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Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya [Hardcover]

Caroline Elkins
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

20 Jan 2005
Britain fought in the Second World War to save the world from fascism. But just a few years after the defeat of Hitler came the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya - a massive armed rebellion by the Kikuyu people, demanding the return of their land and freedom. The draconian response of Britain's colonial government was to detain nearly the entire Kikuyu population of one-and-a half-million - to hold them in camps or confine them in villages ringed with barbed wire - to treat and portray them as sub-human savages. From 1952 until the end of the war in 1960 tens of thousands of detainees - and possibly hundreds of thousands - died from the combined effects of exhaustion, disease, starvation and systemic physical brutality. Until now these events have remained untold, largely because the British government in Kenya destroyed most of its files. For the last eight years Caroline Elkins has conducted exhausted research to piece together, unearthing reams of documents and interviewing several hundred Kikuyu survivors. Britain's Gulag reveals what happened inside Kenya's detention camps, as well as the efforts to conceal the truth. Now, for the first time, we can understand the full savagery of the Mau Mau was and the ruthless determination with which Britain sought to control its empire.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; First UK Edition/First Printing edition (20 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 022407363X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224073639
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.4 x 4.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 356,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"This is the once and continuing dark side we can never escape - or honestly acknowledge...this is where we have been and may stray again" (Peter Preston Observer)

"It is a story which has never before been told...It is a story of unremitting brutality, rape and torture" (Christopher Hudson, Daily Mail)

"The Mau Mau did not get the recognition due to them...and Britain never got the comeuppance it deserved. Half a century later, a 'revisionist' historian like [Niall] Ferguson, seeking to rehabilitate the empire after a decent interval, could still blithely ignore the whole affair. This is no longer an option...Elkins [has] seen to that" (Bernard Porter London Review of Books)

"This vital study... shocking" (Ian Critchley Sunday Times) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

In this controversial but authoritative book, Harvard historian Caroline Elkins recounts the waning days of British Empire in Kenya, and the little known destruction of thousands of Kenyans at the hands of the British. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over Sensationalised? 3 Aug 2006
This is a well written book with lots of material to consider. My main criticism is that, as I read the book, I got the feeling that the first-hand evidence actually presented did not match with the words and language used by the author. Throughout the latter stages of the book are numerous letters from the detainees at the detention camps detailed in the book. Whilst the author paints a picture of thousands of deaths from torture and other abuses, the letters themselves, some from the worst-of-the-worst camps that are frequently compared to Nazi concentration camps, detail 3-5 alledged deaths during interrogation over a 6 month period. Does this really compare to the Nazi concentration camps? Elkins does not explain this seeming mis-match. Perhaps it was due to the language used by the detainees? Perhaps it stems from the files that are missing from the official records? (Maybe it's just my reading of the texts?).

There clearly were a lot of nasty things happening in Kenya (and other countries) towards the end of empire. The trouble with this oversight/oversensationalistion is that the enormous amount of research that Elkins undertook could have perhaps been used more thoroughly to really shed light on exactly what happened. This book doesn't quite do that.
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33 of 47 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars History with distinct limitations. 21 Oct 2008
Elkins' book has received many plaudits in America and was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for non fiction. Regrettably, Elkins' outrage about events in Kenya in the 1950s results in her forsaking academic rigour, since she tells only part of a murky story. This can be shown most clearly be considering aspects of some reviews of the book by other academic historians.

Bethwell Ogot from Moi University in Kenya noted in reviewing Elkins' book that the Mau Mau fighters who were involved in the insurgency against the Colonial Government "Contrary to African customs and values, assaulted old people, women and children. The horrors they practiced included the following: - decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women. No war can justify such gruesome actions. In man's inhumanity to man there is no race distinction. The Africans were practising it on themselves. There was no reason and no restraint on both sides, although Elkins sees no atrocities on the part of Mau Mau" (Journal of African History 46, 2005, page 502).

Susan Carruthers from Rutgers University in the USA noted that "In her determination to redress imperial propaganda's stereotypes of Mau Mau savagery, Elkins leans into unintended condescension, lauding the Kikuyu's `sophisticated' appreciation of British hypocrisy. (Why wouldn't those most thoroughly dislocated appreciate the character of European colonialism better than anyone?
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38 of 55 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Elkins - an exercise in pseudo-history 24 July 2006
In historical accounts, one looks for integrity of context and coverage. One asks is there a declared point of view, as opposed to a hidden agenda, and is the wider picture at least sketched in? One asks is the coverage accurate and as complete as possible and if not, why not?

When the aim is propagandist, the story is deliberately skewed. Such is the work of Caroline Elkins in Imperial Reckoning - the untold story of Britain's gulag in Kenya (published in Britain as Britain's Gulag - The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya).

Why should I be concerned? Good reasons: I was there at the time, in the thick of it, so I can recognise dangerous nonsense. The historical record is being distorted and will skew the teaching of history to future generations, both Africans and others. `Critical vigilance' is called for.

I am no historian - I am a reader, writer and reviewer of books and a person for whom East Africa was home. As such, it is not hard to detect many errors of specific facts, which tend to make one wonder about the accuracy of the whole. [An example: security forces would supposedly `swing women by their long hair' although it is well known and graphically documented that Kikuyu women's heads were shaven at that time.]

This author fails to divulge that she is a prominent political activist on behalf of the people she writes about, the remnants of Mau Mau. Pascal James Imperato, writing in African Studies Review, points to her subterfuge in draping herself in an academic mantle to camouflage the bias this clearly imparts to her work `through inappropriate analogies and inflammatory rhetoric ...
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not an academic text 18 Mar 2014
By Gryph
The reason for the low rating may be seen in the following passage, which is representative of the text:

"When Protestant mission societies launched an attack on the Kikuyu custom of female circumcision, the KCA* responded vigorously by defending their cultural practice… In response to missionary pressure, colonial officials in Nairobi [the capital] altered their typical hands-off approach towards African customs and urged the Local Native Councils in the Kikuyu districts to restrict and regulate female circumcision. By 1929, thousands of Kikuyu were protesting and leaving the established churches to form their own independent churches and schools, which would permit the practice to continue. The colonial government responded to the KCA with unequivocal hostility … This reaction was a reflection of both British imperial self-interest and a twisted sense of colonial paternalism… Despite the fact that these men on the spot, the young members of Britain’s ruling elite who considered themselves to be the protectors of “their natives,” were watching Kikuyu country rapidly deteriorate around them, many continued to believe they had come to Africa to oversee a slow, organic change from savagery to civilization. They were trustees who acted in the best interests of the African, who after all had to be protected from himself. (2005, pp. 20-21)

*the Kikuyu Central Association, “a small group of progressive and educated young men”.

Academic language should be formal and objective. In this passage, the diction does not reach academic standards – “hands-off” appears instead of “non-interventionist”, and “on the spot” is employed for “at the place in question” – and the tone is unacceptable in its subjectivity.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed expose of the war crimes that Britain won't acknowledge ...
Detailed expose of the war crimes that Britain won't acknowledge. Highlights the massive hypocrisy of the UK when it comes to talk of human rights. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ifayomi
1.0 out of 5 stars Ill informed and poorly written
I have now read this book twice - the second time to confirm my thoughts on what a poor book this is. Read more
Published on 19 Oct 2012 by Keka
5.0 out of 5 stars Britain's Gulag
The point of the book was to highlight the evils of the British Empire who they themselves would've denied and have th world believe they were the bringers of of light and... Read more
Published on 29 April 2012 by Garreth Rogers
4.0 out of 5 stars Corroborative Evidence
For those readers obviously perplexed by the challenging thesis which this book presents, and not least by what several other reviewers suggest is the flimsiness of its documentary... Read more
Published on 24 April 2012 by mrprofrob
4.0 out of 5 stars Controversial
I bought this book when I was working at a school in the White Highlands of Kenya, as I wanted to learn more about the Mau Mau uprising during the 1950s. Read more
Published on 5 Nov 2011 by Jackchatfield
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mau Maus have a case, as Barbara Castle knew long before Caroline...
Despite the anti-imperialist mindset of the book, much mentioned by other reviewers, I was left in no doubt that the British have a case to answer regarding the treatment of the... Read more
Published on 30 July 2011 by T. G. S. Hawksley
1.0 out of 5 stars Mission Accomplished?
If Professor(?) Elkins was after controversy, then she has succeeded. Controversy does, after all, sell books. But a Pulitzer prize? Read more
Published on 30 April 2011 by R. Duckett
1.0 out of 5 stars Further reading.
I recommend those of you who are genuinely interested in the subject of Mau Mau to take the time (and trouble) to search out and read a copy of the British Colonial Office's... Read more
Published on 27 Oct 2010 by HuddyBolly
2.0 out of 5 stars A Hopelessly Biased and One-Sided History
This could so easily have been a good book. Much research has been carried out, and ignoring some idiosyncratic grammar, the writing style is clear and concise. Read more
Published on 7 Feb 2010 by Dr. R. Brandon
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellently researched book if a distressing read
I spent part of the first Armed Forces Day (which ironically was also the seventy fifth anniversary of the founding of the Peace Pledge Union) starting to read Caroline Elkin's... Read more
Published on 4 July 2009 by C. Townley
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