on 19 March 2016
This book's importance cannot be overstated. Anyone who can read should read this and learn about the true nature of colonialism. Bear in mind that this monster has returned.
on 3 August 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.
on 26 March 2015
Not an easy book to read for those of us brought up on benign colonialism and 'we were better than those awful Belgians and Germans'. Unless the accounts are simply false (and would those who complain about exagerration want to same about Holocaust survivors accounts - there are revisionists who would like to take that line) then no amount of context or the Mau Mau were terrible can justify torture or supposedly 'civilised' white prison officers co-ordinating prisoners buggering each other as an interrogation technique. The ultimate insult of history of course to imply that suffering never really happened (I had to laugh at the person advocating that she should have read the Official History - I work for the govt but please!). Sadly Guantanamo and abuses by our troops in Iraq show all too clearly that when you combine war with racial aspects then some people will go into Heart of Darkness mode (itself of course another cliched view of Africa considering what one could have travelling up the Rhine or through Poland in WW2). Her points about the moral incontinence of the settler set (or some at least) and the behaviour of a significant sector of the security forces is bound to annoy either those whose family were out there or those from the Kenya branch of the Whenwe tribe.
on 4 May 2016
It is pleasing but rare when imperial historians live up to their name. Caroline Elkins does so.
on 21 October 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?) Conversely, Elkins' settlers and colonial administrators are cartoonish grotesques: `These privileged men and women lived an absolutely hedonistic lifestyle, filled with sex, drugs, drink and dance, followed by more of the same' " (Twentieth Century British History 16, 2005, page 492).
None of this suggests that events in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurgency were not distinctly unpleasant, to say the least. It does, however, suggest that Elkins has a very sharp axe to grind, and that her book should be interpreted with this orientation clearly in mind. The many plaudits that Elkins' book have received in America possibly tell us much about American attitudes to the British Empire. This is by a limited history of the Mau Mau insurgency.
on 24 April 2012
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 evidence, confirmation that Caroline Elkins has largely hit the mark in her critique of British misconduct in the last decades of British rule in Kenya, are confirmed by the recent publication of 8.800 Foreign Office files from former British Colonies, including Kenya. However, complete confirmation, in all its gruesome detail, will never be entirely possible since most of the government papers relevant to Kenya were systematically destroyed in the early 1960s, apparently at the behest of the then Colonial Secretary, Iain Macleod. Even those documents concerning the final years of the British Empire which are now at last to see the light of day have been withheld improperly from public view, but it would appear that a few documents concerning the Mau Mau insurgency have survived among them. Those o Malaya, Aden, and Cyprus are likely to me more forthcoming.
on 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 ... not so much to present truth supported by incontrovertible evidence' as to drum up support for her crusade through her libellous description of what she terms `the trench warfare of colonial rule'.
Warfare was not involved. East Africa was not won by conquest and this was not an `armed invasion'. Any shots fired in the colonisation process (perhaps more in sorrow than in anger) were confined to serious punitive actions. One such, against the Kikuyu clans, was brought on by their plundering traders' caravans, murdering and mutilating and refusing to pay the reparations which were exacted by their own legal system. Instead they went on the offensive. The officer concerned wrote that `we had to act and act quickly. To do nothing in an emergency is to do something definitely wrong.' History has many disastrous examples of `when good men do nothing'.
How could Elkins's account of the Mau Mau Emergency be either accurate or complete when she does not refer to and describe the appalling oath-taking that was the basis of all that violence? It is well documented elsewhere and was readily available to her. Judging by her other material, it seems unlikely that delicacy prevents her from describing those rituals. Could this strange omission stem from anything other than bias? Surely it is the sine qua non of a professional historian's work that it must be accurate and should be objective, at the very least as far as the inclusion of relevant facts.
Elkins's salacious fantasy of the threat of `black sexuality' may be more true of the southern United States than colonial East Africa. This is an American attitude towards Negroes, wrongly ascribed to Europeans in Kenya and given the full treatment. The reality was that every white bwana went off to work, quite happily leaving his wife and children at home with the male domestic servants.
Although there are many politically correct and suitably anti-imperialist critiques of this book, there are other, more discerning, reviewers who assert that her diatribe lacks substance and is often unconvincing, even ludicrous, producing information that supports her case, yet somehow missing information that does not, that she eschews `intellectual rigour in favour of a good deal of somewhat inelegantly written ranting. No cliché is left unturned ...'
Many passages could be used as school or college exercises in detecting bias. For instance, her copious and naïve use of weasel words: someone Elkins likes is described as `robust', whereas one we are not supposed to approve she describes as `pudgy'. In Elkins-speak `alleged', `so-called' `ostensibly' and `purportedly' are reserved for descriptions of Mau Mau activities, as though they were figments of imagination. Her language is idiosyncratic and illogical. Why can she not write `natives' without a `so-called' when speaking of Africans in Africa? Is native a rude word where Elkins comes from?
Her treatment of the subject brings into question the validity of any of her conclusions, seriously mislabelled in her title. The whole was so much more and so much less than she portrays. Kenya is more than Kikuyuland. Imperial history - and indeed the history of Kenya itself - is a much greater and rather different field from Kikuyu mythology.
At one point the author wonders whether government officials `believed their own delusional rhetoric'. The same could be said of her with more truth.
The topic deserves a deeper view, drawing on other, more balanced, accounts. David Lovatt Smith's Kenya, the Kikuyu and Mau Mau, is one such, and it pulls no punches. That it is being serialised in Kenya's major newspaper, the East African Standard, speaks for itself. He is a mature observer, meticulous researcher, and a participant in the drama that was Mau Mau. Why is Elkins's effort so different? Because she is none of those things?
It is all such a waste of the undoubted effort she put into her zealous but one-eyed research. She would do well to bear in mind the Swahili saying : Akili nyingi huondoa maarifu - which translates as `Much cleverness drives out wisdom.'
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. The early chapters explain the foundation of Kenya as a British colony and the changes that followed for the indigenous population, mainly Kikuyu people, of the central fertile province. The pressure of insufficient land for the growing African population and the central key role that land ownership plays in the Kikuyu society, and the difference in status accorded to Christian converts were both key factors in promoting the Mau Mau insurgency. The author Caroline Elkins describes this situation very well, and also goes on to describe the colonial response to the acts of terror perpetrated by the Mau Mau. The widespread detention of suspects, the sweep of the capital Nairobi aimed at removing suspect Kikuyu men, the establishment of the 'Pipeline' of detention camps to screen and subsequently turn non-hardline suspects are all well explained. The final establishment of guarded villages and disruption of supplies to the Mau Mau fighters leading to their ultimate defeat, a technique copied from the Malayan insurgency, is also adequately dealt with.
The massive fault in the book is the remorselessly left-wing bias that Elkins applies to all her research and the resulting blatantly self-contradictory statements. At one point comparing the detention camps in their mistreatment to Japanese POW camps and then noting that a parliamentary inspection committee of MPs, including three Labour MPs, criticised the toilet facilities and the lack of blankets is hardly self-consistent. To quote the back of a fag-packet calculation of camp deaths made by a left-wing Asian lawyer in Kenya as a substantive fact is also not worthy of her extensive research and wide ranging interviews.
Elkins must know that to quote the 'Daily Worker' of the 1950s is not a safe practice. And so it goes on with interminable details of individual cases of maltreatment in the camps followed by massive and unsubstantiated extrapolation. At all times, apart from two incidents, Mau Mau violence is ignored and reactive colonial response made to look inexplicable. This is poor, one-sided, history and causes you to wonder why her work was the subject of a 2002 BBC documentary, 'Kenya: White Terror'.
on 15 December 2006
Having lived in Kenya for several years and married a Kikuyu, I read this book with initial interest. I soon realised that Elkins was out to make a point, and a very wrong and dangerous one at that.
Even I started to believe what she wrote with her mountains of invisible 'evidence' backing up each story, but I soon realised that none of this was actually proved; for every case, records had all been conveniently destroyed.
I lived with the Kikuyus, Luos and Luhyas and I never (not once) heard a word said about any horrific incidents or treatment dealt out by the British, that the author goes into so much pain to describe. In fact the only harsh word I ever heard about any colonialist, was aimed at the Dutch!
My father-in-law (a mzee born circa 1940) would be the first to tell me if any of these horrors had they really occurred, but he hasn't, and when I asked him on a recent visit (with this book still fresh in my mind) whether any of this happened, he quite literally laughed in my face.
This sort of nonsense is so dangerous to write and read because it causes unnecessary resentment and racism in a world where there really is too much violence already. If Elkins thinks she is reporting unbiasedly on an historic event and in doing so helping the world become a better and more informed place, she is very very wrong. In fact what she is doing is feeding the fire of hatred and misunderstanding. This book should not have been published.
on 24 July 2006
'History' is defined by Dr. John Lonsdale, Emeritus Professor of History at Trinity College, Cambridge, as "A testimony of past events that someone who took part in those events could recognise as a true record". No one who conforms to that definition could regard this book even remotely as 'History'.
Pascal J. Imperato, an acknowledged authority on African History, in a review of the book for the African Studies Review, Volume 48, Number 3, December 2005, opines, "The author of this work, has attempted to drape herself uniquely in an academic mantle, namely her assistant professorship in Harvard's history department. There is obvious subterfuge here. In failing to inform readers of her primary role as a politcal activist, she has attempted to camouflage the bias this clearly imparts to her historical narrative".
As one who took part in the Mau Mau conflict, who has written extensively on the subject from my own and other's eye-witness accounts, I cannot but whole-heartedly agree.
The book rests heavily on fragile testimony, faulty data and unconvincing intuition. It casts scurrilous and mischievous aspersions on thousands of Kikuyu countrymen who fought to rid themselves of a thoroughly evil insurgency, together with hundreds of Kenyans of all races who served with or alongside the Kenya Police, to make Kenya the thriving country it is today.