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

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

by Caroline Elkins

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A major work of history that for the first time reveals the violence and terror at the heart of Britain's civilizing mission in Kenya

As part of the Allied forces, 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 compelling story of the system of prisons and work camps where thousands met their deaths has remained largely untold-the victim 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.

Caroline Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard University, spent a decade in London, Nairobi, and the Kenyan countryside interviewing hundreds of Kikuyu men and women who survived the British camps, as well as the British and African loyalists who detained them.

The result is an unforgettable account of the unraveling of the British colonial empire in Kenya-a pivotal moment in twentieth- century history with chilling parallels to America's own imperial project.

Imperial Reckoning is the winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429900294
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 717,347
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Caroline Elkins is an assistant professor of history at Harvard University. Conversant in Swahili and some Kikuyu, she has spent nearly a decade traveling and working in rural Africa. She and her research were the subjects of a 2002 BBC documentary entitled Kenya:White Terror. Imperial Reckoning is her first book. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Caroline Elkins is an assistant professor of history at Harvard University. Conversant in Swahili and some Kikuyu, she has spent nearly a decade traveling and working in rural Africa. She and her research were the subjects of a 2002 BBC documentary entitled Kenya: White TerrorImperial Reckoning is her first book. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Imperial Reckoning

The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

By Caroline Elkins

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2005 Caroline Elkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0029-4


Pax Britannica

The expansion of Europe during the last century has been the story of crime and violence against backward peoples under the cloak of protective civilisation.


LIKE SO MANY OTHER AREAS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, EAST AFRICA was opened to colonial domination with the building of railroads, the symbol of imperial achievement. By the early twentieth century thousands of miles of tracks crisscrossed Africa and Asia, opening the territories to the forces of Pax Britannica. Beginning in August 1896, the British government financed and directed the laying of 582 miles of track stretching from the coastal port of Mombasa all the way to Lake Victoria and beyond. The line cut through the lush and exotic landscape of the Indian Ocean coast, then through the arid, lion-infested plains of Tsavo, and finally upcountry toward the Eden of the interior highlands. Completed in December 1901, it was called the Uganda Railway for it linked the inland territory of Uganda to the outside world. For its time the Uganda Railway stood as a remarkable feat of modern engineering.

But building the railway took an enormous toll in capital and manpower. Britain spent over £6.5 million on the project and imported over thirty thousand "coolies" from India, nearly a third of whom were killed or maimed by the punishing work, disease, and frequent lion attacks. Lord Salisbury's Tory government reasoned that the railway would help to civilize East Africa by facilitating the spread of Christianity and the destruction of the slave trade. It would also make it easier to counter any possible foreign invasion into Uganda, with its precious Nile headwaters. In one of the more foolish and paranoid scenarios ever imagined, the British feared one of their rivals, particularly Germany, would seize Uganda and dam up the headwaters of the Nile, thereby desiccating Egypt. Such an ecological disaster would, in turn, force the British to withdraw their forces from the area around the Suez; without control of the prized canal, so the logic went, Britain would also lose control of India. Such a scenario would have required the invading foreign government to mobilize and import the massive equipment and manpower necessary to dam not just the White Nile but also all of the Nile's other tributaries. Somehow the railway would provide the British with quick, military access to the interior so as to frustrate any such invasion. The British public could not understand this convoluted logic. As cost overruns and horrific stories of man-eating lions appeared in the British press, the Uganda Railway came to take on a new name: the "Lunatic Express."

The building of the railroad would seem a relatively minor feat compared to the looming challenge of repaying the debt to the British taxpayers incurred by its construction. In 1902 Sir Charles Eliot — the first commissioner of the British East Africa Protectorate, as Kenya was called until the 1920s — surveyed the territory and its people for economic potential and found the Africans lacking in nearly every respect. In Eliot's eyes not only were they black and uncivilized, but there were just too few of them to form a nucleus of cash-crop producers and future paying customers for the railroad.

Eliot's negative assessment was further skewed by the actions of his own government and military. The number of Africans living in close proximity to the railway would decline significantly between the time the British arrived on the scene in the 1880s and the completion of its lunatic line. The Kikuyu were hard-hit, as they traditionally occupied the highlands of the interior that had been traversed by the rail line. Thousands of Africans died at the hands of the British who came to pacify the local population in preparation for effective occupation, as formal colonial rule in Africa was called at the end of the nineteenth century. The British military launched punitive expeditions that established an enduring pattern of virulent racism and white violence, and their social acceptability within the colony. Francis Hall, an officer in the Imperial British East Africa Company, initiated a series of raids against the Kikuyu and remained so incensed by their continued resistance that he wrote to his father, a British colonel, "There is only one way of improving the Wakikuyu [and] that is wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies." A few years later, Captain Richard Meinertzhagen, a Harrow-educated British army officer, took pride in his elimination of the Kikuyu who refused to capitulate to British rule; he launched several attacks that included wiping out an entire village of men, women, and elderly (the children were spared) using bayonets, rifles, machine guns, and fire. Part of the Kikuyu population of some five hundred thousand migrated farther into the interior and away from the British advance. They were fleeing not just the armed invasion but diseases like smallpox that came with the foreign imperialists. Tragically, a series of natural disasters, including a locust plague, a prolonged drought, and an epidemic of rinder-pest (a cattle disease), hit the region in the same years as British imperial pacification and took a heavy toll on the Kikuyu. By the time Eliot arrived on the scene to undertake his economic assessments, the losses of life and livestock, together with the migration, made parts of Kikuyuland appear to be more vacant than they truly were.

It became urgent in London to find a reliable group of people to develop the colony's production, make use of the railway for export, and pay back the unprecedented sum of public capital that seemed to have been so unwisely invested. Various options were considered. The most serious was to create in East Africa a Zionist state for persecuted European Jews. Ultimately, the British colonial government decided to launch a campaign to attract settlers of British stock to the colony, people who could capitalize on the territory's agricultural potential and provide cash crops for the world market. Settlers were urged to come to East Africa, where there was plenty of cheap land, abundant labor, and large potential profits. Advertisements, like the following, were published in British newspapers enticing would-be settlers to pick up their stakes and move to the colony.

Settle in Kenya, Britain's youngest and most attractive colony. Low prices at present for fertile areas. No richer soil in the British Empire. Kenya Colony makes a practical appeal to the intending settler with some capital. Its valuable crops give high yields, due to the high fertility of the soil, adequate rainfall and abundant sunshine. Secure the advantage of native labor to supplement your own effort.

Eventually, thousands of settlers responded to the call, migrating to Kenya in search of their fortunes. They came determined to forge "White Man's Country."

In many ways, the story of the pacification and effective occupation of Kenya was no different from what happened all over Britain's empire at the close of the nineteenth century. Across Africa and Asia entire populations were dispossessed of their land through suspect but useful alliances with illegitimate rulers, deceitful treaties, and the barrels of guns. Resistance campaigns like those in East Africa were played out to their grim end all over the world. But bravery was no match for the British and their Maxim gun, and imperial warfare more resembled big-game hunting than it did combat.

The drive to amass African colonies at the end of the nineteenth century represented a change in Britain's overseas strategy, reflecting a shift in geopolitical tactics that had its roots in the onset of Britain's economic decline. For decades, the British were able to dominate their European competitors, keeping open the doors of international commerce through what has been called the "imperialism of free trade." The British had not needed formal colonies in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America because their global economic dominance rendered those regions informal but de facto British territories; other European powers simply could not compete economically with Britain in the free market. Certainly the British did maintain formal colonial possessions, such as India and Hong Kong, but much of the world remained under Britain's less costly and economically advantageous informal control merely through the forces of the international marketplace. As the economic depression of the late nineteenth century hit Britain at the same time that other Western powers — particularly Germany and the United States — were successfully industrializing, a serious threat to British economic dominance was on the horizon. Together with changes in local domestic economies, and new alliances in European geopolitics, this shift in industrialization fed an appetite for new colonies in Africa, and to a lesser extent the Middle East and Asia.

The Scramble for Africa, Europe's move to partition the continent, is one of the most written-about processes in imperial history. Until the Scramble the colonial map of Africa — with the notable exception of the strategic seaports on the West and East African coasts and colonies in South Africa and Egypt — was blank. But in a few short decades, the European powers — including Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and the infamous King Leopold II of Belgium — carved up the continent and divided the spoils. This began at the Congress of Berlin in 1884–85, when European imperial bargaining was the first step in the establishment of nonsensical territories that divided unified ethnic groups and trading networks, while forcing together other groups of Africans who would have preferred to remain separate. These territories — some forty colonies and protectorates in all — would later provide the basis for the modern nation-states of Africa.

Queen Victoria sat on Britain's throne during much of the African partition, and by the end of the nineteenth century she reigned over the most expansive empire in her country's history. Along with her new African territories were those her imperialist negotiators picked up in the Scramble in East Asia, including Malaya, parts of Borneo and New Guinea, and numerous islands in the Pacific such as Fiji and the Solomons. These were added to an already impressive list of formal colonies, including the prize of India and various islands in the Caribbean, as well as numerous territories claiming dominion status such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The British Empire encompassed nearly 13 million square miles or roughly 25 percent of the world's total landmass. Queen Victoria presided over some 445 million subjects around the globe. Not included in these figures were territories that retained their informal colonial status with Britain, places like Argentina and Brazil. Based upon the amount of British capital invested in these countries and their trading dependence on Britain, these territories were British colonies in all but name.

Though disparate, Britain's far-flung empire was united by a single imperial ethos, the "civilizing mission." For the British, imperialism was not solely about exploitation; in fact, if one believed the official rhetoric of the time, exploitation was hardly a factor at all in motivating Britain's global conquests. With their superior race, Christian values, and economic know-how, the British instead had a duty, a moral obligation, to redeem the "backward heathens" of the world. In Africa the British were going to bring light to the Dark Continent by transforming the so-called natives into progressive citizens, ready to take their place in the modern world. According to their own line of reasoning, the British were not actually stealing African land or exploiting local labor but were instead self-appointed trustees for the hapless "natives," who had not yet reached a point on the evolutionary scale to develop or make responsible decisions on their own. With proper British guidance, and tough paternalistic love, Africans could be made into progressive men and women, though it would take many decades or more likely centuries for such a radical transformation to take place. At first such attitudes were called "Victorian aspirations," although British sanctimony about so-called native peoples remained relatively unchanged throughout much of the twentieth century. This was cultural imperialism par excellence. This was the "White Man's Burden."

Administering the empire was a much bigger challenge than legitimating it rhetorically, though here too a single credo prevailed. In London and throughout the empire the various levels of British colonial government were always to "trust the man on the spot." This made great sense considering the enormity of Britain's imperial holdings; any form of micromanagement from London would have been financially and administratively impossible, particularly under Britain's tight budget for colonial administration. The empire was never to be a burden on British taxpayers, and every colony was expected to be self-financing. This policy would place an enormous burden on both local indigenous populations and colonists to generate enough income to pay for Britain's colonial infrastructure, like railways, roads, telegraph systems, and administrative personnel. It also meant there would be little funding for the schools, clinics, and other social and community institutions that presumably would form the backbone of Britain's civilizing mission. Colonial fiscal policy also translated into enormous responsibilities and challenges for the men on the spot, who were expected to rule over hundreds of thousands of colonial subjects with very little guidance and even smaller budgets. While there was a strong consensus for the British imperial mission, there were never any hard-and-fast rules about how this mission should be carried out on the ground. Again, this may be partly explained by the fiscal limitations of British colonial governance. But there was another important reason why these men on the ground would be given so much latitude: they were the only colonial officials with the experience and local knowledge necessary for on-the-spot decision making.

Thus the most defining characteristic of British colonial governance in Africa, and throughout most of its empire, was the looseness of its decentralized control. The empire was managed largely through a prefectural style of administration that incorporated peculiarities rooted in the unique features of each colony. In practice administrative responsibility for the empire was vested primarily in three institutions, which together made up the British colonial government. For most of British Africa, the apex of imperial governance was the Colonial Office in London. It was headed by the secretary of state for the colonies, also known as the colonial secretary, who reported to the prime minister and who held the status of cabinet minister. Given the scope of the empire, the Colonial Office had a tiny staff. In 1929 there were thirty-five administrative class officials, and ten years later fewer than fifty. This made it absolutely impractical for the Colonial Office to oversee anything in the various colonies but the broadest areas of policy. Even then, blanket official orders issued by London were rare. Intervention from the Colonial Office would be most significant at the beginning and end of empire, or in the structuring and dismantling of a colonial government on the ground. In the intervening years several major programs aimed at fostering development in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa were broadly conceived by the Colonial Office in London, though they were almost entirely implemented by local colonial officials.

Throughout Britain's empire there was an elite cadre of officers who functioned as the Colonial Office's agents on the ground. It was these men who engaged daily in the trench warfare of British colonial rule. They were responsible for the day-to-day imposition of colonial authority and for adapting the broadly conceived notions of British imperialism to their local and particular circumstances. For most Africans they were the white face of British colonial rule. In Kenya these colonial officials were members of the Administration, as it was called. The Kenya Administration was at the bottom of the colonial governing hierarchy and was made up of provincial and district commissioners, as well as their subordinates, dispersed throughout the colony.

These men on the spot were not just any men. They were handpicked by the Colonial Office in targeted recruitment campaigns that openly sought future colonial rulers with backgrounds common to the dominant ruling class in Britain. This was believed to be absolutely critical to the functioning of the empire. While diffuse and decentralized, colonial rule would be strengthened, it was thought, by recruiting men who would conform instinctively to British imperial principles: establishing and maintaining control over local populations, promoting fiscal self-sufficiency, and civilizing the Africans and other indigenous groups with paternalistic authority. They would not need direct day-to-day supervision because they shared with their superiors in London a common ideology of aristocratic social superiority and thus were ipso facto equipped to rule. Recruits were often the younger sons of aristocratic families, or if not they shared a similar privileged pedigree rooted in the principles of noblesse oblige. They attended public school and then generally went on to either Oxford or Cambridge, where they were steeped in the ideals of honor, duty, and discretion. When they were shipped to their remote posts, such as in Kenya, often what they found was little more than a single hut that functioned as an office, local courthouse, and bunk. They were startlingly young, some barely twenty years of age, and had received very little formal training for what awaited them; some former administrators from Kenya recalled their arrival in the "bush" as analogous to being "thrown in at the deep end," where they sank or swam. This rite of passage only tightened their solidarity and purpose as a group. Kenya's Administration was by all accounts a brotherhood with its own unwritten code of conduct, the most important detail of which was steadfast loyalty to one another and to the Crown.


Excerpted from Imperial Reckoning by Caroline Elkins. Copyright © 2005 Caroline Elkins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents


ONE: Pax Britannica,
TWO: Britain's Assault on Mau Mau,
THREE: Screening,
FOUR: Rehabilitation,
FIVE: The Birth of Britain's Gulag,
SIX: The World Behind the Wire,
SEVEN: The Hard Core,
EIGHT: Domestic Terror,
NINE: Outrage, Suppression, and Silence,
TEN: Detention Exposed,

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