Caroline Elkins: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

Historians in the News

Wiry and energetic, the Hugo K. Foster Associate Professor of African Studies at Harvard University coils in her chair and speaks with rapid force about her book that recently won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

"I was strongly urged by colleagues not to undertake this project, for two reasons," Caroline Elkins said in an interview at her home, not far from the campus. "One, they felt it was too politically sensitive. Two, they said there wouldn't be enough information. So, me being me, I decided those were good enough reasons to undertake the project."

At 37, Elkins has spent more than 10 years exhuming and writing about the long-hidden story at the heart of "Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." It's a vivid narrative -- not without its critics -- of oppression, torture, and cover up during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s, which shows how even a democratic government with humane values can hide the truth of its abominable behavior.

Mau Mau was an uprising among the Kikuyu tribe of British Kenya, essentially a response to economic privation due to losses of land at the hands of British settlers. Beginning in 1951 and ending in 1959, the rebellion included an oath of loyalty among adherents, attacks on settlers, and a poorly armed movement based in Kenyan forests. Thirty-two Europeans were killed in rebel attacks. But in the British campaign that followed, thousands of Kikuyu, many of them innocent, were abused, tortured, or killed in a system of camps known as the Pipeline. By Elkins's calculations, as many as 320,000 men and women were held in the camps, and as many as 50,000 were killed.

Elkins uncovered hundreds of stories of tortures committed in the worst of these camps, some in grisly detail: castrations, clamping of women's breasts with pliers, fatal beatings. Equally compelling is her account of the British denial of the truth, which extended from local colonial officials right up through Winston Churchill and his successors, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.

Though British officials lied baldly in Parliament and later burned virtually all the records of the camp system, Elkins reconstructed the story -- including the names and locations of the camps -- using eyewitness accounts, contemporary letters and private documents, and records of the opposition Labor Party's futile resistance to the repression. Most of the chief architects of the camp system, including governor Evelyn Baring, retired from the colonial service with honor and were never held accountable for the abuses. Several senior participants were interviewed by Elkins, and they are unrepentant.

After the end of the empire, Elkins writes, people in Britain wanted to put the conflict in the past. After independence in 1963, Kenyan leaders, too, found it convenient to forget about the guerrilla war in the interest of unity, since many abuses were committed by Africans on the British side. Since the longtime ban on the Mau Mau movement was revoked in 2002, renewed discussion of the rebellion has blossomed in Kenya. A group of Kenyan lawyers recently announced a plan to file suit against the British government in coming months.

The barbed-wire camps of the Pipeline seem a long way from the leafy environs of Cambridge, where Elkins lives with her husband and two sons. Indeed, she could have stayed comfortably in academia and avoided the gory details of war.

Born in New Jersey, she majored in history at Princeton. She had had the usual European and American history courses when she took a course with Robert Tignor, professor of African studies. Fascinated by the continent, she graduated in African history, with highest honors. But she was far from finished.

"What really stood out was her energy and her desire to pursue a difficult career in the face of many challenges," Tignor said by phone. "We were overwhelmed by her stick-to-itiveness, her ability to tackle archival and personal research. All that comes out clearly in 'Imperial Reckoning.' "...
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