This is a hard book to read. It is not that the words are too big or the sentences too long. Caroline Elkins writes well, and her message is very clear. The trouble is that many readers are going to find the subject too gruesome to make it to the end. It is a fairly big book, 475 pages of which 375 need to be read, another 100 of which are notes, a bibliography, and an index. Being very interested in East Africa and its history, I finished Imperial Reckoning by reading 30 or 40 pages a day. A sense of duty kept me going.
Caroline Elkins meant to write a dissertation on the savagery of the Mau Mau insurrection in 1950s Kenya, but as she researched her topic she found the British colonial reaction to the murders the more compelling story. Most of the administrative records were destroyed by the British authorities as they left Kenya, but the cover-up was incomplete. Some dissenting participants kept records, and some reports that had been sent to Parliament were kept by opposition Labour Party members, who had tried unsuccessfully to establish independent investigating commissions. In addition to reading these documents, diaries, and newspapers, Elkins interviewed many Kenyans, both white and black.
In reaction to the Mau Mau uprising, the colonial authorities deputized many of the white male settlers and black loyalists and began incarcerating much of the Kikuyu population. According to the British Governor and several Colonial Secretaries of the time, there were never more than 30,000 prisoners and all the arrests and confinements, with a few unfortunate exceptions, were orderly and necessary. Because the authorities had such tight control, journalists never saw many of the detention camps. Elkins refutes the official story. Her evidence shows that up to 300,000 Kikuyu were held in the many camps and 1.5 million men, women, and children were forced from their homes to live in reserves in the far corners of the colony, mostly on infertile land, where many died. Most were captured by military action and lost all of their possessions. Entire villages were burned. Most suspects were never tried in a court of law, and many were held for seven or eight years and finally released without any restoration of their property. According to colonial records, fewer than 100 Europeans and about 1800 black loyalists and 11,000 Kikuyu insurgents died during the Mau Mau rebellion. Elkins believes that between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu men, women, and children died.
Much of the book is about the brutality of the colonial police, British military, vigilante colonists, and loyalist guard. Terrorist suspects were often beaten until they confessed to taking Mau Mau oaths. Many forms of torture were used, and many of those who did not relent died. Prisoners were also forced to dig canals and build more concentration camps in violation of international forced labor laws. While many of the actions of the Colonial wardens resembled those of the Nazi guards in the Jewish Holocaust, the conditions in camps more resembled the tropical compounds created by the Imperial Japanese forces in Asia. In the wake of the public outcry of World War II atrocities, the colonial authorities in Kenya and the Colonial Secretary in London knew they had to suppress the story.
Elkins book ends with only brief accounts of the aftermath. Kenya was granted independence, but most of the Kikuyu never recovered their land, which remains today in the hands of the loyalists and their descendants. Few whites or loyalist were ever held accountable for their brutal actions. While some are now contrite, others view their actions with pride.
I did not order Imperial Reckoning for our library initially, but after reading a copy from another library I have. I do not expect that many will read it, but even if a few do, it will have been a good purchase. I think it is important to have on our new books shelf for reader to see.
Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. ISBN 0805076530