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Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya Hardcover – December 23, 2004

4.0 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews

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Forty years after Kenyan independence from Britain, the words "Mau Mau" still conjure images of crazed savages hacking up hapless white settlers with machetes. The British Colonial Office, struggling to preserve its far-flung empire of dependencies after World War II, spread hysteria about Kenya's Mau Mau independence movement by depicting its supporters among the Kikuyu people as irrational terrorists and monsters. Caroline Elkins, a historian at Harvard University, has done a masterful job setting the record straight in her epic investigation, Imperial Reckoning. After years of research in London and Kenya, including interviews with hundreds of Kenyans, settlers, and former British officials, Elkins has written the first book about the eight-year British war against the Mau Mau.

She concludes that the war, one of the bloodiest and most protracted decolonization struggles of the past century, was anything but the "civilizing mission" portrayed by British propagandists and settlers. Instead, Britain engaged in an amazingly brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that seemed to border on outright genocide. While only 32 white settlers were killed by Mau Mau insurgents, Elkins reports that tens of thousands of Kenyans were slaughtered, perhaps up to 300,000. The British also interned the entire 1.5 million population of Kikuyu, the colony's largest ethnic group, in barbed-wire villages, forced-labour reserves where famine and disease ran rampant, and prison camps that Elkins describes as the Kenyan "Gulag." The Kikuyu were subjected to unimaginable torture, or "screening," as British officials called it, which included being whipped, beaten, sodomized, castrated, burned, and forced to eat feces and drink urine. British officials later destroyed almost all official records of the campaign. Elkins infuses her account with the riveting stories of individual Kikuyu detainees, settlers, British officials, and soldiers. This is a stunning narrative that finally sheds light on a misunderstood war for which no one has yet been held officially accountable. --Alex Roslin

From 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (January 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805076530
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805076530
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #936,363 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I am not new to the subject of colonial attrocities in Africa, however this detailed account disturbed me. Relying on hundreds of interviews and a mountain of archival evidence, Caroline Elkins has brought to light a story of cruelty, perpetrated by the British Empire, which rivals the attrocities of the Soviet Gulags or the Nazi concentration camps.

I found that in parts of the book Elkins repeats herself however, which made for a few dry parts of the book.

This book deals with some very graphic material that Elkins does not hesitate to state repeatedly. If you read this book, be prepared to read of monstrous torture stories on men, women and children.

Overall, this was a fantastic book. I could hardly put it down.
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Format: Hardcover
First off, let me congratulate the author, an assistant professor at Harvard, for her solid research and documentation regarding a very specific period in Britain's colonial experience (and of course Kenya's history): the post-WWII Mau Mau rebellion, leading to Kenyatta's ascendency as leader of a free Kenya. Unfortunately, her writing skills are not on par with her research abilities, and the book often feels like an extended graduate paper, badly in need of expert revision and editing. The writing style is slightly stale and turgid, so even exciting events are flattened and reduced to yet another episode of graduate study documentation.

Also, while I am for the most part in agreement with the views of the author and no fan of the British empire or its impact on colonial cultures, I must say Ms. Elkins is a bit over-the-top in her defense of the Mau Mau rebels and her indictment of their British overlords. It's rare in 2005 to see an author boldly defending the local African custom of female genital circumcision, or the blood oaths of the Mau Mau which required taking a life and ingesting parts of the human sacrifice.

On the whole, the book is an impressive first effort and a solid example of graduate-level research. I believe a more textured, nuanced approach to this material can be written, building on the first-hand accounts that Ms. Elkins has so comprehensively collected.
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Review -Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

"Mau Mau: The Kenyan Emergency" by Peter Baxter is a very clean, very nice and respectable report on the official actions of the British governmental officials during the years 1950 - 1060. The detail of the official actions of the government are well laid out. The names and personalities of the Kenyan governors and others in power are nicely laid out. Peter Baxter was born in Kenya, now lives in the US, and writes extensively of African history, especially the wars of liberation 1950 - 1980.

But, reading this at the same time as reading "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya" by Caroline Elkins, a Harvard Graduate Student, the difference in the sides of the story told is amazing. Baxter briefly mentions brutality and mental illness, and how the majority of the deaths were in his account black on black. Baxter mentions the pipeline of detainees and forced labor but does not delve into the horrors of these camps like Elkins does. Baxter makes brief reference to the racism and immorality of the white settlers. Elkins remarks on a Nairobi social club frequently visited by the settlers in which on entrance the members were obliged by their own rules to switch partners and rooms were provided for "entertainment." The screenings of all blacks in Nairobi for Mau Mau sympathy and aid, Operation Anvil, is mentioned in both books. Baxter merely states the men and many women were taken to detainee camps outside the city. Elkins talks of beatings, torture, castration, starvation, exposure to elements and other mistreatment of the blacks taken off the street on the merest whiff of evidence, suspicion, or retaliation that occurred in those detention camps.
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Format: Hardcover
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?
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