Imperial Reckoning The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

Caroline Elkins

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496 Pages



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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
An Economist Best Book of the Year

For decades Western imperialists have waged wars and destroyed local populations in the name of civilization and democracy. From 1952 to 1960, after a violent uprising by native Kenyans, the British detained and brutalized hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu—the colony's largest ethnic group—who had demanded their independence. In the eyes of the British colonizers, the men and women who fought in the insurgency—Mau Mau as it was then called—weren't freedom fighters but rather savages of the lowest order. The British felt justified, in the name of civilization, in crushing those who challenged colonial rule, even if it meant violating their basic human rights. Later, to cover up this stain on its past, the British government ordered all documentation relating to detention and torture during its last days of rule in Kenya destroyed.

In a groundbreaking debut, Harvard historian Caroline Elkins has recovered the lost history of the last days of British colonialism in Kenya. In a compelling narrative that draws upon nearly a decade of painstaking research—including hundreds of interviews with Kikuyu detention camp survivors and their captors—Elkins reveals for the first time what Britain so desperately tried to hide. In the aftermath of World War II and the triumph of liberal democracy over fascism, the British detained nearly the entire Kikuyu population—some one and a half million people—for more than eight years. Inside detention camps and barbed-wire villages, the Kikuyu lived in a world of fear, hunger, and death. Their only hope for survival was a full denunciation of their anti-British beliefs.

Imperial Reckoning is history of the highest order: meticulously researched, brilliantly written, and dramatic. An unforgettable act of historical re-creation, it is also a disturbing reminder of the brutal imperial precedents that continue to inform Western nations in their drive to democratize the world.


Praise for Imperial Reckoning

"When the British left Kenya in 1963, they built bonfires and burned the meticulous records they kept. Most of these dealt with a period known as 'the Emergency,' when the colonial government attempted to stamp out the Mau Mau movement . . . that arose among the Kikuyu, a hill-dwelling farming tribe and Kenya's largest ethnic group. Elkins, working in archives and traveling throughout Kenya, has undertaken an extraordinary act of historical recovery, to find out what the burned documents would have told us: the British, in their 'civilizing mission' to pacify the colony, created a cruel system of detention centers, where interrogations often ended in death. With the moral fervor [of] a prosecutor, Elkins provides potent evidence of how a society warped by racism can descend into an almost casual inhumanity."—The New Yorker

"An important and excruciating record."—Daniel Bergner, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] scholarly and very important book . . . Records and honors the voices of those who have been humiliated by the denial of their memory."—Neal Ascherson, The New York Review of Books

"[Offers] an important corrective to the long-distorted story of the end of British empire in Kenya but also [serves] as a stark reminder of the cynical justifications that fear can foster and that history eventually lays bare."—Daphne Eviatar, The Nation

"A vivid portrait of daily life behind the wire . . . Elkins forces the reader to view this conflict from the Africans' side in a way that few western historians writing about Kenya have done before."—The Economist

"The voices Elkins has recorded preserve an important chapter in colonial history . . . [Imperial Reckoning] illuminates a critical colonial period from which far too few lessons appear to have been learned."—John Ness, Newsweek (International Edition)

"Remarkable and lucid . . . [A] distinguished addition to African colonial history."—Stanley Meisler, Los Angeles Times

"Elkins has written an important book that can change our understanding not just of Africa but of ourselves. Through exhaustive research in neglected colonial archives and intrepid reporting among long-forgotten Kikuyu elders in Kenya's Rift Valley, Elkins has documented not just the true scale of a huge and harrowing crime—Britain's ruthless suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion—but also the equally shocking concealment of that crime and the inversion of historical memory."—Bill Berkeley, author of The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa

"On the basis of the most painstaking research, Caroline Elkins has starkly illuminated one of the darkest secrets of late British imperialism. She has shown how, even when they profess the most altruistic of intentions, empires can still be brutal in their response to dissent by subject peoples. We all need reminding of that today."—Niall Ferguson, Professor of History, Harvard University, and Senior Research Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford; author of Colossus: The Price of America's Empire and Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

"In the 1950s, Mau Mau provided the Western world with photographic evidence of what Africa and Africans 'were like': savage, bloodthirsty, and in need of British civilization. Imperial Reckoning shows us how these images neglected to show the brutality and savagery being committed against the Kenyan Kikuyu people detained by the British. Caroline Elkins fills out the images, tells the rest of the story, and corrects the record in this masterful book."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W. E. B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

"Rarely does a book come along that transforms the world's understanding of a country and its past by bringing to light buried, horrifying truths and redrawing central contours of its image. With voluminous evidence, Caroline Elkins exposes the long suppressed crimes and brutalities that democratic Britain and British settlers willingly perpetrated upon hundreds of thousands of Africans—truths that will permit no one of good faith to continue to accept the mythologized account of Britain's colonial past as merely a 'civilizing mission.' If you want to read one book this year about the catastrophic consequences of racism, about the cruelty of those who dehumanize others, or about the crimes that ideologically besotted people—including from western democratic countries—can self-righteously commit, Imperial Reckoning is that book."—Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust and recipient of Germany's Democracy Prize

"Given the number and nature of the atrocities that filled the 20th century, the degree of brutality and violence perpetrated by British settlers, police, army, and their African loyalist supporters against the Kikuyu during the Mau Mau period should not be surprising. Nor, perhaps, the fact that the British government turned a blind eye, and later covered them up. What is surprising, however, is that it has taken so long to document the whole ghastly story—this is what makes Caroline Elkins's disturbing and horrifying account so important and memorable."—Caroline Moorehead, author of Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees and Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life

"Imperial Reckoning is an incredible piece of historical sleuthing. The author has reconstructed the story that British officialdom almost succeeded in suppressing. Her sources are the Mau Mau fighters and sympathizers whom the British detained in concentration camps during the 1950s. Her interviews with the survivors of this British 'gulag' are a labor of love and courage—impressive in their frankness and deep emotional content as well as properly balanced between men and women, colonial officials and Mau Mau detainees. Caroline Elkins tells a story that would never have made it into the historical record had she not persevered and collected information from the last generation of Mau Mau detainees alive to bear witness to what happened."—Robert Tignor, Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Princeton University

"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 post-independence 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' . . . Her superbly written and impassioned book deserves the widest possible readership."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"By analyzing primary sources—including archival material and interviews with hundreds of Kikuyu survivors as well as British and African loyalists, Elkins has unearthed a chilling account of colonial British detention camps and villages during the Mau Mau insurrection between 1952 and 1960. Her intense scholarly research has yielded empirical and demographic evidence that Britain distorted data regarding deaths and detainees and destroyed official records that might otherwise have been damaging to its image. Further findings reveal that a large number of women and children were not detained in the official camps but in about 800 enclosed villages surrounded by 'spiked trenches, barbed wire, watchtowers, and patrolled by armed guards' and that during the insurrection, the British imposed their 'authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic.' This [is a] compelling account of the British colonial government's atrocities . . . Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries."—Edward McCormack, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Library, Long Beach, Library Journal

"A careful investigation of Kenya's Mau Mau uprising and the manifold crimes by the British colonial government in attempting to suppress it . . . Sure to touch off scholarly debate and renew interest in recent, deliberately forgotten history."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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"The colonial propaganda machine, once well-oiled, preyed on the detainees' doubts and fears. Pamphlets in the vernacular, pointing out how misguided was the detainees' belief that African land had been stolen by the British, were circulated throughout...

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  • Caroline Elkins

  • Caroline Elkins is an assistant professor of history at Harvard University. Her research in various aspects of the late colonial period in Africa has won numerous awards, including the Fulbright and Andrew W. Mellon fellowships, as well as a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She and her work were the subjects of a BBC documentary entitled Kenya: White Terror. This is her first book.