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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
This review is from: Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 22 Nov 2010 10:53:47 GMT
HuddyBolly says:
If, for 'racist white settlers'; ( Elkins' view of the Kenyan settler community), one substitutes such cosy heroic terms as, 'pioneers', 'homesteaders', 'sodbusters', and all the rest; and instead of 'the White Highlands'; one substitutes, 'The opening of the American West'; and instead of a single African tribe, the Kikuyu; one substitutes the hundreds of indigenous tribes throughout the north American continent; and if one contemplates what was done to those people, at the hands of Americans, as official government policy, carried out by it's entire army with the full backing and assistance of the people; then we can begin to see the hypocrisy of Elkins' view of the British in Kenya.
And that's before we even consider the treatment that many white citizens of United States were meting out to the US's own black community at the time that Mau Mau was being fought in Kenya.
I somehow doubt that we can look forward to reading a definitive account by Ms Elkins of her own country's infinitely more unsavoury history.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Sep 2011 22:59:39 BDT
Your argument appears to be that, because American colonialists treated the Native Americans appallingly, this somehow negates Caroline Elkins' criticism. On that basis, no one could criticise anything because at some point in the past, their country had done appalling things. The fact that the treatment you correctly ascribe to American "settlers" occurred a hundred years and more before the present day means that Elkins is not in any way implicated in it so she is free to criticise what the British got up to in Kenya.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Apr 2012 22:12:30 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 Apr 2012 13:02:31 BDT
G. W. Porter says:
HuddyBolly - whataboutery of the first order.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2012 07:29:12 BDT
I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you replying to HuddyBolly's comment, or mine?

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2012 11:11:43 BDT
G. W. Porter says:
HuddyBolly.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2012 11:14:24 BDT
Phew, thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2012 13:01:23 BDT
G. W. Porter says:
R.Carter - sorry about that.

It is widely accepted - in the US and in the UK - that the native people of North America suffered greatly from colonisation, but many people in the UK still take the view that British colonisation in Africa, and Asia, was generally benign, with just a few brief regrettable exceptions. The reader reviews here of this book, and the comments on them, bear this out. I think they are mistaken.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 May 2013 19:04:42 BDT
Merlin's Owl says:
I like your comment but couldn't Americans be an extension of Anglo attitudes? They are, after all, often talked about as our cousins.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 May 2013 19:18:41 BDT
G. W. Porter says:
If you mean me - thanks. I think you could equally well say European attitudes, or possibly even broader. It is only quite recently that the general attitude has become somewhat resistant to callously exploiting less developed peoples.

Posted on 19 Jul 2013 16:37:24 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Jul 2013 16:41:17 BDT
Elkins spent a decade researching this book and it is very extensively referenced, including hundreds of hours of face-to-face interviews. She has not written a history of Kenya, nor a history of the Kenyan emergency. She has written the history of the 'pipeline' and 'protected' villages (prison camps for women and children) and the widespread and brutal treatment of prisoners in both: it's in the title. She does cover the context of the Mau Mau emergency, which could be considered as an insurrection by some indigenous Africans, the kikuyu tribe, again British colonists and other Africans who had been granted special privileges. Of course, she has been accused of taking sides but when you hear of the truly sadistic behaviour of some Europeans (and Africans) against the prisoners, mass graves, people dragged behind Land Rovers, I am afraid you have to admit it was very wrong, and when one considers the sheer scale of suffering, it cannot be explained by the old "bad apple" excuse. A crime against humanity. Add in lack of due process, extensive forced labour, British government indifference, to put it at best, reaching right up to the cabinet. Elkins might be wrong on the figures - they are speculative and she admits this. But so are the 'official' ones.

`These privileged men and women lived an absolutely hedonistic lifestyle, filled with sex, drugs, drink and dance, followed by more of the same' "
I was listening to an interview of Doris Lessing recently. She lived in white British African colonial society when she was young and she described a very similar picture of society, and it was one of the reasons she felt she had to leave.
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