on 28 September 2005
Anyone who has lived in the U.K. since 1960 will recognise the way in which the phrase Mau-Mau can strike fear in the hearts of children. This book aims not to dispel that myth but to uncover some of the reasoms why the whole story of the British suppression of the Mau-Mau uprising was, and could, never be told. The almost unendurable accounts of torture and brainwashing under the colonial power were the reason for the silence. This material provided the basis of a BBC programme in 2002 at the time when Kenya had just gone through elections which seemed to offer the possibility for the truth to be told at last. It would appear, on the evidence of this book, that claims for compensation are not likely to be forthcoming. Elkins does not seem to have any political agenda ; however she is convinced that the silence which followed Independence was more a result of British tactics of divide and rule than an absence of dissent in the indigenous population. She cites Ngugi as one of the few who dared to question the official line of the Moi regime, for which he was imprisoned. I am constantly reminded of his prophetic line in "From the barrel of a Pen" that the British would only quit their colonies when thay had taught the people how to oppress themselves.
Elkins has produced a monster of a book which will haunt the fainthearted. Somehow i fear that the enormous amount of research which went into it's making may slide, like the terrible truth which it unfolds, into the mists of time because it is too blatant to confront. Anyone who has not read the account of restorative justice in South Africa by Desmond Tutu will perhaps not grasp my point. Ultimately this book asks you to judge for yourself - if you dare.
on 27 April 2011
It's understandable that a number of Britain's apologists have written negative reviews of this book, but as the recently "discovered" documentation released (reluctantly) by government has shown, the barbarous treatment of non-European residents by British "authorities" in their self-described empire is fact.
Whether in Rhodesia, Kenya, South Africa, India or elsewhere, the British have largely been left to write their own version of the history of their interactions with native persons and their forced occupations of parts of the world to which they had no rational claim . Their brutal treatment of indigenous populations served no other purpose than to ensure a comfortable, profitable existence for their own citizens at the expense of the local people and to justify it otherwise compounds the immorality of it all.
After essentially enslaving the local populations, depriving them of their land and natural resources, denying them equal footing in law or educational opportunity and creating an unconscionable economic disparity between the locals and the white settlers, they then want the right to sanitize the history of all their shameful behavior and become unhappy that they no longer have selective design control over the facts.
To defend their treatment of Africans in Kenya or South Africa or Rhodesia or elsewhere on the continent or the Indians or Chinese or native populations of Australia or the Middle East or Ireland by claiming they were bringing law & order or Christianity or legal systems or whatever, is just as ridiculous as claiming that the native freedom fighters were using equally brutal methods to free themselves from the occupiers. It sounds very much like sniveling complaints laid by a playground bully against his former victims when the tables are turned and he finally gets his nose bloodied by the those victims who have had enough.
Kudos to Caroline Elkins. To claim that her book is biased, as some reviewers here have, is no more than whingeing because she hasn't continued the obfuscation, revisionism and bigoted, self-serving propaganda masquerading as (British) scholarly research that has been churned out for decades.
This book is about the last years (1952-9) of British colonial rule in Kenya. It is the story of the battle with Mau Mau terrorism, but it is not about the Mau Mau or how their brand of terrorism compares or contrasts with Britain's own species of enforcement. I would call this wise - stick to one topic at a time, especially when this side of the matter had been subjected for many years to a great deal of official British creative editing and selective reporting. Undoubtedly Professor Elkins is unsympathetic to the British imperium, but I have no problem with that. All historians can be expected to bring their ordinary political mindsets to the periods they discuss, and so long as they remain professional in their reportage and comment they are as entitled as the rest of us to their own opinions.
This is an expose, but of the academic variety and not the tabloid kind. Professor Elkins provides, as we would expect, a note on her research methods together with the usual academic parade of sources. I am not expert on the period and I feel no obligation to validate the claims that Elkins makes. Sure, other authors have disputed some of these, and something strange would have happened in the academic world if they had not. What seems to me to matter is whether Elkins is broadly right, and I fear there can be little doubt of that. I am just about old enough to remember the main dramatis personae - Sir Evelyn Baring the Governor of Kenya, Alan Lennox-Boyd the Colonial Secretary, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Oginga Odinga, Daniel Arap Moi and latterly Britain's own ineffable leader Harold Macmillan. In my family home the daily newspaper that we took was none other than the Daily Express, whose proprietor Lord Beaverbrook was the Empire's own tribune. It is not significant that I swallowed uncritically the regular accounts of dedicated British colonists together with a holy retinue of Christian missionaries battling diabolic forces of Darkest Africa embodied in the Mau Mau and their terrifying blood-oaths. What is significant is that nearly all of us did, dupes of as systematic and relentless a regime of news management as we have yet witnessed in the dear old `free world'.
Official disinformation is at is most effective when its disseminators really believe it themselves. Elkins says at one point that Baring and Lennox-Boyd had pat answers to every charge, either that it was unfounded or that the fullest investigations were underway. When some inconvenient detail somehow escaped the zone of silence they trotted out the standard line that it was an isolated incident, a rationale recently attempted by News International in the phone-hacking scandal and I am surprised that anyone took it seriously even then let alone now. The aura of Britishness neutralised the brutishness and allowed these cultivated gentlemen to persuade themselves of what they must have known, at some deep level, was not true, and thus project their air of conviction on the public at large. They could not, really, have been unaware that the law of the jungle was more prevalent in the British colonial administration than in the jungle properly so called, and that violence rape and murder were commonplace but sanitised with professional diplomatic phraseology. However to call them liars or question their legitimacy would have been unthinkable and outrageous: the taboo against that was deep and it pervaded all strata of British society. As Housman says somewhere, it gradually came about that what could not be said could not be thought, and when Baring took his daily Communion I am sure he prayed sincerely for the eventual triumph of the British dispensation over the barely human forces that threatened it, before he went to his desk to endorse the latest round of repression and (wholly necessary and justified) deception.
A great deal of material had been destroyed when British rule came to an end, and if it was accurate small wonder, which it probably was. Elkins has still had no shortage of input from word-of-mouth sources, and also from the surprisingly copious letters that managed to evade the system one way or another. The whole magic realm of make-believe could not last indefinitely, and certain Labour politicians began to smell something rotten, although to start with that could be easily brushed aside by calling them liberals, socialists or whatever, epithets that were convenient because they were accurate. When the bubble finally burst it was in connexion with the revelations regarding the Hola camp. British outrage was aroused now among bien-pensant society. It would not be true to say that it was mass indignation because then as now the British were more concerned with matters nearer home and because ingrained British racialism was even more prevalent then than it still is. However what Hola meant was that the game was finally up. Nobody could now believe any persiflage about its being some isolated and untypical manifestation.
I find the book well written. The style is clear and literate, and the expression quite often apposite and telling. What is wrong with the narrative is that it is too long and needs drastic editing to organise the material in a way that would be less repetitive, or repetitive-seeming at least. The final section on the accession to power of Jomo Kenyatta is particularly interesting, and I am not going to offer an opinion of my own on Professor Elkins's opinion that this iconic figure not only was not any radical when released from prison but that he was never any radical at any time. `Let us join hands' said he to the racist settlers. What a moderate he must have been.
on 20 September 2015
The author gives voice to a disgraceful and wrenching 'incident' in history and spares us none of the necessary detail to understand exactly what went on at that time and place. Both on the individual and political level. Human bigotry and wretchedness at its worst. Even more shocking considering that WWII was fairly recent history. Her decade of work shows on every page and all revelations are supported by deep research.
on 4 August 2015
Quite an 'eye-opener' - We should be ashamed our ourselves.
on 22 September 2012
This is a thoroughly researched, balanced and readable account of the role of the British Empire in Kenya. That it contains such harrowing material is of course not the authors' fault but owes everything to the ractises and behaviour of both the colonial machine and the white settlers.
The recent court cases in Britain which have partially revealed a decades-long cover up demonstrate that the record described in this work is correct in all its essential details. Elkins' detractors should now leave the field in silence.
The power of the account is reinforced by the fact that the author did not set out to provide a critique of Britian's role and was utterly taken aback by her discovery of it. This adds to the great strength of the research, which is meticulous, even exhaustive, at least of what was then in the public domain. Even now, the British authorities seem intent on allowing access to the hidden files only by more trusted academics, not those who have achieved ground-breaking work such as this author.
However, without suffering any preconceptions about Britain's role In Kenya, the book fails to place it in the overall context of Britain's imperial reign in Africa, what was a stake among the imperial powers in the Scramble and what factors obliged the ignominious retreat. The effects on post-colonial Kenya are too only hinted at. But maybe she and other authors will take up those challenges in future work.
on 17 February 2016
Well written and well researched. An eyeopener.
on 5 May 2016
This is a very important book. Sadly, it is seen as revelratory. It is not really. The British murdered more than15% of my peoples in concentration camps during the years 1899 - 1901 in conditions of extreme brutality. They took special delight in hacking pianos to pieces, all to demonstrate to us how civilised they were. Then they proceeded to shoot every farm animal to death. To ensure we got the point, they raped our women and childen and, just to ensure we really understood how civilised they were, they loaded us on cattle trucks en route to concentration camps where our women and childen would die horrible deaths. Then they spread myths around about how backward we were. They killed about 20 000 Black South Africans in separate (apart) concentration camps but, because they considered African people to be backward, we do not have accurate figures. At least one can get an approximation of ALL the South Africans murdered by the British in this terrible war of exploitation at the memorial garden in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Because they were never made to face up to their atrocities, the British then did even worse in Kenia. They rolled people up in barbed wire and rolled them around the camp for fun. That was after they crushed their balls. Then they had the Iraq war where they proceed to commit atrocities in their (yet again) prison camps. What would it take to get the British to face up to their darkness?
on 9 January 2007
This work is an exemplar of the category of modern history writing that adopts a post-modern distrust of official positions, government documents, etc, and places disproportionate reliance upon the testimonies of former Mau Mau. This is a mistake in itself, as even a cursory survey of memoirs produced by former Mau Mau show themselves to be inaccurate and exaggerated. This is an exercise in historiographical political correctness, following the line that only indigenous people can know and tell the truth of their history (which is simply not true) and misses (or more likely disregards) the point that people so closely involved in an armed struggle are unlikely to recognise or acknowledge the patterns of oppression that they perpetrated themselves.
As a work it reveals little of the immense cruelty and suffering that Mau Mau inflicted upon Kenyan African people, nor the remarkable degree of tenacity that many Africans displayed in resisting Mau Mau. Who is going to pay compensation to the Kenyans who suffered under the Mau Mau terror?
Some commentators in the Kenya press have noted a tendency in Elkins to fall into the rather patronising attitude of depicting Mau Mau as noble savages in her headlong rush to eulogise Mau Mau. This may or may not be the case, but what is undoubtedly the case is that this book is an exercise in unrestrained British bashing. Like many on the American left, she has a particular contempt for the British Empire. This is revealed in the very title of the book, where she tries to draw a comparison and moral equivalence between the British and Stalinist Russia. The use of the word Gulag in the title shows that 1) she knows next to nothing about the gulags (the real ones) and 2) that she has no compunction in employing a lack of scholarly restraint in her language. The tone of the book is simply hysterical.
No-one denies that there were many atrocities committed in Kenya by the security forces; this has always been well known, and was widely reported upon at the time. This is certainly not an "untold" story, but rather a well established narrative rehashed in histrionic terms by Elkins. It is right to deplore security force atrocities, but Elkins does not address the bigger issue of whether or not the general conduct of the British military campaign in the Kenya Emergency was reasonable and commensurate to the threat that Mau Mau posed.
What might have been a more useful exercise would be a comparative study on how counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1950s and 60s - Algeria, Dahomey, Vietnam for example- were conducted by France and America in comparison to the British in Kenya. I suspect that this would reveal that 1) no counter insurgency is clean and noble but that 2) the Kenya Emergency was conducted with relative restraint and with much greater respect for due legal process than might be expected.
There are many scholarly works on the Kenya Emergency, some pro-British, most are pro-Mau Mau, but most make an effort to be balanced. I do not believe that any other major scholarly work on the Mau Mau is as blatantly biased as Elkins.
on 2 February 2009
Forty years after Kenyan independence from Britain, the words "Mau Mau" still conjure images of crazed savages hacking up hapless white settlers with machetes. The British Colonial Office, struggling to preserve its far-flung empire of dependencies after World War II, spread hysteria about Kenya's Mau Mau independence movement by depicting its supporters among the Kikuyu people as irrational terrorists and monsters. Caroline Elkins, a historian at Harvard University, has done a masterful job setting the record straight in her epic investigation, Imperial Reckoning. After years of research in London and Kenya, including interviews with hundreds of Kenyans, settlers, and former British officials, Elkins has written the first book about the eight-year British war against the Mau Mau.
She concludes that the war, one of the bloodiest and most protracted decolonization struggles of the past century, was anything but the "civilizing mission" portrayed by British propagandists and settlers. Instead, Britain engaged in an amazingly brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that seemed to border on outright genocide. While only 32 white settlers were killed by Mau Mau insurgents, Elkins reports that tens of thousands of Kenyans were slaughtered, perhaps up to 300,000. The British also interned the entire 1.5 million population of Kikuyu, the colony's largest ethnic group, in barbed-wire villages, forced-labour reserves where famine and disease ran rampant, and prison camps that Elkins describes as the Kenyan "Gulag." The Kikuyu were subjected to unimaginable torture, or "screening," as British officials called it, which included being whipped, beaten, sodomized, castrated, burned, and forced to eat feces and drink urine. British officials later destroyed almost all official records of the campaign. Elkins infuses her account with the riveting stories of individual Kikuyu detainees, settlers, British officials, and soldiers. This is a stunning narrative that finally sheds light on a misunderstood war for which no one has yet been held officially accountable. --Alex Roslin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
In a major historical study, Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, relates the gruesome, little-known story of the mass internment and murder of thousands of Kenyans at the hands of the British in the last years of imperial rule. Beginning with a trenchant account of British colonial enterprise in Kenya, Elkins charts white supremacy's impact on Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, and the radicalization of a Kikuyu faction sworn by tribal oath to extremism known as Mau Mau. Elkins recounts how in the late 1940s horrific Mau Mau murders of white settlers on their isolated farms led the British government to declare a state of emergency that lasted until 1960, legitimating a decade-long assault on the Kikuyu. First, the British blatantly rigged the trial of and imprisoned the moderate leader Jomo Kenyatta (later Kenya's first postindependence prime minister). Beginning in 1953, they deported or detained 1.4 million Kikuyu, who were systematically "screened," and in many cases tortured, to determine the extent of their Mau Mau sympathies. Having combed public archives in London and Kenya and conducted extensive interviews with both Kikuyu survivors and settlers, Elkins exposes the hypocrisy of Britain's supposed colonial "civilizing mission" and its subsequent coverups. A profoundly chilling portrait of the inherent racism and violence of "colonial logic," Elkins's account was also the subject of a 2002 BBC documentary entitled Kenya: White Terror. Her superbly written and impassioned book deserves the widest possible readership. B&w photos, maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.