Imperial Reckoning; The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.

Caroline Elkins; Holt, 2005


This book is still widely read in Kenya; you see it on bookstore shelves everywhere. The author, Caroline Elkins, a Harvard history graduate in 1997, started researching the Mau Mau rebellion in 1995, looking at colonial archives in London, but in Kenya discovered many of the records pertaining to the period of ‘The Emergency’ were missing. The files that did remain, in London and in Nairobi, were the ones that painted a rosy picture of ‘detainee reform’ and Britain’s ‘civilizing mission’ in its African colony. Gradually piecing together bits of evidence, Elkins realized that the number of detainees reported officially was exaggeratedly low. The number of male detainees was four times the figure reported and women and children, although not ‘detainees’ like the men, were held in ‘villages’ behind barbed wire. In fact, the entire Kikuyu population was held captive by the British colonial administration. She turned to directly interviewing survivors of the Emergency. Gaining trust, she was able to accumulate over 600 hours of interviews. This is an important documentation because the survivors are now very elderly.  In addition to the survivors, Elkins was able to interview some people from the other side of the conflict, missionaries and colonial administrators as well as some of the white settlers, always on condition of anonymity.


The Mau Mau rebellion is regarded as an important event because of many elements, including the timing and the nature of the struggle. The number of whites killed is less than a hundred (some sources say as few as 30); the number of black ‘loyalists’ was higher, perhaps 1800; the number of Kikuyu reported killed by the British was eleven thousand, but Elkins thinks it could be in the hundreds of thousands, in a ‘campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people’.


The first chapter of the book, Pax Britannica, lays out the sequence of events that produced the colonial state, physical, psychological and political. British East Africa, in the period known as the Scramble for Africa, was relatively ignored except for two important characteristics. Its location was important because it was flat enough to build a railroad from the coast inland to Lake Albert, the source of the White Nile. In nineteenth century thinking, the British feared an enemy that might be able to divert the source of the water into the Nile, thus threatening her position in Egypt and the Suez canal and ultimately access to India, her ‘jewel in the crown’. A railroad was envisioned that would permit her to get an army in position quickly to defend her territory. The 582-mile railroad was eventually begun in 1896 and completed in 1901. By 1920, the protectorate had become a formal colony. One other important feature of the landscape was the benign climate, especially near Mount Kenya. White Europeans could live here.


With the railway came diseases like smallpox and the arrogance of white supremacy. Over half a million Kikuyu migrated away from the railway into the central highlands. Drought and pestilence followed, leaving a vacant landscape that Britain sought to fill with settlers. The context was a declining British Empire, challenged more and more by a rapidly industrializing Germany and United States. The formerly successful strategy of ‘imperialism by free trade’ domination was collapsing and a new urgency to have the colonies pay for themselves was on the rise. The empire was managed by three institutions: the Colonial Office in London, the colonial governor and his administration in Kenya, and the man-on-the-spot provincial and district commissioners. Settlers fell into two socio-economic groups, small-scale farmers and aristocratic big men. Many settlers from South Africa were also attracted to Kenya, bringing with them a deeply racist attitude. Many of the British aristocratic settlers were disinherited second and third sons, losing out in the rigid system of primogeniture back home. Many of this class, large landholders on a small stage, set the tone for the white settler society.


The settler’s attitude toward black Africans shifted along the racist spectrum from ‘stupid, inferior, lazy and childlike to savage, barbaric, atavistic and animal-like’. The shift corresponded closely to the Africans unwillingness to be exploited. Kikuyu land, especially in the fertile Kiamba region near Nairobi, was taken by white settlers. The tradition amongst Kikuyu was for young men to find new land to farm when the time came to enter adulthood. In fact, to become an adult one had to have land. Tensions rose with the next generation hemmed in and the Kikuyu land declining in productivity from over-use by the 1930’s.


Socially, the destruction was critical. “To be a man or woman  – to move from childhood to adulthood – a Kikuyu had to have access to land. A man needed land to accumulate the resources necessary to pay bridewealth for a wife or wives, who would in turn bear him children. Land and family entitled him to certain privileges within the Kikuyu patriarchy; without land a man would remain socially a boy. A woman needed land to grow crops to nurture and sustain her family; without it in the eyes of the Kikuyu she was not an adult. A Kikuyu could not be a Kikuyu without land.” (p.14).


Over time, four regulations pushed the Kikuyu off their remaining land and into the exploitive wage economy. First, the colonial government established African reserves, much like the Native reserves in North America. With insufficient land in the reserves, Africans had little choice but to seek work on European farms. The second regulation was a new hut and poll tax, payable in currency only, and equal to about two months African wages. The third regulation was the Kipande or employment pass required of all Africans. The Kipande was a small metal container, worn like a necklace, that recorded a persons name, fingerprint, ethnic group, past employment history, and current employer’s signature. The fourth regulation forbade Africans to grow the most profitable crops, such as tea, coffee and sisal. They could grow and sell maize but only through the price-controlled marketing boards.



Many Kikuyu found a way around the regulations as squatters, working on European farms for about a third of the year, in return for being able to cultivate a small plot and raise a family. Settlers, however, feared that they would demand tenant rights. This system lasted until 1917 when the colonial government transferred responsibility to the local district officers who in turn supported the white settler fear of the Africans.


From the earliest times, the local administration of government was carried out by appointing local Africans to the status of chief, although such a position did not exist amongst Africans. Chiefs were co-opted with special privileges and land. By the 1920’s a small group of mission-educated Kikuyu formed a political organization called the Kikuyu Central Association, KCA, to challenge colonial regulations. Johnstone Kenyatta was a member of this group. When the mission groups opposed the traditional Kikuyu practice of female circumcision, many Africans left the church to form their own schooling and church groups.


After the Second World War returning African soldiers, who had fought in the Middle East and India-Burma theatres of war, found an increasingly changed landscape. Large-scale mechanized farming no longer required squatters and reserves were over-crowded. As a result many settled in Nairobi where they could participate in the underground economy of hawking, beer brewing and prostitution. The KCA, forced underground as well, re-emerged in 1944 as the Kenya African Union, KAU. This political group realized that the traditional practice of oathing would mobilize fellow Kikuyu most effectively. “Typically, Kikuyu men had taken an oath to forge solidarity during times of war or internal crises; the oath would morally bind men together in the face of great challenges. But at Olenguruone the oath was transformed by the changing political circumstances of British colonialism, and local Kikuyu leaders administered it not only to men but to women and children as well. “ (p.25) By 1950, the scale of the oathing campaign could not be hidden from the colonial government, who saw it as an organized and unified force which soon acquired the name ‘Mau Mau’. In 1950 the colonial government used the declaration of a State of Emergency to begin, what they saw as ‘rooting out’ this new threat.  The settlers and the colonial government saw the swearing of the oath as the ‘poison’ that had to be rooted out. The way to do this was to obtain a ‘confession’ from anyone they suspected of taking the oath. The Emergency permitted the government to evade the restrictions of the newly signed European Convention on Human Rights and opened the door to brutal methods of obtaining the desired confessions.


I witnessed a simple oath taking incident in a rural school when I was visiting in 2013. A teacher was teaching a lesson on the dangers of addiction (smoking, drugs, alcohol), a common enough lesson anywhere in the world. At the conclusion of the lesson he had all the students take an oath to not become addicted. The whole atmosphere was celebratory and upbeat with handshakes and clapping and everyone on their feet.


Elkins interviewed three hundred ex-detainees, collecting living evidence of the horrendous events that Africans, mainly Kikuyu, underwent during the Emergency. She describes the brutal ‘screening’ process used to exact information from Africans. Another chapter describes the phony ‘rehabilitation’ process that supposedly would win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of Africans, away from the influence of Mau Mau. The ‘Pipeline’ was how the British colonial masters implemented a sorting process into ‘white, grey, or black’ levels of commitment to Mau Mau. Africans were held in camps according to their colour/commitment and could be moved up or down the Pipeline. The Gulag, referencing the notorious Soviet Union system of civil persecution so well described by Solzynytshyn, was recreated in colonial Kenya as ‘villiagization’. Elkins fills her book with first-person accounts of survivors of the ‘screening’ and the Pipeline and ‘villiagization’.


At each stage of the Emergency the colonial powers tried to fight Mau Mau with torture and fear. Survivor’s stories of individual perpetrators, often, white settlers with brutal and sadistic routines, form an overwhelming testament to the horror of Britain’s colonial war. Often these individuals were members of the Kenya Police Reserve, giving them some form of official status to conduct their terror campaign. Astonishingly, what the survivors recall most, however, was not the physical terror but the lack of food, the hunger. The detention camps and ‘villages’ were uninhabitable yet housed thousands. Malnutrition, disease and death reigned everywhere.


When the Emergency ended in 1955, the colonial government had to find a way to ‘reabsorb’ the thousands detained in the Pipeline camp system. The ‘Swynnerton Plan’, developed in 1954, was designed as an agrarian reform effort that would consolidate land and increase production. In reality it meant giving land to Loyalist African farmers and keeping Mau Mau supporters landless as labourers. Something called the ‘Loyalty Certificate’ was used to divide the African population by citizen rights such as freedom of movement and voting rights. Schemes like this were designed to carry on the oppression of Africans but not serious enough to invoke charges under the European Convention on Human Rights. In Britain itself, the grand narrative of the ‘civilizing mission’ of Britain continued to be told in official circles and in the right-wing press.


The British government (Churchill was Prime Minister) and the colonial government, issued a general amnesty to Mau Mau and loyalist forces in 1955, thereby protecting the perpetrators of terror from prosecution. An effort to reform the corrupt Kenyan Police force failed when the London-appointed reformer, Colonel Young, was stonewalled by the colonial governor (Baring). The Labour Party in Britain pushed for more transparency regarding Kenya. Barbara Castle, an ordinary Labour MP, went to Kenya in 1955 and reported her findings. The British press followed the story with more ‘leaks’ despite the Official Secrets Act embargo being used to cover up the atrocities.


Elkins is clear when she charges that the Christian missionary movement in Kenya knew about the atrocities but chose to not put forward a real effort to stop them. Similarly, the British government knew what was going on and chose not to stop it (Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan). “Decades had been spent constructing Britain’s imperial image, and that image contrasted sharply with the brutal behaviour of other European empires in Africa. King Leopold’s bloody rule in the Congo, the German-directed genocide of the Herero in South West Africa, and France’s disgrace in Algeria – the British reputedly avoided all of those excesses because, simply, it was British to do so.” (p.306)


I recall a history class at university in the 1970’s where the instructor made this exact same point, comparing the orderly withdrawal of Britain from its African colonies, to the disorderly withdrawal, particularly of France from its colonies in Africa.


By 1957, thirty thousand ‘hard core’ Mau Mau were still in detention. The colonial government decided it was time to ‘break them’. The European Convention on Human Rights could be ignored because of the Emergency but now something had to be done. The plan was to exact confessions of all but the political hard-core leadership, perhaps two thousand, who would then be kept in permanent detention. By 1959 the systematic beating and torture continued but one incident sparked a new response. The Hola Massacre of eleven detainees became the focal point of the deceit and the tipping point for the decision to withdraw colonial rule. It took until 1963 to complete the handing over of power to the new African government.
Here are some interesting links to more essays on this author and this subject:


Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson







1 Comment

  1. I have read the book and interviewed some of the fighters who were in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army under Field Marshal Dedan kimathi, I have also intervied some detainees and done some documentaries on these heroes. This book captures real and undisputable facts, About the number of civilian killed during the mau mau revolution is unimaginable, would the British care to explain where half of the population vanished to; 500,000 is a good estimation of civilian killed by the British during the Kenyans war for independence. The countless mass graves in central kenya speaks for themselves

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