Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya

By Brandabur, A. Clare | The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), November 2007 | Go to article overview

Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya


Brandabur, A. Clare, The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)


Caroline Elkins, Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. London: Jonathan Cape. 2005. pp. xiv, 475.

Caroline Elkins, now Assistant Professor at Harvard University, spent ten years researching the real history of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya and the systematic brutality with which the British colonial bureaucracy put it down. Had her work been less thorough, had she been content with the surface of the story which initially emerged from the highly censored records, her report might have been quite different . Elkins tells us: "When I presented my dissertation proposal to my department in the winter of 1997, I was intending to write a history of the success of Britian's civilizing mission in the detention camps of Kenya" What drew her into the lower depths of the true history of the Mau Mau rebellion was the absence of records about it. The author found obvious gaps in the usually meticulous records, some missing and others "still classified as confidential some fifty years after the Mau Mau war" (Elkins 2005: x)

The Kikuyu people in Kenya found their land being confiscated and their labor coerced by British "development" projects such as the building a railroad, the growing of cash crops to repay British taxpayers for this expensive scheme, and ultimately the influx of white settlers to exploit land use and native labor. Some thirty thousand "coolies" from India were imported to build the railroad, many of whom were killed or maimed in the back-breaking work. Completed in 1901, the Uganda Railway consisted of hundreds of miles of track stretching from Mombasa to Lake Victoria and beyond. British military strategists believed this rail line gave them quick access to Uganda where they feared some rival, possibly Germany, might gain control of the headwaters of the Nile. Because the native way of life centered on family-cooperative subsistence farming, they were resistant to incorporation into cash-crop plantation agriculture. The colony therefore resorted to importing white settlers from England and South Africa in hopes of producing the money needed to pay off the enormous cost of this military-industrial feat.

Resistance among the Kikuyu people took the form of a loose affiliation of organizations which came to be known as Mau Mau. Loyalty to the people's struggle against loss of land and their traditional way of life caused them to bond together through a time-honored practice of oath-taking, a practice which came to involve almost the entire population of Kikuyu communities and smaller numbers of people from neighboring tribes. So effective was this organization that the colonial bureaucracy sought to break it at any cost. The alleged barbarism of the Mau Mau became legendary, though in fact, as Elkins shows, far fewer people, white and/or black, died at the hands of the Mau Mau than the thousands of Kikuyu killed by the Colonial bureaucracy and their Kikuyu loyalist collaborators.

As Elkins describes it, the British occupation of Kenya provides a good example of Maxime Rodinson's contention that settler colonialism is intrinsically genocidal. Though the Kikuyu retreated further into the interior to escape their depradations, the British military launched a series of punitive raids designed to force the natives to submit. "There is only one way of improving the Wakikuyu," Francis Hall wrote to his father, "[and] that is wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies." Of course Hall, an officer in the Imperial British East Africa Company, was unaware that he was echoing precisely the sentiments of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest Prospero reminded his daughter that they could not eliminate Caliban completely because they needed him to cut wood for their fire and haul water for their cooking. In campaigns of extermination reminiscent of those carried out a century earlier against the Native American indigenous peoples, British army officers like Captain Richard Meinertzhagen "launched several attacks that included wiping out an entire village of men, women, and elderly (the children were spared) uising bayonets, rifles, machine guns, and fire (Elkins 2005: 3). …

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