26 Dec 2017

Britain's Gulag

Review: Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins. Bodley Head: London (2014).



This is a devastating read.  We tend to think we are the good guys and girls but the historian Caroline Elkins catalogues in great and well referenced detail a tale of rape, degradation and humilation at the end of Britain's African empire.

During the 1950s Kenya's Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group in the country, rose against British rule, largely because of increasing theft of their land which was given to white colonialists.  Access to land was both economically vital and essential to the construction of identity.  Drawing upon traditional religion Kikuyu people swore an oath to fight the colonialists and the Mau Mau rebellion was born.

White settlers viewed the Kikuyu as inhuman savages and a war of astonishing violence ensued with atrocities on both sides.

Caroline Elkins researched how virtually the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people were forced into camps and brutalised. 

The accounts of the brutality, often utilizing sexual violence, are indefensible and difficult to repeat.  They are also very well documented by Elkins.  She interviewed former settlers who boasted of the violence they used as well as many inmates of the camps.  Records from religious organisations, local government, letters from inmates and many other sources are drawn upon, this a meticulous piece of historical research.

Elkins found  a systematic bias in UK government records:

I soon returned to Britain and then went on to Kenya for an exhaustive look into the official colonial records.  It wasn't long before I began questioning my earlier view of the camps and the British colonial government.  I found that countless documents pertaining to the detention camps either were missing from Britain's Public Record Office and the Kenya National Archives or were still classified as confidential some fifty years after the Mau Mau war. The British were meticulous record keepers in Kenya and elsewhere in their empire, making the absence of documentation on the camps all the more curious.  I came to learn that the colonial government had intentionally destroyed many of these missing files in massive bonfires on the eve of its retreat from Kenya.
 To give a sense of the destructive scale, three different departments within the colonial government kept individual files for each of the reported eighty thousand detainees in the camps.  This means there should have been at least 240,000 individual detainee files in the official archives.  I spent days and days searching for them in the catalog of Britain's coldly efficient Public Record Office and in the dusty but orderly file shelves of the Kenya National Archives, but in the end I unearthed only a few hundred in Nairobi and came up empty handed in London.
After years of combing through what remains of in the official archives, I discovered that there was a pattern to Britain's cleansing of the records.  Any ministry or department that dealt with the unsavoury side of detention was pretty well emptied of its files, whereas as those that ostensibly addressed detainee reform, or Britain's civilising mission, were left fairly intact. (Elkins 2014:x-xi)
This is a very important book to read to understand the realities of Britain's Empire, a subject which is ignored or even celebrated in the UK.  Indeed as I write there are reports that an ethics of Empire will defend Britain's Empire from those who call it 'wicked'.

Brtian's Gulag is nuanced.  The brutality of the Mau Mau is acknowledged and from dissenting Army officers, MPs as varied as Labour's Barbara Castle and the right wing Enoch Powell, British voices (sometimes unlikely) against the oppression get a hearing too.

However the way in which racism is cultivated to dehumanise is well described.  And once dehumanised individuals can be killed and tortured without pause.

Lets not view Britain's Gulag as of purely historical interest.  Its been recently revealed that numerous documents dealing with controversial episodes such as the Miners Strike and the Northern Ireland conflict are missing from the Public Record Office at Kew, which Elkins visited.  The search for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland is pretty much ignored in the British media but the suppression of the Mau Mau sheds light on the Miami Show band massacre and the Glenanne Gang.  The process of white wash is continuous.

Elkins book is a must read.

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