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Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of…

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (2005)

by Caroline Elkins

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266842,770 (4.02)13



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( )
  Kap.Kap | Mar 18, 2014 |
This is an important book, but a gut-churning one. If you've frothed at the sicko propaganda spewed by Simon Winchester, Jan Morris, John Keays, anything published by John Murray, and the international tourism industry, it's a great, sobering antidote, but you must have a strong stomach.

I'm in Asia and so have known many Hong Kong Chinese, Malaysians, Burmese and South Asians over the years. Let's not leave out the Irish either. Their world-weary reflex if I told them of this book (or a British-made colonial- themed movie) would be--it always is--"You think *that's* bad, you should see what the British did to us/how we're depicted by the British." I got a similar response when I first heard of this book and mentioned it to an American friend whose anthropologist father was doing research in Kenya in this period: "But everybody knows this!" Then he ran off the figures of the number of people killed by the Mau Mau (30-something? Less than 100) and the typical imperial response of massacring many, many more. And of course the virtually instantaneous evacuation of Nairobi and the history of land expropriation would be well known to people like his father.

But, folks, for the 20th century this is a new level of British racism and violence. Yes, the Brits castrated Indian nationalists. Summary trials and executions were rife wherever there was rebellion (consider the Malaya civil war taking place at the same time). OK, the mass movements of 500,000 people in Malaysia--where entire mountain villages would be given hours' notice to be moved to the lowlands into guarded "villages" for years on end--beat the Kenyan experience (where 3/4 of Nairobi's population, all the Kikuyu, was cleaned out in a day) but the extent of brutality and how long it went on, I suspect is unrivaled.

(Oh, btw, when I was reading this, I talked to two Malaysians who have made a couple of films about the army of the Communist Party of Malaya. Looking through this book, they said that the degree of violence was probably lower in Malaya at the time--unless you count the "banishment" of 50,000 Chinese to newly communist China. But they picked up on the pix of Kenyan informers with bags over their bodies, merely nodding as suspects were marched by them. A single nod and the poor suspect--perhaps a personal enemy, perhaps a stranger--was often destined for years of hell. They said that was done in Malayan states at the time too. [With that world-weary look: doesn't everyone know that?] Tying people with barbed wire and then dragging them behind vehicles until their limbs pulled off, however, was a French specialty in Asia. )

Then you have the concentration camps themselves. Worse in the way than the Brits' beloved Nazi camps because the tortures continued to get Mau Maus (often not genuine Mau Mau, of course) to renounce and then to get out of the "pipeline," they had to inflict tortures on others. Among them was Kenyatta's son.

I want to caution readers, especially female ones, about the chapter on the home front, back in the villages and small towns. I suppose I was hoping for a little relief after the camp documentation. Well, brace yourself: rampant rape and rapes that you may not have imagined before. Not only with bottles but chili peppers in the vagina. Any woman can imagine all these years later how difficult it would be for the victims to talk about this. Not surprising that the author and her chief assistant/translator are women. (Of course they have to pile on this detail: it's the repetition of so many atrocities, the similarity of methods and memories, that makes the book credible ... but phew.)

I'm thinking of one woman's story: she was among a group of women from her village who were taken to a ditch to be shot, but she was saved because one of the killers found her good-looking. I don't have to tell you what ensued: maybe it would be better to be dead?

The nearby forests, where male relatives and neighbors often hid, were also free-range shooting galleries for the white settlers. It's eerie living so close to Cambodia, as I do, especially with a Khmer Rouge trial going on. Sometimes the interviewers in Imperial Reckoning are told of a massacre and the source will point, say, to a row of shops and say "there are piles of skeletons under there." Now, that's true of so many places in Cambodia, so many wars, so many massacres. I'm sure Cambodians wonder, "Why are the Khmer Rouge ones or this particular KR one singled out for excavation?" Why are the Kenyan graves not an international or British or Kenyan concern today?

We can guess some of the answer from the book's sad summary of post-independence history. Despite being imprisoned in a remote desert location, Kenyatta was a Christian and was never able to acknowledge the role of the Mau Mau in the independence fight. Incredibly, the white "settlers" were not all expelled or eased out. Well, some were bought out, but the buyers, winners, tended to be black Kenyans who had collaborated with them.

Reading this I often wondered if an African-American movie star or director might set a movie in Kenya and bring international public focus to apartheid in Kenya and Kenya's independence fight. (There's been enough about South Africa, right?) Obama's autobiographical work hasn't been enough to do that, though he's obviously knows what went down. Unfortunately, there's no happy ending, no triumphant life to exemplify the struggle like Mandela's. ( )
1 vote Periodista | Aug 31, 2010 |
Adam Foulds, novelist and poet, has chosen to discuss Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya , on FiveBooks (http://five-books.com) as one of the top five on his subject - The Mau Mau Uprising and The Fading Empire, saying that:

“… The Mau Mau uprising was a conflict that was to some degree repressed, and I think this is a significant work in writing its history – I think the author would see herself as reclaiming that history. In her final chapter she writes directly about its suppression and about the afterlife of the conflict, and the fact that there was no official parliamentary inquiry – so there was no real self-examination at the time on the part of the British...…”.

The full interview is available here: http://thebrowser.com/books/interviews/adam-foulds ( )
1 vote FiveBooks | Feb 12, 2010 |
The Dark Side of Empire

The British have up until recently been very proud of their imperial achievements. The only problem was that empire-building involved a certain amount of heavy-handed tactics, and like other imperialists like King Leopold, the French, and the Germans knew that sacrifices needed to be made for their "civilizing mission."

Like France's "dirty war" in French Algeria, or the British Malay, or the Belgian Congo, the British war against the Mau Mau movement turned savage very quickly. Many of the details that Elkins describe are too shocking to repeat, suffice to say that thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, suffered horrible deaths.

Overall, an important, if sordid, look into another regrettable chapter of British imperial historiography. ( )
1 vote bruchu | Sep 13, 2009 |
Until fairly recently this story of the brutality exacted on the Kenyan population, in particular the Kikuyus, by the colonial Kenyan government with the knowledge and approval of the British Foreign Office was not common knowledge. Caroline Elkins' book corrects this historical ommission and puts the resistance of the Kenyan people in in its proper context. ( )
1 vote zenosbooks | Feb 25, 2009 |
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Elkins's prosecutorial zeal in a sense precludes a true ''imperial reckoning.'' For British rule brought crucial benefits that persist -- among them modern education and a degree of infrastructure -- as well as violent oppression to its subjects. A thorough reckoning would provide, by way of paradox, not only a more deeply insightful but a more deeply wrenching work of imperial history.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805080015, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:49 -0400)

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Thousands of Kenyans fought alongside the British in World War II, but just a few years after the defeat of Hitler, the British colonial government detained nearly the entire population of Kenya's largest ethnic minority, the Kikuyu--some one and a half million people. The story of the system of prisons and work camps where thousands met their deaths has remained largely untold, because of a determined effort by the British to destroy all official records of their attempts to stop the Mau Mau uprising, the Kikuyu people's ultimately successful bid for Kenyan independence--Publisher.… (more)

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