Caroline Elkins

Imperial Reckoning

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Imperial Reckoning Summary

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Imperial Reckoning is a non-fiction book published in 2006 by the American author and historian Caroline Elkins. Subtitled The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, the book was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

Elkins’ focus is on the British Empire’s response to the anti-Imperialist Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya during the 1950s.The Mau Mau were a loosely defined group of factions who fought against the British Army and the Britain-backed Kenya Regiment in an effort to stop the predations of colonialism. Kenya had been under British rule for decades, and by the 1950s the colony had attracted 50,000 European settlers, most of whom were wealthy aristocrats in search of blue skies and a hefty dose of exoticism.

Unsurprisingly, the relationship between these settlers and native Kenyans was highly strained. Kenyans had fought the Japanese and the Nazis during World War II just like any other member of the British Empire. But they were nevertheless looked down upon by authorities because of the color of their skin. They were largely treated with suspicion and labeled savages by the European-born settlers. These settlers also had an outsized influence on local legislatures and courts, resulting in a once-proud populace being reduced to a servant class in their own country within only a generation’s time.

Meanwhile, the people of Kenya watched as one nation after another–from Indonesia to India to Egypt–escaped from under the thumb of British rule or influence. Many of these independence movements occurred with comparatively little bloodshed. So it was natural for Kenyans to seek the same autonomy during this period of widespread anti-Imperialist upheaval. But Elkins writes that the British response to the Kenyan insurgency was far more brutal than its response to other insurgencies around the world. This included military strikes and air-bombing. But what most interests Elkins are more unconventional, “black site”-style tactics. These included executions, torture, electric shock, slave labor, starvation, mass rape, and various humiliating practices like covering insurgents and their family members with human urine or feces. In seven years, these tactics led to the deaths of some 300,000 Kenyans. Meanwhile, the Kenyan insurgents are said to have killed 1,800 loyalists and 32 European settlers.

Elkins notes that such atrocities went unnoticed by the rest of the world, despite the fact that it had only been a few years since the world said “Never again” in the wake of the Holocaust. The Nazi comparisons, according to reports from Kenyans on the ground during this period, are not an overstatement on Elkins’ part. Native-born Kenyans referred to one man who ran a British interrogation camp as “Joseph Mengele,” and his men as the “Kenyan SS.” At this interrogation camp, suspects were burned alive, forced to eat their own testicles, and even devoured by dogs. The sadism of the interrogators seems to have known no bounds. One American-born interrogator preferred to kill his victims slowly with a knife so the other suspects could hear his screams. These atrocities clearly go beyond the “civilized” rules of engagement that Britain is often said to have followed during this period of Imperial disintegration.

Moreover, the interrogators’ definition of a “suspect” or a “combatant” is loose at best. Women, many of whom were pregnant, were brought to the detention camps for having passed information to Kenyan fighters. Even if these accusations were true, the kind of predations they suffered shows that the interrogators made little distinction between major combatants and minor players in the struggle. These women were repeatedly raped, often with foreign objects. Other women’s breasts were cut off by pliers. The children kept at these camps were often too traumatized to remember or report the details of whether they too were tortured. Regardless, they were forced to witness these horrific acts being perpetrated against their mothers and fathers.

Finally, Elkins discusses the forced “villagization” of 1.5 million members of the Kikuyu people in Kenya. These individuals–who made up almost the entire Kikuyu population–were taken from their homes and put into just 800 makeshift villages. Conditions in the villages were often only marginally better than the conditions in the camps, Elkins writes. Most of the villagers were women, children, disabled, or the elderly because most of the healthy adult men were either fighting or detained in camps. As a result, these families were frequently preyed upon by rapists and other sadists.

This period of disintegration for the greater British Empire is often referred to as the Pax Brittanica. But there was nothing peaceful about Great Britain’s disproportionate response to the Mau Mau Uprising.