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The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins stirred controversy with her work on the crushing of the Mau Mau uprising. Thu 18 Aug H elp us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya.
Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups. It was also an unconventional first book for a junior scholar. Elkins framed the story as a personal journey of discovery. Her prose seethed with outrage. But the book polarised scholars. Others branded her a self-aggrandising crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and dubious oral testimonies.
Her case for tenure, once on the fast track, had been delayed in response to criticism of her work. To secure a permanent position, she needed to make progress on her second book. This would be an ambitious study of violence at the end of the British empire , one that would take her far beyond the controversy that had engulfed her Mau Mau work.
A London law firm was preparing to file a reparations claim on behalf of elderly Kenyans who had been tortured in detention camps during the Mau Mau revolt.
Now the lawyer running the case wanted her to sign on as an expert witness. Elkins was in the top-floor study of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the call came. She looked at the file boxes around her. She said yes. She wanted to rectify injustice.
And she stood behind her work. The files within would be a reminder to historians of just how far a government would go to sanitise its past. And the story Elkins would tell about those papers would once again plunge her into controversy.
N othing about Caroline Elkins suggests her as an obvious candidate for the role of Mau Mau avenger. Now 47, she grew up a lower-middle-class kid in New Jersey. Her mother was a schoolteacher; her father, a computer-supplies salesman.
You still hear this background when she speaks. She classifies fellow scholars as friends or enemies. After high school, Princeton University recruited her to play soccer, and she considered a career in the sport. But an African history class put her on a different path. She stumbled on to files about an all-female Mau Mau detention camp called Kamiti, kindling her curiosity.
The Mau Mau uprising had long fascinated scholars. It was an armed rebellion launched by the Kikuyu, who had lost land during colonisation. Its adherents mounted gruesome attacks on white settlers and fellow Kikuyu who collaborated with the British administration. The British, declaring a state of emergency in October , proceeded to attack the movement along two tracks. They waged a forest war against 20, Mau Mau fighters, and, with African allies, also targeted a bigger civilian enemy: roughly 1.
That fight took place in a system of detention camps. An initial sifting of the official records conveyed a sense that these had been sites of rehabilitation, not punishment, with civics and home-craft classes meant to instruct the detainees to be good citizens.
Incidents of violence against prisoners were described as isolated events. But that thesis crumbled as Elkins dug into her research. Even in his 70s, he was a formidable figure: well over six feet tall, with an Adonis-like physique and piercing blue eyes. Elkins, questioning him in London, found him creepy and defensive.
In the British and Kenyan archives, meanwhile, Elkins encountered another oddity. Many documents relating to the detention camps were either absent or still classified as confidential 50 years after the war. She discovered that the British had torched documents before their withdrawal from Kenya. The scale of the cleansing had been enormous.
For example, three departments had maintained files for each of the reported 80, detainees. At a minimum, there should have been , files in the archives. She found a few hundred. But some important records escaped the purges.
One day in the spring of , after months of often frustrating searches, she discovered a baby-blue folder that would become central to both her book and the Mau Mau lawsuit. And, as Elkins would eventually learn, Gavaghan had developed the technique and put it into practice. Later that year, Elkins travelled to the rural highlands of Central Kenya to begin interviewing former detainees.
Some thought she was British and refused to speak with her at first. But she eventually gained their trust. Over some interviews, she heard testimony after testimony of torture. She met people such as Salome Maina, who had been accused of supplying arms to the Mau Mau.
Maina told Elkins she had been beaten unconscious by Kikuyu collaborating with the British. When she failed to provide information, she said, they raped her using a bottle filled with pepper and water. This helped contain the hatred between Kikuyu who joined the Mau Mau revolt and those who fought alongside the British. Mau Mau was still a banned movement in Kenya, and would remain so until When Elkins interviewed Kikuyu in their remote homes, they whispered. Elkins emerged with a book that turned her initial thesis on its head.
The British had sought to quell the Mau Mau uprising by instituting a policy of mass detention. She calculated that the camps had held not 80, detainees, as official figures stated, but between , and , She also came to understand that colonial authorities had herded Kikuyu women and children into some enclosed villages dispersed across the countryside. These heavily patrolled villages — cordoned off by barbed wire, spiked trenches and watchtowers — amounted to another form of detention.
In camps, villages and other outposts, the Kikuyu suffered forced labour, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder. E lkins knew her findings would be explosive. But the ferocity of the response went beyond what she could have imagined. Felicitous timing helped. It was a moment when another historian, Niall Ferguson , had won acclaim for his sympathetic writing on British colonialism.
Hawkish intellectuals pressed America to embrace an imperial role. Then came Bagram. Abu Ghraib. These controversies primed readers for stories about the underside of empire. Enter Elkins. Young, articulate and photogenic, she was fired up with outrage over her findings. Her book cut against an abiding belief that the British had managed and retreated from their empire with more dignity and humanity than other former colonial powers, such as the French or the Belgians. Some academics shared her enthusiasm.
It set the stage for a rethinking of British imperial violence, he says, demanding that scholars reckon with colonial brutality in territories such as Cyprus, Malaya, and Aden now part of Yemen. But many other scholars slammed the book. No review was more devastating than the one that Bethwell A Ogot, a senior Kenyan historian, published in the Journal of African History.
Ogot dismissed Elkins as an uncritical imbiber of Mau Mau propaganda. Ogot also suggested that Elkins might have made up quotes and fallen for the bogus stories of financially motivated interviewees. Elkins was also accused of sensationalism, a charge that figured prominently in a fierce debate over her mortality figures. They also rolled their eyes at the narrative Elkins told about her work.
Particularly irksome, to some Africanists, was her claim to have discovered an unknown story. This was a motif of articles on Elkins in the popular press. During the Mau Mau war, journalists, missionaries and colonial whistleblowers had exposed abuses. The broad strokes of British misbehaviour were known by the late 60s, Berman argued.
Memoirs and studies had added to the picture. To Elkins, the vituperation felt over the top. And she believes there was more going on than the usual academic disagreement. Women worked on uncontroversial topics such as maternal health, not blood and violence during Mau Mau. Now here came this interloper from the US, blowing open the Mau Mau story, winning a Pulitzer, landing media coverage. Elkins paraded with them outside the court.
Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire
The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins stirred controversy with her work on the crushing of the Mau Mau uprising. Thu 18 Aug H elp us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya
By Caroline Elkins. Conversant in Swahili and some Kikuyu, she has spent nearly a decade traveling and working in rural Africa. Nominated as finalists in General Nonfiction in :. Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor , Stanford University. A sweeping and beautifully written book that probes the American myth of boundless expansion and provides a compelling context for thinking about the current political moment.