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Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya
Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya
by Caroline Elkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not an academic text, 18 Mar 2014
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. The word “twisted” is an unnecessary example of emotive language, for “misguided” would have conveyed the author’s meaning without the unedifying accompaniment of a contemptuous attitude. This attitude is also apparent in the insertion of “after all” – ironically, the author is being patronising towards those whom she is criticising for being patronising. A neutral tone would not have been difficult to achieve, as for example in the following: “They believed themselves to be trustees acting in the best interests of the African, who, it was thought, was his own worst enemy”.

The author’s language belongs in a newspaper article, not in an academic text. It is said that it reflects her growing anger as she accumulated evidence, but academics should be able to control their feelings. If the language they use exhibits a lack of control, how can they be trusted to objectively gather and interpret evidence? Courteous criticism - or at least, criticism that is strong but free from scorn and sarcasm - is the most efficacious kind.

If the camps were brutal, and there is evidence of that brutality, let that evidence speak for itself. Emotive comment serves only to detract attention from the events portrayed and to lessen the respectability of the author. How long the author spent on research, how many footnotes she has added, which institution employs her, do not in themselves lend credibility to her work. Judged by its language, 'Britain's Gulag' fails to meet basic academic standards.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 8, 2014 12:06 PM BST

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