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


Read 26/06/2020-11/07/2020

Rating 5 stars

Book 4 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge, a substitution in the original list.

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya is the US edition of Caroline Elkins’ book published in Britain as Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. It documents a particularly atrocious period in Britain’s history – the brutal suppression of the Kikuyu people in Kenya in the 1950s, through the use of detention camps and forced labour, and the subsequent attempts by British government to cover it up.

I read an article recently by George Monbiot. It was about Boris Johnson’s claim that we shouldn’t edit Britain’s history by tearing down statues of slavers or renaming buildings. In the article, Monbiot refers to Caroline Elkins’ book and reminded me that I had a copy of it, borrowed from work.

It wasn’t an easy read, but it was a necessary one. Britain’s behaviour during the suppression disgusted me, not just because of what was done but also because the attitudes held at the time have never gone away and variations of them can be seen in society today.

Elkins’ preface uses language drawn from the official records of the period. It gives background to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in which members of the Kikuyu ethnic group were depicted as savages, criminals and gangsters, and talks about Britain’s civilising mission in Kenya. It’s discomfiting language.

Mau Mau was the name used by the British for the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) and the political movement they represented. The KLFA was largely made up of the Kikuyu people, Meru people and Embu people, with smaller units of Kamba and Maasai peoples.

Elkins talks about her initial research into the detention camps used by the British. Remember, this is the 1950s. The war Britain and its allies had only recently fought against Germany’s Nazi regime was against the genocide of Jews, Slavs, the Roma, gay men and other groups deemed to be against what the National Socialist Party stood for. The genocide was carried out through concentration camps. Concentration, detention. What’s in a name?

I began with a preliminary sift through the official archives in London, where files stuffed with dusty*, yellowed memos and reports told a seductive story about Britain’s civilizing mission during the last years of colonial rule in Kenya. According to the documents, the detention camps were not meant to punish the rebellious Kikuyu but rather to civilize them. Behind the barbed wire, colonial officials were reportedly giving the detainees civics courses and home-craft classes; they were teaching the insurgents how to be good citizens and thus become capable of running Kenya sometime in the future.

Even if this had been the case, the sheer arrogance of presuming we knew better than the Kikuyu how they should run their own country, the utter presumption that they needed to be re-educated to a British standard, the insult of thinking Kenyans were uncivilised is enough to make the blood boil.

(*A note on dusty and historians’, journalists’ and TV writers’ love of describing archive material thus – archivists work to environmental and storage standards that mean we strive to ensure archive material isn’t dusty. We can’t combat the yellowing of paper made cheaply from woodpulp, whose acids eventually overwhelm the bleach applied when the paper is made. But to keep insisting that the material we preserve for prosperity so that researchers can access it is permanently dusty is insulting. It’s the equivalent of calling an historian or a journalist sloppy just because it fits your narrative.)

Elkins’ interest in the detention camps led her to dig deeper into the history of Kenya as the colony known as British East Africa. In the opening chapter of Imperial Reckoning, Elkins gives an overview of Pax Britannica from a critical post-colonial perspective, describing the machinery of occupation of African countries and the economic drivers behind the invasions. It made me think about Geography lessons at school, when we were taught about Britain’s interests in Commonwealth countries but nothing was taught about the indigenous populations, only about how Britain had improved outputs through its industrialisation of production. I remember learning about the introduction of Merino sheep in Australia and the construction of the Kemano Kitimat dam in Canada to power an aluminium plant, with no reference to the impact on Aboriginal or indigenous peoples. We learnt nothing at all about Africa and India. People who weren’t white were invisible. Our History lessons didn’t touch our global activities beyond the two main twentieth century wars. Empire was the accepted background to Britain’s roles in those wars. I’ve learnt more about Britain’s imperial past as an adult than I did at school, but then I’m curious about the world and the truth about our place in it. For anyone who isn’t curious, it’s easy to believe that everything we British did in other countries was to those countries’ benefit. Victorian attitudes towards the people of former British colonies still persist in current British attitudes. The Victorian notion that African people are hapless, incapable of making responsible decisions, requiring British guidance finds voice in a widely held belief that African people are like children who are guided by instinct rather than logic. This is a trope I heard my parents use, and that I have heard other people use more recently, too.

Elkins demonstrates how the British system of administration of the Colonies, and the lack of budget to carry out the “civilising mission”, led to full-scale dispossession of the Kikuyu in Kenya of all but a tiny amount of land on an inadequate official reserve known as Kikuyuland, alongside destruction of the Kikuyu ways of life, particularly farming methods and social structures, and political and cultural subjugation.

At moments during my reading, I was reminded of the memoirs I have read by European settlers in Kenya, such as Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika. Each of these memoirs presents a Western view of the Kikuyu and the self-professed respect for and liking of the indigenous people by settlers like them, albeit against a background of land occupation and subjugation. I read them as a teenager, with no critical thought about what they represented. They very much fitted the prevailing view of Empire and Britain as the benevolent bringer of civilisation.

For the Kikuyu, the years of settlement by the British were a very different experience. The increasing pressure from British rule resulted, Elkins says, in the Kikuyu having “no choice but to search for new and perhaps more radical ways to fight off this encroachment on their way of life.”

The case Elkins builds for formal Kikuyu pushback against the British is compelling. The banning at the outbreak of the Second World War of the Kikuyu Central Association, a political organisation led by a young Jomo Kenyatta that fought to protect Kikuyu land and cultural rights, and the longstanding inequities in Kenyan society brought about by British colonial rule strengthened Kikuyu discontent through the Second World War and the post-war socio-political changes in Kenya. Kikuyu discontent was channelled into the movement that became known as Mau Mau.

After the war, former members of the KCA formed the Kenya African Union, Jomo Kenyatta returned from Britain, where he had studied at the London School of Economics and written a book in support of Kikuyu culture and self-representation, and a group of dispossessed Kikuyu squatters effected mass mobilisation through the Kikuyu tradition of oathing. The traditional oath that bound Kikuyu men in times of challenge was radicalised to unite all Kikuyu – men, women and children – in the fight against the injustices of British rule. By 1950, it was clear to the colonial government that they were facing a significant threat to their control over Kenya.

What follows in the book is around 340 pages of the abhorrent lengths the British went to, to suppress the Kikuyu and to cover up the truth. It begins with the arrival of Sir Evelyn Baring as Governor of Kenya, and his misjudged exiling of Jomo Kenyatta, freeing the younger, more radical Kikuyu leaders to pursue a more violent rebellion, and then his pursuit of a corrupt prosecution against Kenyatta and five other men. Elkins demonstrates the way the violence of the Mau Mau uprising transformed the bedrock of white supremacy and racism beneath the settler population into a volcanic eruption of eliminationist hatred. The assertion by settlers that Mau Mau supporters were little more than animals was taken into the heart of the colonial government’s method of dealing with the crisis.

… Mau Mau became for many whites in Kenya, and for many Kikuyu loyalists as well, what the Armenians had been to the Turks, the Bengalis to the Pakistanis, and the Jews to the Nazis. As with any incipient genocide, the logic was all too easy to follow. Mau Mau adherents did not belong to the human race; they were diseased, filthy animals who could infect the colony, and whose presence threatened to destroy Kenya’s civilization. They had to be eliminated.

The description of a massacre at a village called Kiruara contains echoes of the Amritsar massacre 33 years earlier in Punjab. People who congregated in a marketplace to hear someone speak were gunned down by British police with no provocation other than failing to disperse. The official reason for opening fire was self-defence.

The descriptions of the mass deportation of Kikuyu from tenant farms to Kikuyuland, their incarceration in transit camps and emergency, or “barbed wire”, villages, and their torture under interrogation have their equivalents in the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at places like Abu Ghraib, and in the current treatment of immigrants in the US. The use of vigilante settlers to carry out the suppression and interrogation of Kikuyu feels like only a short step from what could happen in America under Trump. White supremacy, right wing extremism and a refusal to acknowledge the human rights of particular groups were all key to the running of Kenya under a State of Emergency.

To make such horrible subject matter readable is a real skill. Elkins writes concisely, presenting the facts, interpreting them with clarity. She also captures the drama of the situation without sensationalising it.

Elkins draws on as many contemporary accounts of the Mau Mau uprising as she could find in newspapers, published memoirs of men involved in suppressing the uprising, government records in the UK and Kenya, and the archives of other organisations active in Kenya as part of the wider civilising mission. She also spent years living among the Kikuyu, gaining their trust and interviewing them about their experiences, to gain both sides of the story and fill in the gaps in the official record. The quotes from the interviews make for the most upsetting reading, from the memories of torture to the ways in which detainees tried to make the hell they experienced more bearable. The violence used against them, particularly the sexual violence, is sickening. Both men and women experienced it but, as a woman myself, the violence inflicted upon the Kikuyu women struck home more gut wrenchingly.

Elkins also punctuates the narrative about the detention camps with comparisons to behaviour on both sides of the divide in the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags. She does this skillfully to reinforce that human brutality towards other humans follows a pattern, that genocides have characteristics in common.

The tragedy, as ever in situations where oppressed people in occupied countries feel they have no other option than to wage war on their oppressors, is that the British could have prevented Mau Mau happening by returning more land to the Kikuyu and treating them with decency. Instead, the colonial system favoured the white settlers, encouraged their racism, and dehumanised the indigenous people. And then, when the Kikuyu rose up in frustration at their treatment, the colonial government exacerbated the situation with their harnessing of the equal violence and hatred felt by the white settlers.

Baring, as Governor, doesn’t come out of the story well. His approach was to stand at a remove, giving free reign to the police and the white settlers, and ignoring reports of violence and torture being used against Kikuyu. Baring was also the architect of the system of detention camps and emergency villages where Mau Mau suspects were incarcerated without trial. He found ways to circumvent the prohibition of detention without trial in the European Convention on Human Rights. He couldn’t get around the prohibition of torture in the UN Convention Against Torture, hence his unwillingness to acknowledge that it was happening.

The official framing of the detention camps and villages as places of rehabilitation was the result of pressure in Britain from the Labour opposition to Churchill’s Conservative government, in particular the redoubtable Barbara Castle, and from anti-colonial organisations who saw the truth of what was happening in Kenya. Rehabilitation meant re-educating the Kikuyu to a more British way of thinking and rested on the belief that Mau Mau wasn’t a political movement, but was instead a psychological disorder.

There was an actual rehabilitation plan, but the settlers resisted the social welfare reforms and redistribution of land necessary for it to work, saying it was too much change, too quickly, implying that Africans weren’t capable of dealing with a sudden improvement in their lot. Of course, the truth is that white people don’t want to give up their privilege. The same arguments about taking things slowly can be heard in white reaction to antiracism movements like Black Lives Matter.

Instead of rehabilitation, the detention camps and emergency villages were used to punish the Kikuyu. The lip service paid to rehabilitation was used in mitigation against any public accusation of torture in the camps and villages. Baring and his administration were keeping up appearances.

The framing of the Kikuyu people by the colonial administration and the British government as anti-British terrorists reminded me of the similar framing of Irish Republicans seeking independence from Britain during the Troubles in Ireland. It was no surprise when, towards the end of the book, Elkins said this:

… in the history of the transfer of ideas and people around the British Empire, Kenya would later provide models for interrogation and detention used in colonies like Northern Ireland.

(That use of the term colony for the province of Ulster is an interesting one, and is at the heart of the tensions in Northern Ireland. The Protestant loyalists and unionists believe in the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland. The Republican nationalists see the British as invaders who have occupied their country and are refusing to return the Ulster portion of it. Terrorism is in the eye of the beholder. Although not a supporter of violence as a tool to resolve differences, I can see why those who feel invaded, disregarded and dehumanised, for whom negotiation has failed, would turn to violence to attain their goals.)

When challenges to the official story about Kenya began to be made publicly, by missionaries, former colonial government employees working in the detention camps, and Labour politicians, the government response was to slander those who told the truth about the situation and to refuse to answer questions or hold an enquiry. Reading about their approach to covering their backs in the midst of a mismanaged crisis seemed all too familiar. The Churchill government of 1951-1955 and the Eden and Macmillan governments that followed it have striking similarities to the current government in its attitudes and behaviour. The current government and its Tory predecessors might not use detention camps, but it’s certainly killing people through its ongoing commitment to ‘welfare reform’ and its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s certainly lying regularly about the pandemic.

Eventually, the atrocities in Kenya were confirmed publicly. None of the men who led the attempt at genocide through the detention camps was punished. Indeed, many were rewarded with retirement packages, new jobs elsewhere, prestigious awards like the OBE. Kenyan independence followed quickly as the British government cut its losses. With Independence came a collective forgetting, led by the new President Jomo Kenyatta, in an attempt to assure the success of the newly independent state and prevent a descent into civil war. What this meant for the Kikuyu who had risen up against colonial rule and had been oppressed through the detention camp system was no acknowledgement of their suffering and no reparation for it either. The status quo was more important than their human rights.

I found this book psychologically draining. It is hard to read about the egregious mistreatment of fellow human beings on any scale, but particularly when the abuse is carried out on an industrial scale. I don’t know how anyone can learn of such atrocities and dismiss them as inconsequential or, worse, as necessary, which is what the British government did over Kenya.

In 2002, the BBC produced a documentary about the detention camps and Elkins’ research. Kenya: White Terror included an interview with the Prison Officer who ramped up the violence towards the end of the emergency. He later complained that he’d been treated unfairly, a complaint that Ofcom upheld. Elkins had several dozen conversations with him during her research for the book in which, she says, she “was often struck by the moral weight he seemed to be carrying,” something that suggested to her that he felt some kind of conscience about his part in the atrocities. Apparently not, though. His sense of being treated unfairly 50 years on far outweighed any sense that the Kikuyu he facilitated the torture and murder of were treated unfairly.

There’s a particular type of Britishness that really is obscene. This book documents it at its extreme.


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