The Secret History

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

By Sage Stossel
book cover

Imperial Reckoning
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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?

In my mind the main distinction is that in Kenya there were no extermination camps. There was no Auschwitz or Treblinka. These were work camps. I think the closest parallel is with the Soviet gulag. But while it's true that these were work camps rather than extermination camps, people were regularly being tortured and beaten to death within them. The British were relying on these detainees to build major parts of the colony's infrastructure. But they were also decimating and incapacitating their detainee workers. So there was a tension between this work-camp system and the desire by some to simply get rid of the Mau Mau adherents, or at the very least to make them suffer.

So technically would what went on there qualify as genocide?

I certainly believe it does with respect to the logic and behavior of many of the British forces on the ground. It's hard to get concrete figures, because the British destroyed so many of the documents. But regardless of the numbers, it's clear that they were interning an entire population and, in some cases, doing their best to eliminate them. So in my mind this is certainly something that should be considered within the context of comparative genocide. Was this a genocide to the same degree as the Nazi system? Absolutely not. But is it something that has many of the elements of a genocide? Yes.

And is this something that was emblematic? You discuss the fact that the British were importing some of these methods from other places in the empire. Do you think Kenya was a worst-case scenario, or were similar things happening elsewhere around the empire?

That's actually the question I'm looking at in my next book. How much was Kenya the exception and how much was it a reflection of what was going on more broadly throughout the British Empire? These policies and the personnel used to implement them were being moved around throughout the empire. In many other former colonies there hasn't been this kind of bottom-up research that I did in Kenya. We now know that they were doing some terrible things in Kenya and that there was a cover-up. So the question is, To what degree was that the case in places like Malaysia and Cypress and Oman and other parts of the empire?

Are you just starting the research at this point?

I'm actually pretty far into it.

And do you have a sense yet as to whether a lot of similar things are going to turn up in these other places?

Yes, I do. The way colonial policy was working and the way personnel were being moved around, it would be surprising to find that Kenya was the exception. Did local circumstances make things worse—in terms of the racism of the settlers and the struggle over land? Yes. But was it off the charts relative to other places? That I'm not so sure of. At this point we just don't know enough about some of these other cases. That's why I believe the research I'm undertaking for my next book is important.

Why is it that we know so much about Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and the like, but that we rarely associate imperial Britain with those kinds of things?

That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? The British in Kenya saw themselves as different from the Germans, different from the French in Algeria, different from the Belgians. It was simply not British to behave that way. There was a carefully constructed image of the British Empire as being benevolent. Ostensibly the British were concerned with spreading civilization and were not sullying themselves as other Western nations were in their colonial efforts. Also, by and large, I find many in Britain to be much less critical of their empire than, say, Americans are about their own. I think that's helped to foster a relatively benign interpretation of Britain's past.

Then, of course, there's the matter of the degree to which files have been withheld and destroyed. In the case of Kenya, there was a systematic attempt to get rid of any incriminating evidence. It raises a red flag when people are busy destroying lots and lots of files. You have to wonder why.

You explain that when you first set out to write your dissertation, you expected to be telling Britain's official version of the story—about their well-meaning and successful efforts to civilize the Kikuyu. At what point did you realize that the story you were actually dealing with was very different?

I had been through most of the files in the Public Record Office in London, and I had started looking at private files and doing some interviews. Even just with the files in the Public Record Office, when I started looking at them closely, the story of British benevolence was not unfolding as it should have. I was about a year into it when I had this Good God! moment—What have I found?

Once I turned the premise upside down and considered whether, instead of this being a civilizing mission, British colonial rule was actually about violence and torture and covering things up, then suddenly everything started to make sense. The pieces began coming together. It ended up taking me almost ten years to assemble a complete picture because the document purge had been so extensive.

Given that your book challenges the official story and depicts the dark side of things, have you run into any opposition or efforts to discredit your version of events?

I've been under a great deal of criticism from both sides of the political divide in Britain. As those on the right see it, the British Empire was a moment of glory and something that really defines who they are. So the amount of mudslinging that's gone on from that side of the political spectrum has been pretty extensive. But frankly, I expected that.

But the criticism from the left has been curious. Anti-Americanism is strong in some corners of Britain right now, and many people are trying to distance themselves from American policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. So it doesn't go over terribly well to have an American write a book that says, Well, rather than a discontinuity between the heroic civilizing mission of the British and what the Americans are up to today, there's, in fact, a real continuity. What the British did in parts of their empire looks a lot like what's going on in the world today, though this time the policies are being carried out largely under the American flag.

You describe how the Kenyan colonial government declared a state of emergency in order to justify doing away with certain rights like due process and humane treatment of prisoners. And you also note that the government repeatedly found reasons to excuse itself for perpetrating violence and other injustices against those it perceived as a threat. You even touch on matters like the colonial government's concern that prison guards' personal photos of the detention camps might come to light and expose extensive abuses. As one reads your book, quite a few parallels to the U.S.'s contemporary war on terror leap to mind. But you never make any explicit connection in the book, or in fact make any mention at all of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, al-Qaeda, and so on. To what extent, if at all, were these connections in your mind as you thought and wrote about Kenya?

It's true that there's an uncanny resemblance between what was going on then—almost fifty years ago—and what's going on today. But you don't see the parallels explicitly drawn throughout the book because the research and the writing preceded much of what's since broken in the news about prisoner torture in Iraq and Guantánamo—it wasn't until I was writing the very last chapter of the book that Abu Ghraib broke.

There were other factors, too; I didn't want the book to seem as though it was presentist—as though I was specifically looking for historical parallels to today's situation. And for me, the fact that this book wasn't written and researched with the contemporary detainee situation in mind in some ways makes the parallels even more eerie.

It was very, very disturbing to be writing that last chapter of my book when I could have taken the actors and the circumstances from the Hola Massacre in Kenya fifty years ago and interchanged them with many of those associated with the Abu Ghraib scandal. The situations are identical in many ways.

You make clear that a lot of what the British did in Kenya had to do with racist attitudes. But you also point out that they had real reasons to be afraid, because Western settlers were being hacked to death in their beds and so forth. In a situation like that it seems natural that they'd instinctively lash out and want to stamp out every last vestige of the Kikuyu rebellion. In your article for The Atlantic, though, you argue that the U.S. shouldn't look to Britain's example and adopt draconian measures like pseudo-gangs to suppress terrorists and insurgencies. I was wondering whether you see an alternative way to deal with these kinds of threats.

The troubling aspect of the pseudo-gangs isn't so much that they don't work, because they do. It's the context in which they have to work, or the state that has to be created in order for them to work. They only function well within these very controlled, very restrictive, and oftentimes very violent police states.

I think in some ways you have to get back to the question of, What's the ultimate goal of the person who's in power? In the case of Britain and in the case of today, there's a degree to which the Western imperial power wants to impose its conception of governance and way of doing things on the local population. And then there's the question of the degree to which other factors are coming into play. In the case of the Middle East, we have oil. In the case of Kenya there were strategic and economic interests. So I think the larger question we should be asking isn't necessarily, What's the alternative to cracking down on the insurgency?, but What's the ultimate objective, and does that need to be rethought? Because both in Kenya fifty years ago and in parts of the Muslim world today, many of the indigenous populations are not seen as having any legitimate grievances. Perhaps opening one's mind or looking at a conflict from the perspective of one's so-called enemies might provide alternatives to very violent ways of trying to put down an insurgency.

That reminds me a bit of Michael Sheuer's argument in Imperial Hubris—that we need to actually hear and address what they're trying to tell us.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Councils of War" (August 18, 2004)
"Anonymous," the CIA insider who wrote Imperial Hubris, argues that we must annihilate our Muslim enemies, while heeding their point of view.

Precisely. Take Kenya as an example. What if some of the Kikuyu grievances had been taken seriously? And what if there had been some kind of negotiation? Well, the British policy was very much as our policy is today: no negotiation. Maybe that's what has to be rethought a bit.

Are there other parallels between the U.S. and the British Empire that you think we could learn from?

Yes, I think so. In fact, some of our Vietnam policy came directly out of the British Empire, or more precisely, directly from Kenya. "Strategic hamlet" is a replication of Britain's villagization program in Kenya. In many ways, behind closed doors, the military has been drawing from Britain for a very long time. I think it's useful to look critically at how the British have fared and to consider what lessons we can learn from them, rather than just looking at what we can export by way of their counterinsurgency strategies.

What message do you most hope that readers of your book will draw from it?

I think that if there's any message to come from this book it's that hundreds of thousands of people endured horrific conditions in Kenya. And not only did they endure it at the time, but their suffering has gone largely unrecognized for decades. There's a strong sense that until these events are recognized, the Kikuyu as a people can't move forward. In that sense, this book has profound implications for the future of Kenya. Many people, including people high up in the government, recognize that. There was a book launching in Nairobi in March, and the vice president of Kenya was there. Much to everybody's surprise, he used it as an opportunity to demand an official apology from the British for what he called gross human-rights violations during the Mau Mau rebellion. At this point, many people are sitting by and waiting to see what the next chapter will be; there's still so much yet to be written.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/07/the-secret-history/304090/