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


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 ...

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

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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.

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

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.

Imperial Reckoning is an incredible piece of historical sleuthing. The author has reconstructed the story that British officialdom almost succeeding 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.

Bill Berkeley

Caroline 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.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

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.
Publishers Weekly
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 postindependence 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," Elkins's account was also the subject of a 2002 BBC documentary entitled Kenya: White Terror. Her superbly written and impassioned book deserves the widest possible readership. B&w photos, maps. Agent, Jill Kneerim. (Jan. 11) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
By analyzing primary sources-including archival material and interviews with hundreds of Kikuyu survivors as well as British and African loyalists, Elkins (history, Harvard Univ.) 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 compelling account of the British colonial government's atrocities can be compared to Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.-Edward McCormack, Univ. of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Lib., Long Beach Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A careful investigation of Kenya's Mau Mau uprising and the manifold crimes by the British colonial government in attempting to suppress it. Half a century ago, tales of Mau Mau atrocities filled the world's newspapers, along with lurid photographs depicting butchered innocents and ransacked farms. Such atrocities did occur over the decade-long course of the uprising, writes Elkins (History/Harvard). But she opens long-closed files in British archives-those that survived a systematic effort to destroy them-to reveal that greater atrocities were committed by the colonial regime, which was ill-equipped to understand, much less accommodate, the demands of the native Kikuyu. Inspired by such leaders as Jomo Kenyatta, who spent most of the uprising in prison, the Kikuyu of northern Kenya had taken to resisting the colonial government with various levels of violence, an effort that the government averred was meant to expel all Europeans from the country. Elkins observes that nonindigenous society was sharply divided among very wealthy landowners, who tended to be English, and much less affluent farmers whose parents and grandparents had come from South Africa during the Boer War, bringing the doctrine of white racial superiority with them. From their ranks, using tactics tried in Malaya and elsewhere in the colonial empire, the aristocratic government drew recruits for police and military units that went to work burning villages, relocating their residents to concentration camps, and rounding up and executing suspected Mau Mau. Less concerned with restoring order than subduing the population, the British colonial government and army allowed these Home Guard units free hand. "None of thehigh-ranking officials . . . actually believed that the standards of British law applied to Africa," Elkins writes, "and particularly not while they were fighting a war against savagery." In her estimation as many as 100,000 Kikuyu died, making the war against them one of the bloodiest in European colonial history. Sure to touch off scholarly debate and renew interest in recent, deliberately forgotten history. Author tour. Agent: Jill Kneerim/Kneerim & Williams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805080018
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 422,560
  • Product dimensions: 9.12 (w) x 7.14 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet 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.
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Read an Excerpt

"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 the compound. At the same time, loudspeakers blared warnings about ongoing land confiscations, describing how land taken from Mau Mau sympathizers was being redistributed to those loyal to the British cause. "Confess and Save Your Land," was one public broadcast played throughout the Pipeline, and it is bitterly remembered by many of the former detainees today. So too are photographs of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in full regalia, which were displayed alongside images of Jomo Kenyatta in shackles, wild-haired and looking rather dazed and pathetic. The contrast between civilization and savagery could not have been more stark."

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Table of Contents

1 Pax Britannica 1
2 Britain's assault on Mau Mau 31
3 Screening 62
4 Rehabilitation 91
5 The birth of Britain's gulag 121
6 The world behind the wire 154
7 The hard core 192
8 Domestic terror 233
9 Outrage, suppression, and silence 275
10 Detention exposed 311
App The operating pipeline circa January 1956 369
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2005

    Excellent study of imperialism in action

    Some claim that the British Empire was run well and handed over peacefully, unlike the Belgian Congo or French Algeria (both backed by the British state anyway). This outstanding book exposes those lies, showing how colonial government forces in Kenya killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people in the 1950s. Elkins details the government `campaign of terror, dehumanizing torture, and genocide¿ marked by detention without trial, forced labour, collective punishments, deprivation of medical care, systematic starvation and murders. The colonial government stole the Kenyan people¿s land, starved them and then blamed them for not feeding their children properly. Using the same tactics as in South Africa and Malaya, the imperial forces torched the homes of a million Kenyans then forcibly resettled them into compounds behind barbed wire. The people resisted and fought for their freedom. The judge at the nationalist leaders¿ trial, who got £20,000 for his verdict, admitted that it was a national liberation struggle when he denounced `this foul scheme of driving the Europeans from Kenya¿. The British government demonised all who opposed colonialism as `terrorists¿. It detained without trial up to 320,000 people in punishment camps, where the official policy was systematic brutality, using sexual violence and humiliation. Guards were indoctrinated into a fascist mentality, describing and treating Africans as animals. The assistant police commissioner said that camp conditions were worse than he had experienced in Japanese POW camps. Critics asked how many camps were run by British forces. How many people had been arrested and detained? On what charges? Were they made to work in the camps? If so, for how long and in what conditions? Was there any disease or malnutrition in the camps? Were there any deaths? The British government tried to maintain the absolute virtue of its rule by admitting nothing, lying systematically. `Incidents¿ of abuse were always `isolated¿, carried out by the lowest members of the colonial hierarchy. It set up powerless internal inquiries run by those responsible for the atrocities. It smeared nationalist leaders, witnesses and critics as `self-interested¿ and `prejudiced¿. The Empire was no civilising mission; it was a way to steal other people¿s land and labour power and murder them when they resisted.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2010

    very enlightening, needed more context

    As other reviewers have written (extensively), this book is a thorough and graphic account of the atrocities perpetrated by the British Colonial Government and their native accomplices against the substantially innocent Kikuyu people in response to the Mau Mau uprising. The research appears to be meticulous based on the extensive footnotes and the descriptions of the effort by the author herself. It is a very well written book although in some respects a little repetitive but quite well organized. As a avid reader of world history I found this book very enlightening giving a clear picture of the ugly dissolution of the Empire in Africa. One minor quibble would be the brevity with which the Mau Mau uprising itself was described. Although the actions of the British and their loyalists are impossible to justify, the picture would be clearer if more space in the book had been devoted to explaining the actions associated with the Mau Mau which the British used as a pretext for the mass imprisonment and harsh treatment of their victims. Finally I detected an undercurrent of anti-British sentiment throughout but this may be expected from someone who has spent so much time with the victims.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 3, 2009

    I could not put this book down!

    This is a must-read for history lovers! It is full of details about the treatment of Kikuyu people in Kenya starting 1952.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2005

    A compelling, sad history.

    Excellent research and presentation of the 'British' mentality that can be so terrible and self-rightous. Too bad the author did not find out more about who agreed to the parliamentary motion that precluded a more just outcome.

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