Revolution#116, January 20, 2008

Book Review:

IMPERIAL RECKONING The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya

Editors’ Introduction: The East African nation of Kenya has been wracked by turmoil and violence the past two weeks, with as many as 1,000 people killed. The U.S. mainstream media have characterized the cause as “tribal conflict” set in motion by elections on December 27 in which Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president and a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, is accused of ballot rigging in order to defeat his rival, Raila Odinga, a member of another ethnic group, the Luo. What the Western media have not brought to light is that the ethnic violence can be traced to the divide-and-rule strategy the British employed for nearly 80 years while Kenya was their colony. Since achieving formal independence in 1963, Kenya has been a neocolony highly dependent on British, U.S. and other foreign capital. While oppressed people are set against each other, competing cliques of corrupt compradors manage the exploitation of the country by foreign imperialism in a framework set by colonialism. Neocolonialism continues to enslave the people of Kenya, despite formal independence. The book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins provides a valuable background to the current situation in Kenya.

Submitted by a correspondent

“From the start of the war in October 1952, tales of Mau Mau savagery spread wildly among the white settlers in the colony and at home in Britain. Mau Mau was portrayed as a barbarous, anti-European, and anti-Christian sect that had reverted to tactics of primitive terror to interrupt the British civilizing mission in Kenya...While the Mau Mau insurgents claimed they were fighting for ithaka na wiyathi, or land and freedom, few people in the Western world took seriously the demands of these so-called savages.”

So begins Caroline Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Owl Books, 2005), a searing exposure of how the British colonialists brutally suppressed the Mau Mau uprising of Kenya’s Kikuyu people in the 1950s—suppression that involved truly barbarous and savage acts of torture, physical mutilation including castration and painful vaginal injuries, famine and disease, along with psychological torture designed to break the spirit while working on destroying the body.

The Mau Mau uprising was in response to—among other things—the widespread stealing of Kikuyu lands by European farmers. Imperial Reckoning situates this in the context of British contention with other European powers over the plunder of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The book traces the British drive to develop an extensive settler cash-crop export economy in their Kenyan colony to their need to pay for an extensive railroad built through the country. That railroad served what the British considered to be strategic and military needs of the region, including their ability to contend with their German imperialist rivals. The British brought 30,000 laborers from their colony in India to build the railroad. One third of them died in the course of building what came to be the Uganda Railroad. The massive cost of the railroad was billed to the Kenyans, to be paid through agricultural exports.

The British eight-year campaign against the Kikuyu uprising involved two prongs. One was a military offensive against the rebels, who had taken to the mountain forests and fought a guerrilla war from there. It took over two years and 20,000 British troops, supported by the British air force, to subdue the insurrectionists, who fought largely with only homemade weapons against Britain’s vastly superior firepower. And even then, the insurgents may have held out even longer if not for Kikuyu who assisted the British. For such “meritorious service,” these Kikuyu, who became known as loyalists, were handsomely rewarded materially and in other ways.

The other prong of the campaign, which lasted well after the insurgents had been defeated in the forests, was aimed at the much larger “civilian army,” some 1.5 million Kikuyu who were said to have taken the Mau Mau oath to fight for land and freedom until death. Says Elkins: “The battlefield for this war was not the forests but a vast system of detention camps, where colonial officials reportedly held some eighty thousand Kikuyu insurgents” who had no recourse to trial. However, through her extensive research, which included several years in Kenya itself, poring over files and documents that the British didn’t get around to destroying—they did destroy many other files—and interviewing hundreds of Kikuyu survivors, Elkins determined that the number detained was much greater than what the British claimed, somewhere between 160,000 and 320,000. And beyond that, while almost all of the detainees in the camps were men, women and children were also being detained, in all but name, in 804 enclosed villages “surrounded by spiked trenches, barbed wire, and watchtowers, and were heavily patrolled by armed guards,” including by many loyalists. Once Elkins added in all of the Kikuyu women and children locked down in these villages, she reckoned that the British had actually detained some 1.5 million people, or nearly the entire Kikuyu population.

“I’ve come to believe,” Elkins says, “that during the Mau Mau war British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that portrayed a perverse colonial logic: only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomizing its men, women, and children could colonial authority be restored and the civilizing mission reinstated.”

What the Kikuyu suffered and endured at the hands of the British colonialists and loyalists in the detainee and labor camps and enclosed villages constitutes a significant portion of Elkins’s book. From the beginning there were the “screenings,” the colonialists’ preferred term for ruthless torture, designed to get information from a Mau Mau suspect and persuade him or her to confess Mau Mau affiliation. Methods of “persuasion” involved beatings, electric shock, cigarette burns and fire, and “bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, and hot eggs...thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas,” Elkins writes.

A detainee had to confess if he or she wanted to be released. “The purpose of detention,” Elkins says, “was not necessarily to keep the Mau Mau suspects alive but to force them to confess through a punishing routine of forced labor and brutality. In terms of productivity this pattern ultimately revealed an inherent contradiction. A tension emerged between the need for ever greater supplies of labor, without which it would be impossible to continue the colony’s infrastructure development, and the competing impulse to punish, debilitate, and even exterminate the Kikuyu population. Exhausting labor routines, beatings, torture, food deprivation, all used to force confession, could and often did render detainees incapable of working.”

But despite this contradiction, the British continued to employ brutality and terror. This was particularly true of people the British considered “hard core” Mau Mau men, against whom there was a great deal of “emasculating” violence involving castration. Men in some of these camps wrote letters, which Elkins found during her research, describing pliers that were used to crush testicles before they were literally ripped off.

In the detention camps for women deemed to be hard core, beatings, whippings, and sexual violations were all common. And women living in the barbed-wire villages were routinely sexually assaulted and raped by British officers and loyalists, sometimes mothers and daughters together in the same hut.

Today the British colonialists no longer rule the country, and Kenya is formally independent, although fundamentally tied by ropes to global imperialist capital. But to this day, as Elkins writes in her epilogue, “there has never been any form of official reconciliation in Kenya. There are no monuments for Mau Mau, children are not taught about this part of their nation’s past in school, few speak about it in the privacy of their own homes, and, with the exception of the relatives of the Hola massacre victims [a massacre that occurred toward the end of the British campaign], there has never been any kind of financial consideration given to those who lost family members in the camps and villages, or property to the local loyalists. Some men and women lost the use of their limbs, others their minds, as a result of the years they spent behind the wire, though neither the former colonial government nor the new independent government did anything to help them piece their lives back together.”

Elkins then ends her riveting book by telling of a conversation she had with a woman survivor and what she thought about the question of “letting bygones be bygones.” “You know,” the woman said, “this will only change when everyone knows what happened to us. Maybe then there will be some peace once our people are able to mourn in public and our children and our grandchildren will know how hard we fought and how much we lost to make Kenya free for them.” 

Go get yourself a copy of Imperial Reckoning. It is a powerful and insightful exposure of what the British colonialists did to the Kikuyu people of Kenya, and of imperialism, period.

Editors’ Note: The word “gulag” in the title of Elkins’s book is a Russian acronym for “Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements.” The term became widely known outside Russia with the 1973 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book Gulag Archipelago, which was highly promoted in the West because of its attacks on the years of actual socialism in the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin. Elkins’s use, in the title of her book, of the word “gulag” (which is not a major theme in the book) is an example of the way knee-jerk anti-communism has become “common sense”—“what everybody knows”—in this society, including among academics who carry out rigorous work. Elkins herself writes that when she first undertook research for this book, she was influenced by the “conventional wisdom” that the British had been relatively humane in the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising. But in the course of looking deeply into this, she unearthed damning evidence about the truth, and changed her views. The point is that “what everybody knows”—in matters of history and where class interests are involved—is often wrong, and getting at the truth requires a determined scientific effort to seek out evidence and consider opposing views. For a discussion of the achievements—as well as significant shortcomings and weaknesses—of socialism in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership, go online to the website of the Set the Record Straight project, at


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