Interviews July/August 2005

The Secret History

Caroline Elkins, the author of Imperial Reckoning, talks about unearthing the sinister underside of Britain's "civilizing" mission in Kenya
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book cover

Imperial Reckoning
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Caroline Elkins
Henry Holt and Co.
496 pages

In the late nineteenth century the British entered East Africa and colonized Kenya. As they saw it, they were bringing civilization, technology, and progress to an undeveloped part of the world, and for many British citizens, Kenya's fertile landscape represented a vast uncharted territory where the aristocratic lifestyle of the landed gentry could be had at little cost.

But Kenya was not in fact a blank slate upon which Britain could impose its stamp with impunity. The local African populations—especially the Kikuyu, who had long ago settled in the region that the British found most desirable—resented being pushed off their land and manipulated by the British, who pressed them into service as laborers.

By the 1950s, life for the native Kenyans had become so untenable that an opposition movement known as "Mau Mau" erupted and spread rapidly through the Kikuyu community. In secret forest rituals, Africans pledged loyalty to one another and to their culture, and began to attack white settlers with increasing frequency. Terrified of being hacked to death in their beds by machete-wielding "savages," the British declared a state of emergency and called in troops from the homeland. After two years of all-out fighting, the worst of the rebellion was put down. But the task the British faced next was to incite the remainder of the Kikuyu population to renounce its stance of anti-British solidarity. The British went about this by detaining much of the Kikuyu community in rehabilitative camps where they were to be educated, exposed to Western religion, and taught practical skills and crafts.

In 1995, Harvard graduate student Caroline Elkins set out to research this system of camps for her dissertation on what she had been taught was Britain's humane and effective approach to dealing with the Kikuyu. But as she delved into her research, she discovered that most of the files pertaining to the camps system had been destroyed. Perplexed, she probed deeper, tracking down the few files that had escaped destruction, gathering testimony directly from Kikuyu who had experienced the camps first-hand, and reading contemporary eyewitness accounts and letters.

The more evidence she obtained, the more disturbing was the picture that emerged. Far from benign centers of instruction, she learned, the camps had in fact been an affront to human rights; squalid, overcrowded pens where the worst sorts of atrocities—torture, forced labor, deliberate starvation, and murder—were the order of the day.

Elkins went on to devote nearly a decade to uncovering the true story of Britain's dealings with the Kikuyu. Now, in Imperial Reckoning, an exhaustively documented book, she details her findings—chronicling a hitherto unacknowledged history of British racism, abuse, and ultimately, she contends, genocide.

In "The Wrong Lesson," an article that appears in the July/August Atlantic, Elkins goes on to point out that as the United States steps up its efforts to stamp out terrorism and insurgencies in the name of democracy, our military has begun to adopt some of the same draconian measures once employed by imperial Britain. Lest we repeat Britain's mistakes, she warns, we would do well to take note of the brutality and barbarism to which Britain descended in its effort to make the world safe for "civilization."

Elkins is an assistant professor of history at Harvard. Her research was the subject of a 2002 BBC documentary, Kenya: White Terror.

We spoke by telephone on May 31.

Sage Stossel


What originally drew you to study Britain's colonial legacy in Kenya? Did you start with an interest in British imperial history, African history, or both?

It started with my interest in African history. I'm an Africanist by trade, in terms of my language skills and my fieldwork. But I'm also very interested in what would be considered "the colonial encounter"—the impact of the colonial period on Africans and how that reverberated back into places like Great Britain. What's so interesting to me about colonial Kenya is that to really understand it, you have to get into the minds not only of the African people but also of the British settlers and officers and look at how those different viewpoints and ways of life intersected.

You describe the British approach to settling and managing Kenya as arrogant, exploitative, and dismissive of the Kenyans' culture and needs. In your view, if the British had done certain things differently, could the colonization of Kenya have gone smoothly and had a peaceful and productive outcome? Or do you see colonization in general as a misguided endeavor that almost always ends badly?

That's a good question, because it cuts to the heart of what empire is all about. If you see empire, as many of the British claimed to, as a kind of civilizing mission, then you have to ask yourself what went wrong in this case. But you can also look at empire as being about various kinds of exploitation and cultural imperialism. Considered in that sense, the British did succeed in Kenya, in terms of exploiting and imposing their culture on Africans.

But what's hard to determine is intent. Did the British go to Kenya intending to exploit these people? Or did they really believe that they were doing something for the greater good—that British civilization was better than African civilization and that their methods qualified as a kind of "tough paternalistic love." I think that attitude had a lot to do with it. There was a definite feeling that the Africans were savages and that it was therefore Britain's duty—the "white man's burden"—to go out and civilize them. According to this logic, if the British had to treat the Africans harshly at times, then it was for their own good.

One prominent example you point to of the paternalistic impulse to "civilize" the Kikuyu is the effort to eradicate the practice of female circumcision, which helped inspire the first organized backlash against British rule. Is it your sense that in general it's presumptuous and causes more trouble than it's worth to interfere in another culture's rituals—even when some of those rituals, like female genital mutilation, are arguably cruel or dangerous?

It's like the case of Sati in India—the burning of widows. Is there a point at which human rights supersedes local cultural relativism? I think, in the case of female circumcision, it wasn't so much the British colonial government that wanted to do away with it. The people who really raised the issue were the missionaries. The government was too concerned that raising the female circumcision issue would disrupt local populations and their economic production. They may have droned on in some of their writings about how awful and barbaric this was, but what they actually did about it was pretty negligible. Female circumcision is still going on in Kenya today. It's like the issue of slavery. The British theoretically came into Africa to get rid of it, but for the most part they did very little about slavery in some parts of Africa for several decades. So again, I think it gets back to the question of civilizing rhetoric versus action.

You write that the Kikuyu rebels "became for many whites in Kenya … what the Armenians had been to the Turks, the Hutu to the Tutsi, the Bengalis to the Pakistanis, and the Jews to the Nazis…. They had to be eliminated." But you also make the distinction that this scenario was not like Germany under Hitler. Can you elaborate on the difference?

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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