garrigan finds him disturbing and frightening. He has built what Stone calls "a magnificent flying machine," a small, radio-controlled contraption that he flies on the grounds of the British Embassy. Weir returns to London under mysterious circumstances, which leads Garrigan to believe that he was recalled for "being too friendly with Amin"; Stone, however, asserts that Weir was "too talkative." When Garrigan returns to his island in Scotland, he finds a newspaper article about Weir, stating that he is a "nationalist extremist" and the "most successful bomber in Scottish history."

Sara Zach

Garrigan falls in love with Israeli physician Sara Zach almost as soon as they become acquainted at the Mbarara clinic. She behaves in a very efficient and standoffish manner, and it takes a while before she and Garrigan become lovers. While she is working at the clinic, Garrigan notices that there are a few things about her that don't quite make sense for a doctor: she takes notes at Amin's rally in Mbarara; her shortwave radio not only receives but is able to transmit information; and she spends an inordinate amount of time with a local Israeli road-building crew. She brushes off Garrigan's attempts to find out more about her activities. After their love affair ends suddenly, Sara disappears from the clinic.

Garrigan does not hear from her for years until he receives a phone call at his house in Kam-pala. A hijacked plane is sitting on the runway at Entebbe, and she calls—identifying herself as a colonel in the Israeli armed forces—to ask Garrigan if he will try to convince Amin to free the hostages. Garrigan refuses but realizes then that she was probably a spy for the Israelis while working at the Mbarara clinic.


Questions about Ethical Behavior

Throughout the book, Garrigan struggles with the question of whether his behavior is ethical. The first instance of this is when he travels to Mbarara on a crowded bus, and Ugandan soldiers pull the bus over to collect money from the passengers. Everyone provides money to the soldiers except for one man who claims to be a Kenyan diplomat. The soldiers retaliate by hitting him with the end of a rifle, which rips open a huge gash in his face. Garrigan keeps quiet until the soldiers leave and then moves to give the Kenyan first aid. The Kenyan reacts angrily, demanding to know, "What good are you to me now?" Furthermore, he says that the soldiers would have left the bus alone if Garrigan, a white person, had come forward. According to the Kenyan, Garrigan had power that he did not use at the appropriate time.

This scene is a precursor for what is to come in Garrigan's life. During the entire time he works for Amin, he knows about the horrible and unspeakable violence his boss directs, yet he does nothing. When the British Embassy asks him first to modify Amin's behavior and later to kill Amin with drugs, Garrigan shrugs his shoulders. His only reaction is to imagine how exciting it would be to do these things because they are so much like actions found in a James Bond story. Even after rejecting the request to kill Amin based on his position as a doctor, Garrigan thinks, "It would be rather grand to rid the world of a dictator." On the other hand, Garrigan admits that he actually likes Amin. "I could kill Amin and get away with it," he says. "But there was, I conceded it to myself again, something in me that actually liked the man, monster though he was." In another incident, Sara calls Garrigan and begs him to get involved in the hijacking incident by urging Amin to release the hostages. Garrigan responds instead "I can't get involved in all that … I'm not made for this kind of thing."

Loneliness and Friendship

Garrigan is a lonely man with few close ties to other people. Garrigan admits that the death of his pet donkey was the most significant event in his childhood and that the family home was emotionally stifling. When he hears that his father has died, he chooses not to travel to Scotland for the funeral or to be with his mother and sister. A short time later, when his mother dies, he makes the same decision to remain in Uganda.

Once in Uganda, Garrigan fits in well at the Mbarara clinic, but he seems to focus more on the flora and fauna than on the people he works with. Long-term relationships do not seem to be his forte, and many of the people he gets along with at Mbarara either meet with bad ends or are not who he imagined them to be. His relationship with Sara is long in its development but is over rapidly and without much discussion. She suddenly decides that she is no longer his lover and eventually leaves without a word being said. A few years later, she turns up as an Israeli spy, making Garrigan realize that he did not know her as well as he had thought. Boniface, whom Garrigan meets on the bus into Mbarara, dies with his family during a rebel attack on the town. Boniface's brother, Gugu, becomes a maniacal killer in Amin's troops. When friends come to Garrigan for help, he rarely extends his hand, usually because he is afraid of the consequences. While living in Kampala as Amin's physician, he associates with a few people but has no deep friendships. The one time he reaches out to someone it is to the British ambassador's wife, who becomes angry at his assumption that she is interested in him.

Amin represents the closest relationship Garrigan has. As the book moves along, he spends more and more time with the ruler and shares conversations with him that are much more intimate than those he has with anyone else. Garrigan seems to relish taking care of and protecting the despot; he feels warmth in response to Amin's childlike behavior and the "nurserylike atmosphere" of his quarters. In the beginning of their relationship, "I even felt a sneaking sense of affection towards him," Garrigan remembers. He admits later that his life is focused on Amin, even though the closer he gets to the ruler the fewer illusions he has. "Still I stayed, more fascinated than frightened," recalls Garrigan.

Relationship of African Nations to the Western World

The relationship between African nations and the West is a complicated one in the novel and in history. In the novel, Africans seem to hold both disdain and respect for Westerners. For example, Amin's fascination with Scotland and his corresponding affection toward the Scot Garrigan come from his exposure to the nation and its people while training as a soldier. Amin believes that, in their struggle for independence from England, the Scots have decided that he is their liberating king, much as he sees himself as the liberator of Uganda and all of Africa.

The impact that Western colonization has had on the continent is apparent in the book and evokes anger and contempt from many of the African characters. The Kenyan on the bus is angry when Garrigan fails to use his supposed power as a white man to stop the thieving soldiers. Waziri laughs when Garrigan says that he wants to see "the real Africa" and remembers with some derision that in the recent past all whites who came to Africa were considered "miracle workers."


The Antihero

Garrigan is the protagonist of Foden's novel but not its hero. This antihero has none of the personal qualities that define a traditional hero in literature: courage, physical strength, exceptional intellect, emotional stamina, and the ability to recognize and fight against evil. Garrigan, as the novel's antihero, feels helpless against what he perceives as great odds. He runs from possible pain, is fearful of death, and does not help those in need—except when the need can be met by his role as a medical doctor. Garrigan relishes his role as the underdog; when he arrives in Kampala for the first time, he is frightened and searches for someone to tell him what to do next. When he does take a stand, it is usually without many repercussions, such as when he and Sara temporarily bring Gugu into their home. Garrigan admits later that the arrangement was a sham and that he and Sara were "using Gugu to live out some kind of fantasy family life" as a hedge against the craziness happening around them.

Topics for Further Study

  • Based on what you learn about Garrigan in the novel, do you think he is a good doctor? Explain your answer.
  • One of the turning points in the novel occurs in 1976, when members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization hijack an airplane and divert it to Entebbe Airport near Kampala, Uganda. Research what actually happened and write a news story as if you are a journalist covering the event a few days after the Israelis stormed the plane.
  • Many historians, scientists, and others have argued that Idi Amin's violent and bizarre behavior can be attributed to mental degradation from an advanced case of syphilis. In the novel, Garrigan rejects this theory. Investigate what has been written about Idi Amin while he was president of Uganda, and, using the information you uncover, make your own argument about why he acted as he did.
  • Garrigan mentions a number of times that he hears news stories about the Scottish independence movement on the radio. Investigate this effort by Scots to make their country independent of Great Britain. Create a time line, beginning in the 1600s and continuing through today, that shows the important dates and events of this movement.
  • HIV/AIDS cases in Africa have recently received a lot of attention in the press and from political and medical leaders worldwide. Research the current status of HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Have rates for these diseases increased or decreased over the past decade? What is the government doing to combat HIV infection? How does Uganda compare with other African countries in this regard?


Foden has written this book as if the writer is actually the protagonist Nicholas Garrigan pulling together his memoirs of when he was Idi Amin's physician. The narrative is in the first person, and Garrigan often interjects what he is thinking as he writes the memoir from his cottage in Scotland. Because of this, Foden (through Garrigan's character) often inserts a present-day comment that provides a hint about what is to come in the narrative.

For example, while Garrigan and Sara are watching one of Amin's political rallies, he notices that she is taking notes. When he asks her about it, she gives him a vague answer, and he remarks as an aside, "How could I have been so thickheaded, I wonder now," indicating that something was amiss with Sara, though at the time he does not share with the reader what that something could be. Garrigan later notices a shortwave radio in Sara's room, similar to the ones everyone else owns at the medical compound except that hers can also transmit. In this way, Foden offers small pieces of a mystery that is not completely solved until later. Later in the story, Sara calls Garrigan. It is apparent from her conversation that she was not only a physician but also a spy.

In another instance, Garrigan lets slip at the story's start that his adventure to Uganda does not turn out as he might have imagined. In describing what he expected his work to entail in Uganda, Garrigan gloomily says "had I known, on arrival, the breadth of activity that his later should involve, I would have gotten straight back on the plane."

Use of Historical Characters and Events

Some critics have referred to The Last King of Scotland as a roman à clef, a work in which historical figures appear as fictional characters. While Garrigan and others in the novel are purely fictional characters, Foden has woven them into events and characters that are very much a part of history.

In addition to Idi Amin, Foden includes other historical figures such as Margaret Thatcher, an English political leader; Queen Elizabeth of England; the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini; U.S. president Richard Nixon; and hijacking victim Dora Bloch. Foden uses most of these figures simply to add texture and a sense of realism to his novel; Amin is the primary historical figure for whom he has created day-to-day actions and a developed personality.

Foden also includes actual historical events in the novel, such as Idi Amin's overthrow of President Apollo Obote in 1971, the hijacking and subsequent raid of an airplane from Tel Aviv, the struggle for Scottish independence, and the overthrow of Amin by Tanzanian armed forces. Like the historical figures, actual events give the book a realistic atmosphere. The feeling of realism is further enhanced by Foden's use of fictional journal entries and news clippings.

Historical Context

The Rule of Idi Amin

Idi Amin was the ruler of Uganda in East Africa from 1971 to 1979. He had a reputation as an unpredictable and violent man, and his policies led directly to the brutal murder of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

The facts of Amin's early years are disputed, but during the 1950s he was the heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda, and in the 1960s he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Ugandan army. As a reward for his help during a critical battle, President Apollo Obote named Amin the commander of the country's armed forces. Their relationship deteriorated, and in 1971 Amin overthrew Obote in an armed coup. Garrigan arrives in Kampala, the nation's capital, on the day of the coup.

In his first year as president, Amin ordered the massacre of troops he suspected of being loyal to Obote. In 1972, Britain and Israel rejected Amin's demands for large increases in military aid; Amin sought and received assistance from Libya and Soviet Russia. He became the first black African leader to denounce Israel in favor of the Palestinian cause. In addition, Amin made a number of anti-Semitic remarks and publicly praised Adolf Hitler for killing Jews. This is about the time in the novel when Sara and her Israeli colleagues, some British diplomats, and all Indians and Asians are expelled from Uganda. Because Indians and Asians owned and ran most of the businesses in Uganda, the country's economy collapsed.

After a failed 1972 coup attempt by Tanzanian-supported Obote forces, Amin became even more repressive and brutal. Amin's regime is reported to have murdered anywhere between three hundred thousand and five hundred thousand civilians before he was ousted in 1979 by Tanzanian troops who, after recapturing land that Amin had invaded in 1978, continued marching to the capital, Kampala. Amin fled first to Libya but eventually accepted asylum in Saudi Arabia.

The Israeli Raid on Entebbe

In 1976, a group of Palestinian and West German terrorists (the latter group also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang) hijacked an Air France airplane filled with more than one hundred Israelis and forced it to land at Entebbe Airport near Kampala. In the novel, Garrigan assists with medical care for the hostages.

Some believe that Idi Amin, Uganda's president at that time, was involved in supporting the terrorists and allowed them to land the plane and use Entebbe as a base for their operations. His dislike for Israel was well known, and he may have been seeking a way to embarrass his adversary. A successful Israeli commando raid freed nearly all of the hostages; as revenge, Amin had hostage Dora Bloch murdered.

Scottish Independence Movement of the 1970s

Scotland has been an administrative division of Great Britain since the early 1700s. Scottish nationalism once again became a significant political issue in the twentieth century, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Oil was discovered during this period in the North Sea, giving Scots more confidence in their ability to maintain a strong economy independent of Britain. Calls for independence were heard in the mid-1970s general elections, and in 1974 the Scottish Nationalist Party won eleven of Scotland's seventy-two seats in Parliament.

In the novel, Idi Amin claims to be the "last rightful king of Scotland" and says that he is "the first man to ask the British government to end their oppression of Scotland." He sees himself as the liberator of Scotland, just as he feels that he has liberated Uganda from British rule. Amin's obsession with all things Scottish can be traced to his training with Scottish soldiers. In the novel, Garrigan also mentions that "an eccentric Scottish officer" during Amin's years as a young soldier dressed some of the members of the King's African Rifles corps in khaki kilts.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1970s: Idi Amin asks Garrigan to investigate a fatal "new disease" among his soldiers. Although Garrigan finds nothing out of the ordinary, he wonders later, with the advent of HIV/AIDS, whether he was treating some of the earliest cases.

    Today: The HIV/AIDS infection rate for adults in Uganda is 8.3 percent, and about 820,000 people are suspected to be living with HIV/AIDS.
  • 1970s: Idi Amin seizes power from President Apollo Obote in 1971 and promulgates a reign of terror for the next eight years.

    Today: After seizing power in 1986, President Yoweri Museveni is elected Ugandan chief of state in the March 2001 popular elections.
  • 1970s: Idi Amin expels from Uganda all Indians and Asians, who own and run a majority of the businesses in the country. As a result, Uganda's economy collapses and shortages of basic goods are widespread.

    Today: In the last decade, the Ugandan economy has performed solidly, thanks to continued investment in the rehabilitation of the country's infrastructure, reduced inflation, and the return of many previously exiled Indian-Ugandan business people. Unfortunately, Ugandan involvement with the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could cause many of these economic advances to slip.

Critical Overview

Foden's award-winning first novel received high praise from critics for its fascinating topic as well as for the deft manner in which its author handled the story's ethical issues and the sometimes gruesome details surrounding the violent rule of Uganda's Idi Amin. Peter Wolfe, writing in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, calls the novel "stunning" and "surehanded," and according to Margaret Flanagan in Booklist, the novel is "packed with moral ambiguity [and] the dynamic narrative provides a vivid portrait of one of the most surrealistic despots in modern African history."

Chris King, writing in Newsday, is not as enamored of Foden's narrative. King complains that, while many episodes including Amin are "hilarious," they eventually become predictable. Foden's use of childhood flashbacks "is a dubious narrative decision that weakens the satire," according to King. King compares the book to the novel Forrest Gump, in which "a fool has been superimposed unconvincingly over some very important history, trivializing everything he touches." What works in Winston Groom's novel does not work in Foden's novel, writes King, because Gump understood his limitations while Garrigan is simply "awash in existential self-pity."

Many reviewers have found Garrigan's character unlikable and confusing. In his review in The Australian, Tom Gilling calls Garrigan "a difficult figure to sympathize with or care about," one having "little sense of personality." Michael Upchurch, however, appreciates Garrigan's character and notes in the New York Times Book Review that "therein lies the admirable risk" Foden has taken in the novel. Merle Rubin in The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Foden has created in Garrigan a character whose weaknesses hit a little too close to home for some readers—"a well-meaning individual who becomes an accomplice to evil."

Because the novel includes historical figures as characters, many critics have focused on Foden's accuracy and on his use of history in a book that is not presented as a factual account. In a review in History Today, Richard Rathbone praises Foden for his careful research that makes the book "terrifying real." Rathbone views the book as not only an entertaining read but also "a brilliant analysis of the essence of a brutal dictator." Upchurch admires how the novel's fictional and historical aspects blend smoothly even though the novel "occasionally carries the whiff of the library stacks" and heavily reflects the journalistic background of its author. However, Christopher Hess argues in the Austin Chronicle that, by the second half of the novel, the plot is forced into "easy devices and contrived twists" by the excessive use of historical fact.

Considering the book as a fictional memoir, David Haynes, writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, lauds the use of realistic news clippings and journal entries that help Foden's audience "believe that what we are reading really happened." However convincing much of Foden's novel may be, though, Haynes is less enthusiastic about whether Garrigan's character is truly a man who would not leave Uganda when the going got tough. For the novel to work completely, Haynes argues, Foden must create a believable scenario in which Garrigan's utter naïveté leads him to remain in Uganda, but he does not succeed in this. "Foden can't quite create a convincing balance between Garrigan's guilelessness and the character's well-informed, historically accurate telling of the story," he asserts.

Many critics have praised Foden's novel for its similarities to the works of other Western authors famous for writing about Africa. Wolfe sees the influence of Graham Greene in the novel, as it is filled with corrupt leaders and spies and takes place in the third world. A number of reviewers have compared the novel with those of Joseph Conrad. Kirkus Reviews finds "Conradian tones" in the novel and Hess calls Garrigan's experiences in the novel "Conradesque."

Reviews such as one that appeared in Publishers Weekly have noted the satirical qualities of the novel. Walter Abish, writing for the Los Angeles Times, associates Foden's writing style with the satirical and farcical style of Evelyn Waugh's novels. "The introspective Garrigan experiences a failure of nerve that Waugh used with great relish," he notes. Gilling also sees similarities between Waugh and Foden but believes that Foden "has a more solemn purpose" in his work.


Susan Sanderson

Sanderson holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer who has lived in Africa. In this essay, Sanderson examines Nicholas Garrigan's attempts to cut himself off from the events and people around him in The Last King of Scotland.

In Giles Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland, Nicholas Garrigan is a man feverishly contradicting British poet John Donne's often quoted line, "no man is an island entire of itself." Garrigan is an isolated man with few close friends and little contact with his family. Many of his attempts to reach out to another person are either ill-timed or ill-advised, especially his relationship with Idi Amin, the ruthless but childlike dictator of Uganda. Death is all around Garrigan, yet he refuses to believe this, building a wall between himself and reality.

While Garrigan does not openly say that he seeks to be as untouched as an island, Foden indirectly alludes to Donne's famous "island" metaphor by having Garrigan's father use another famous line from the same paragraph in Donne as a joke. "Ask not for whom the Bell's tolls, it tolls for you," jokes Garrigan's father, referring to a popular brand of whiskey. Given the events of the novel, the full quote from Donne is particularly applicable to Garrigan's circumstances:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Garrigan is a man who has sought to cut himself off and not be "a part of the main." While serving as Amin's personal physician, he is aware of the atrocities Amin perpetrates. His response after a particularly horrific period is to "build a castle" within himself and make himself "impregnable." This is why he cannot ever "be useful," as he so desperately desires; to be useful one must typically live among those one wishes to help.

Through his actions, Garrigan tries to ignore the truth in Donne's statement that "any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind." No matter how hard he struggles against attachment, Garrigan is not completely disassociated from the deaths Amin causes. Each one of those deaths does diminish him in some way, which is why, by the end of the novel, Garrigan is a physical, psychological, and spiritual wreck.

Garrigan's past and present tell the story of a man desperate to avoid meaningful connections. His childhood was spent as the son of a solemn and emotionally dead Presbyterian minister and his wife. In addition to his father being disappointed that he would not practice general medicine in Scotland, Garrigan remembers his father condemning him to a life filled with predestined misery. "You are as set for damnation as a rat in trap," says his father. Religion covered the family like "fine soot," remembers Garrigan, giving his childhood a dark and dusty image. The warmest relationship the young Garrigan seems to have developed was with his pet donkey, Fred, who eventually died from eating too many grass cuttings.

As an adult, Garrigan has not come to terms with his parents and their treatment of him. He is working at the Ugandan rural clinic when he learns of his father's death. His mother's death soon follows, but he does not fly to Scotland to be with his family on either occasion. Looking back on this, Garrigan suspects that something in him "had begun to close down."

This is not to say that Garrigan has no feelings and does not make any connections with the people around him, but simply that, when he does connect with another person, it is temporary and not as deep as he had thought. Most of the people he gets to know well either leave suddenly or die. For example, he falls in love with Sara Zach, the Israeli physician at the clinic, but is clueless about her true purpose for being in Uganda. Sara's actions are not typically those of a doctor: she takes notes during one of Amin's rallies in Mbarara; her shortwave radio not only receives broadcasts but can also transmit messages; and she spends an inordinate amount of time with an Israeli road-building crew.

One day Sara is gone, her bungalow bearing signs of hurried packing. The next time Garrigan hears from her is three years later, when she is a colonel with Israel's armed forces. A hijacked plane is sitting on the runway at Entebbe, and she calls to ask Garrigan if he will try to persuade Amin to help free the hostages. Garrigan refuses but realizes that she was probably a spy for the Israelis while working at the clinic. He realizes that he never did know her as well as he had previously thought.

For him to remain an untouched island, Garrigan must move through the novel like the proverbial monkey who can hear no evil. Early in the novel, his ears become so clogged that he has trouble hearing and is convinced that he has an infection in need of antibiotics. Sara correctly diagnoses the problem as a blockage and cleans out Garrigan's ears. In this case, she literally opens her lover's ears; later, she attempts to open his ears figuratively when she tells him "things will go badly here" and pleads with him to leave Uganda. He dismisses her concerns and ignores all of the signs around him that Amin's despotic rule will lead to certain death. Amin expels Indians, Asians, and Israelis from the country, and he makes anti-Semitic comments, yet Garrigan remains oblivious. In retrospect, he realizes that the phrase "I should have known" sums up his life.

Garrigan's other primary relationship in the novel is with Idi Amin. His affinity for Amin at first appears to be a genuine antidote to what has been missing from his previous relationships. Their conversations at first seem genuine, but upon further examination it is apparent that the Scottish physician is only fooling himself. Garrigan's relationship with Amin depends upon his ability to deny the havoc Amin creates all around him.

Garrigan is gradually drawn into Amin's world, but the connection he makes with Amin is that of an observer who gets trapped, not that of a friend. When new to Uganda, Garrigan hears Amin announce that he is "the last rightful King of Scotland" and thinks this may have some "special relevance" for himself, "as if I were his subject," he remembers. After Garrigan successfully treats Amin for gastrointestinal distress, the two go out on the town as if they were old college chums. By the time most of the world's nations have condemned Amin for his brutality and bizarre behavior, Garrigan is deeply involved with him. Even while agreeing with the West German Chancellor that a particular Amin statement is "an expression of mental derangement," Garrigan pursues his fascination with the Ugandan ruler. "My life had already fallen into a pattern that concentrated on Amin. The closer I got to him, the fewer my illusions about him—and still I stayed, more fascinated than frightened," recalls Garrigan.

To continue living in Uganda under Amin's rule, Garrigan creates a fantasy world for himself—something with which he has experience. For example, while working at the rural clinic, he and Sara take in a friend's younger brother, Gugu, who is orphaned as a result of the fighting surrounding the town. Meanwhile, Garrigan is oblivious to the war raging around him and to the fact that the clinic and his relationship with Sara are "going downhill." Looking back on this period in his life, Garrigan admits that he "had been using Gugu to live out some kind of fantasy family life." His association with Amin soon becomes a similar fantasy, and Garrigan is able to convince himself when he hears of the atrocities that they are exaggerated. Only when he begins to consider seriously the possibility of killing Amin, as requested by a British official, does Garrigan make the decision to leave Uganda. What finally provokes him to wake up and leave is the realization "that [he] had become enough like Amin to contemplate killing him for the sheer pleasure of it."

When Garrigan finally escapes Uganda and arrives in London, it is not to his sister or close friends that he returns. An uncle has bequeathed to Garrigan a small cottage on a tiny island in an isolated corner of Scotland, and that is where he finds shelter from the storms of the previous eight years. By literally moving to an island, Garrigan believes that he has, at last, placed himself apart from humanity. Foden, though, has other plans for the Scottish doctor. Just as Garrigan finishes writing his memoir of horror, he receives a phone call from Amin, ensconced in Saudi Arabia but still able to contact his former personal physician. Garrigan, despite his best efforts, discovers that he still "is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," as Donne writes, very much connected to the hundreds of thousands who have died in Uganda.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Last King of Scotland, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Douglas Dupler

Dupler has published numerous essays and has taught college English. In this essay, Dupler looks at how the concept of identity plays a central role in a novel with a postcolonial setting.

Postcolonial studies has arisen as a literary field as scholars think about the changes occurring in the cultures and individuals that have become free of British colonial rule. Postcolonial studies concerns itself with the analysis of the nationalism and politics that brought about colonial rule and then dismantled it. The field also considers differences between people that led to concepts like nationalism; how these differences are created and sustained by cultures and individuals; and how they become conflicts. In the postcolonial world, first and third world cultures often collide, and in these conditions, racial and gender differences are often magnified as well. The concept of identity is a major consideration in postcolonial studies because the ways in which people identify themselves and their world also determine what differences they might have with others. There is personal identity, which is the way individuals see themselves, and cultural identity, which are ideas of identity given to individuals by their societies. Identity is central to Giles Foden's novel, The Last King of Scotland. This novel is positioned as a postcolonial novel, being set amidst the chaos of political change in the ex-British African country, Uganda, showing the collision of politics, cultures, and individuals. In the midst of this postcolonial setting, the complex issue of identity, both personal and cultural, underlies and influences the characters and their stories.

Nationalism is a form of cultural identity and can impose identities upon individuals. The concept of nationalism is a major influence for the characters in The Last King of Scotland. Early in the story, Nicholas Garrigan, the main character, notices a sign that says, in large print, "YOUR COUNTRY IS YOUR FAMILY," foreshadowing the intricate manner in which all the characters relate with the cultures they are from. Garrigan identifies strongly with his own country of Scotland; his first-person narrative makes it clear throughout that he is Scottish and that being such implies certain traits and behaviors. Early on, he tells the reader that he is in "an inappropriately northern place to embark upon this northern tale," making clear that although he is writing of Africa, he is located, literally and figuratively, in Scotland. Garrigan also remarks that he was "brought up according to the strictest precepts," or, in other words, his culture told him specific ways to act and perceive. In tough times, Garrigan tells himself that he must "cultivate the discipline of his native land," appealing to his national identity when his personal one is uncertain.

Nationalism as identity can be subtle in its effects. Among people from the United Kingdom, Garrigan makes it clear that he is Scottish and quite different from the English. At one point, Garrigan notes that he is "missing Britain," but quickly corrects himself by adding, "Or Scotland. Home." From a native Ugandan's standpoint, this correction would seem meaningless; there would be little difference between an English person and a Scottish one. Garrigan shows this also, when many of the Africans he meets consider him English, until he informs them otherwise.

Garrigan identifies other people he meets in the story by immediately pointing out their national identities, whether it is the South African Freddy Swanepoel, the Israeli Sara Zach, the many native Africans he meets, or his fellow British working in Uganda. And like Garrigan, other characters also identify with nationalistic markers. In their first major conversation, Sara Zach identifies Garrigan as Scottish, telling him, "I never met a Scot before." Garrigan replies that he is a "typical example" of a Scottish person, choosing cultural identity over an individual one. However, when pressed to explain himself, Garrigan has trouble defining what a typical Scottish person would be like, showing confusion about his own self-concept. His best reply is that being Scottish means that he likes football, rugby, and drinking. Sara Zach thinks this idea is absurd, and then resorts to her own nationalistic idea that Israeli men would identify themselves very differently. Nationalism permeates even the small moments between characters of the book; the other doctors with whom Garrigan works view him as a "Scottish doctor," a seemingly insignificant but telling perception.

Garrigan's personal identity is a complex one. While he frequently mentions his personal connection to Scotland, he can't help but think of his father, who dies while Garrigan is in Africa. He describes his father as a strict Presbyterian minister who had a particular view of the world and of Garrigan. One of Garrigan's earliest memories is of his father telling him that he is "set for damnation," and Garrigan has gone against his father's advice by moving to Africa. Garrigan has memories of times when he did not receive enough attention from his father, and also thinks of his father in close moments with Idi Amin, such as when Amin is sick in bed and during Amin's wedding. When Garrigan is very ill with a fever and having a crisis, he dreamily recalls his last conversation with his father, who told him to "minimize the harm" he could do in the world. Garrigan pleads out loud to his father to understand him, verbalizing his feelings that he has been disapproved of by a father who is no longer there. Garrigan has internalized his father's disapproving view of him, and this faulty self-concept affects him deeply, robbing him of the integrity needed to stand up to the corruption of the dictator Amin.

What Do I Read Next?

  • First published in 1902, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was the model for Francis Ford Coppola's movie Apocalypse Now. In Heart of Darkness, an ivory company assigns Marlow the task of finding a stranded riverboat in the Belgian Congo and bringing back the company's top representative, whose behavior is becoming erratic. Marlow witnesses horrors and brutalities he could never have imagined.
  • Foden's second novel is Ladysmith (2000). It tells the story of the South African town of Ladysmith, its residents, and how they survive a four-month siege by Boer forces. The novel is based partly on the letters of Foden's great-grandfather, a British soldier in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century.
  • Critics have compared The Last King of Scotland to the writings of British author Graham Greene. In 1961, Greene published A Burnt-Out Case, the tale of a spiritually dead man who reconnects with himself by living at a leper colony in the Belgian Congo.
  • Foden's writing style has also been compared to that of Evelyn Waugh, an author known for his satirical wit. In his 1938 novel Scoop, Waugh tells the humorous story of journalist William Boot's trip to a fictional African country to cover a nonexistent revolution. Boot has no experience as a war correspondent but manages to get a story.

Garrigan hardly mentions his mother at all, except to note that she "died of grief" when his father passed away. Not only Garrigan's mother, but all the important women to Garrigan in the novel are vague to him and to the reader. Garrigan seems incapable of understanding women in the story beyond superficial description. Garrigan has a relationship with Sara Zach that is filled with empty conversation, and he knows her so little that only after she is gone does he realize that she was a spy. Garrigan also attempts to get to know Marina Perkins, the ambassador's wife, but completely misreads her and alienates her with a try at seduction. Later in the story, he is surprised to find out that she is having an affair, which upsets him greatly.

There are revealing differences in how Garrigan presents European and African characters in the story. The European characters tend to be shadowy, strange, and untrustworthy. The English are either spies attempting to manipulate the government of Uganda behind the scenes, such as Nigel Stone and Major Weir, or depressed bureaucrats stuck between the two worlds of England and Africa, like Doctor Merrit and his wife. Sara Zach is an Israeli spy who deceived Garrigan. Freddy Swanepoel, a white South African, is a shady character with underworld connections. Marina Perkins is unpredictable and carrying out a clandestine affair. There is another white character who is briefly but strongly introduced in the book, Anglo-Steve (or, English Steve). This man has gone all the way into Africa, disappearing to live in the bush and believed to be crazy. When Garrigan identifies himself as sharing European heritage, but views all other Europeans as strange, misplaced characters, he undermines his image of himself. This can also be seen the other way around: Garrigan, having a shaky image of himself, projects questionable images of the people he most closely associates with. Hence the problems in completely understanding identity. Garrigan seems to understand this complexity of identity when he states early on, "Can you tell the truth when you are talking to yourself?"

Just as there is a trend in the way Garrigan identifies European characters, he also shows patterns when describing African characters. Early in the story, on his trip to Mbarara through the countryside of Uganda, his bus ride is interrupted by soldiers who harass the passengers. Garrigan backs down to a soldier's demands for money, while a Kenyan man stands up to them and pays the price by getting hurt. Garrigan describes this African man as brave and "dignified," and feels "ashamed" and "embarrassment" when thinking of himself in comparison. This scene shows many of the feelings that Garrigan has for Africans throughout the book. They are either faceless soldiers performing inhuman violence that fills him with fear, or strong and dignified people that make him feel inferior.

Nowhere is this paradoxical view of Africans more apparent than in the way Garrigan views Idi Amin. Amin fills him with fear, but also attracts him with many qualities Garrigan admires. In the beginning of the story, Garrigan finds that he "couldn't say no" to Amin's personality, which is "punish or reward." Time and again in the story, Garrigan is witness to Amin's violence as well as to his brilliance in manipulating people and events. Garrigan's relationship with Amin is complicated by the fact that it is a reversal of the long-ingrained identities created by colonialism. In the past, the differences between Europeans and Africans were also the differences between the powerful and the subordinated. Amin is a masterful manipulator of people because he understands these subtle identity problems and plays upon them. In calling himself the "last king of Scotland," he deftly places himself between Garrigan and England, and also makes himself both a sympathizer and superior to Garrigan.

When analyzing identity issues, the very way in which this story is told presents complexities. When Garrigan describes other people in the first person, he is seeing them through his own filter of the world; thus his descriptions of them may say just as much about Garrigan and his culture as they do about the other people and their cultures. The field of postcolonial studies has addressed this complex issue of identity in narrative. Postcolonial studies has asserted that the way identities are formed, both personal and national, helped shape and propel colonialism. Colonialism spread because of the way in which a dominating culture identifies with the culture being dominated. Dominant cultures create attractive images of the other culture. The subordinate culture becomes a figment of the dominant culture's imagination, and individuals of the other race and culture have certain useful identities impressed upon them. These are never real, but these images create certain behaviors. For example, part of the allure for the British people who colonized Africa was the idea that in Africa they could recover a forgotten or better part of themselves. Tired, depressed bureaucrats in worn-out cities could imagine the other culture as a place of fertility and strength, of endless opportunity, of vitality that they themselves had used up. This image of Africa differed greatly from the real thing, but it was the image that took them there, that propelled the spread of colonialism.

This imagining of the African culture shows up in Garrigan. He recalls dream images he had as a child of a place with "a sensuous geography of temples and jungles." Garrigan wonders about what had led to all his problems in Africa, his "malignant destiny," and then mentions the "special vision of myself that took me there in the first place." Reality for Garrigan eventually differs from his imagination. When Garrigan is confronted by the harsh situation of warfare, he thinks of the English actor Michael Caine in a movie about Africa—another deeply ingrained image that is confronted by the real image. Garrigan says that the "old vision of Africa I'd had, the same that led me there and doomed me: it returns like a specter," or an unreal image that haunts him. Garrigan also acknowledges that his problem is that "the world doesn't deliver what I seek." Even some of the Africans in the book understand the identity that has been put upon them by Europeans. Waziri, a Ugandan, asks Garrigan if he wants to see "the real Africa," with a "slight mocking tone in his voice." This real vision of Africa turns out to be a superstitious dance that is put on "for the tourists."

Garrigan also identifies with the colonial myth of the tired, effete European going to a land of vitality and strength. On his first day in Africa, when Garrigan sees soldiers, he states, "I was conscious of my nakedness, of my pale, presbyter's face … my narrow chest … and my long, thin legs." This is in stark contrast to the way Garrigan describes his own symbol of Africa, Amin, who has "a quality of naked, visceral attraction." Garrigan is fascinated by Amin's "physically dominating" presence which "radiated a barely restrained energy." Beside Amin, Garrigan becomes weak and filled with "hopeless perplexity." In a revealing summary of his first meeting with the dictator, Garrigan invests a sentence with double meaning when he writes, "I had no way of getting back myself." He is talking about going home, but also speaking of losing himself and his own identity when confronted by the powerful vision of Amin. Garrigan describes Amin as appearing like "a being out of a Greek myth." This is interesting because myths are stories that cultures tell to define themselves and their place in the world, or stories told to define identity. For Garrigan, Amin represents an identity that renders him powerless because it plays upon the deepest stories he knows. Other Europeans share this mythology of Africa. Swanepoel says to Garrigan, "we all come back here," because Africa is the "[c]radle of the human race!" By including Garrigan as "we," he is identifying with him as a person sharing European heritage, as well as sharing the common myth of Africa as a place of primal vitality that contains something that must be recovered.

Garrigan's identity problems take their toll. Because Garrigan doesn't understand the complexities of identity as well as Amin and is confused about his own personal and cultural identity, he becomes susceptible to this dictator and eventually under his control. In the end, he is forced to look back upon his life in Africa from a vantage point of exile on an island in Scotland. His disapproving and confused self-identity have come true; his identity problems created problems with his integrity that consume him, and he is forced to rewrite his story to come to terms with his new identity.

Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on The Last King of Scotland, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Abish, Walter, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," in Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1999, p. 8.

Flanagan, Margaret, "The Last King of Scotland," in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 8, p. 726.

Gilling, Tom, "Buffoon Defies Reality," in Australian, July 24, 1998, p. 11.

Haynes, David, "Quirkily Written First Novel Traces the Rise and Fall of Idi Amin as Uganda's Dictator," in Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 24, 1999, p. 16F.

Hess, Christopher, "The Last King of Scotland: A Novel," in Austin Chronicle, March 29, 1999.

"An Interview with Giles Foden," in Boldtype, (last accessed February, 2002).

King, Chris, "Into Africa," in Newsday, November 8, 1998, p. B12.

Rathbone, Richard, "The Last King of Scotland," in History Today, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 1998, p. 60-62.

Review of The Last King of Scotland, in Kirkus Reviews, September 1999.

Review of The Last King of Scotland, in Publishers Weekly, October 19, 1998.

Rubin, Merle, "Charisma Overwhelms a Good Man's Revulsion," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 91, No. 16, p. 20.

Upchurch, Michael, "President for Life," in New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1998.

Wolfe, Peter, "Novelist Refuses to Sell Idi Amin Short," in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 22, 1998, p. D5.

Further Reading

Hanson, Thor, The Impenetrable Forest,, 2000.

In this photograph-filled book, Hanson tells how he lived in Uganda's Impenetrable Forest, working with local guides and trackers to develop a tourism program in the new national park.

Isegawa, Moses, Abyssinian Chronicles, Knopf, 2000.

In this Ugandan epic set during the 1960s and 1970s, Isegawa tells the story of an extended family and a divided country. Mugezi, the book's narrator, remembers how he survived life in Idi Amin's Uganda.

Maier, Karl, Into the House of the Ancestors: Inside the New Africa, John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Maier draws on his ten years traveling throughout Africa to bring the news of Africans reviving and expanding upon their cultures' rich traditions. The book is based on hundreds of interviews and combines history with contemporary reporting.

Mutibwa, Phares, Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes, Africa World Press, Inc., 1992.

Mutibwa has written an analysis of the country under President Yoweri Museveni—calmer than the preceding twenty years but not without its problems.

Ofcansky, Thomas, Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa, Westview Press, 1996.

In this book, Ofcansky, an analyst for the United States Department of Defense, first gives a brief history of Uganda before its 1962 independence from Britain. He concentrates on the period between 1962 and 1994, examining Uganda's politics, culture, economy, and foreign policy.