Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya

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Jun 22 2008 10:52
Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya
Wiry and energetic, the Hugo K. Foster Associate Professor of African Studies at Harvard University coils in her chair and speaks with rapid force about her book that recently won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

"I was strongly urged by colleagues not to undertake this project, for two reasons," Caroline Elkins said in an interview at her home, not far from the campus. "One, they felt it was too politically sensitive. Two, they said there wouldn't be enough information. So, me being me, I decided those were good enough reasons to undertake the project."

At 37, Elkins has spent more than 10 years exhuming and writing about the long-hidden story at the heart of "Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." It's a vivid narrative -- not without its critics -- of oppression, torture, and cover up during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s, which shows how even a democratic government with humane values can hide the truth of its abominable behavior.

Mau Mau was an uprising among the Kikuyu tribe of British Kenya, essentially a response to economic privation due to losses of land at the hands of British settlers. Beginning in 1951 and ending in 1959, the rebellion included an oath of loyalty among adherents, attacks on settlers, and a poorly armed movement based in Kenyan forests. Thirty-two Europeans were killed in rebel attacks. But in the British campaign that followed, thousands of Kikuyu, many of them innocent, were abused, tortured, or killed in a system of camps known as the Pipeline. By Elkins's calculations, as many as 320,000 men and women were held in the camps, and as many as 50,000 were killed.

Interview with Caroline Elkins from the Boston Globe at