Sunday, November 15, 2009
Imperial Brutality Revisited
The magnitude of the atrocities committed by British colonists in Kenya against the Kikuyu and other groups, in the form of dozens of internee camps and many more villages that had undergone ‘villagization,’ is shocking. Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, published in 2005 by Henry Holt and Company, delineates the tragic and underrepresented narrative of hundreds of thousands of tortured Kenyans. The task undertaken in this work was massive. Elkins tells the story of how British colonialists systematically tortured an entire population of people. Both in the camps and the villages in Kenya, the British Colonial Office waged a campaign of terror for nearly a decade.
Telling the story of such atrocities isn’t a small task. The British colonists cordoned off of an entire people, methodically used of their labor for state and other projects, aimed at psychologically reprogramming those within the camps, and routinely tortured and raped or murdered at will. Imperial Reckoning starts from what Elkins believes to be the roots of the conflict. She tells of the coming of Europeans to Kenya, their settlement, and various missionary activities. She then discusses the problem of scarcity of land and the reserves created by the settlers and the colonial government. European white racism prevailed and laws were enacted with increasing regularity, which marginalized and unfairly treated non-whites. Among these laws were the often discussed ‘pass laws’ used throughout much of the British colonies. In response to these injustices the Kikuyu and other groups banded together and sought justice, often through peaceful channels, and less often militant groups formed which carried out acts of violence on colonial and loyalist agents. In response to the resistance to the unfair rule established by the European settlers, the colonial government began increasingly to hunt down and capture or kill Kikuyu, eventually establishing a monstrous machine of forced labor and torture.
These events are not often spoken of publicly in Kenya itself, nor are these crimes known to most of the world. Elkins wrote that neither official apologies nor reconciliation of any kind existed in Kenya at the time her book was published. A former Mau Mau adherent and object of Britain’s Gulag wrote “I despise them . . . 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.” Though it’s not official the job of an academic to right wrongs or prevent tragedies, perhaps this work can aid in the prevention of such carnage in the future. What else is knowledge for if not to change the trajectory of humanity?
Since the publication of this book Kenya has taken steps to establish Truth and Reconciliation Committees but Amnesty International and other international human rights groups have criticized the bills proffered by the Kenyan government. These groups claim that these committees would simply absolve the criminals of their crimes, among other things. The debate on how to move forward is still underway. But beyond simply prosecuting the wrong doers remains the material reality. The vast majority of Kenyan resources are in the hands of European colonists and their progeny. This book could not be expected to have as it’s scope both the historical recording of this awful chapter and be expected to outline the appropriate means of redressing colonial violence. But Elkins does an incredible job of evoking the spirit of empathy in her reader by carefully describing the gruesome details of this epoch. At the bare minimum this book opens up a channel for dialogue.