CAREER: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, assistant professor of history.
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2005, published as Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2005.
(Editor, with Susan Pederson) Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies, Routledge (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration, James Curry (Oxford, England), 2003; and to journals, including International Journal of African Studies and Social Dynamics.
SIDELIGHTS: An assistant professor of history at Harvard University, Caroline Elkins focuses her research on Kenya, the Mau Mau insurgency, and the late colonial empire in East Africa. Having spent over a decade traveling and researching in rural Africa, Elkins funneled her findings into the 2005 work, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, published in the United Kingdom as Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Elkins's work documents British atrocities during the fight with Mau Mau insurgents between 1952 and 1960; Elkins makes the case that the British sank to barbaric means to save their colonial empire. Elkins looks at the insurrection from the point of view of both prison survivors and British loyalists. Employing interviews and archival documentation, she uncovers Britain's extensive use of concentration camps, where, in a manner similar to Soviet gulags, they held those suspected of the insurrection, as well as a system of eight hundred fenced villages where women and children were held. Additionally, Elkins uncovers proof that the British distorted the numbers of detainees and deaths in the camps in this "compelling" and "chilling account," as Edward McCormack described the book in a Library Journal review. Elkins claims in the book that the number of native Kikuyu prisoners might have been in the hundreds of thousands (though other sources put it closer to twenty thousand), and that their mistreatment "has echoes in the world today at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba," as Paul Redfern noted in Asia Africa Intelligence Wire. Elkins's book is, Redfern further commented, "a systematic account of the way in which the Kikuyu community, as a whole, was brutalised by the colonial regime of the time."
Reviewing Imperial Reckoning for the New Statesman, Kwamchetsi Makokha felt that much of Elkins's study "lacks rigour and objectivity." In particular, Makokha claimed that "the author appears so shocked by the savagery of the British forces that she sets aside the atrocities of the Mau Mau, almost to the point of excusing them." Redfern also complains of this fact: "Elkins has little time for the issue of the atrocities committed by the Mau Mau which led to the brutal repression by the colonial authorities supported by loyalist Kenyans of the time." And Daniel Bergner, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also had objections to Elkins's methodology: "With so much evidence of atrocity, Elkins often forgoes complexity and careful analysis." For Bergner, the number of detainees and missing Kikuyu seemed inflated.
Daphne Eviatar, however, writing in the Nation, noted: "Elkins has bravely done justice to that history. Her book provides a painstaking and painfully detailed look at the British detention system in Kenya." Eviatar also warned that Elkins's book "is not for the faint-hearted," with its graphic survivor-tale accounts of torture and rape at the hands of the British. Similarly, John Ness, reviewing the same work in Newsweek International, observed that Elkins, unlike other historians of the period, "has compiled remarkable oral histories of the tortures suffered there: sodomy, castration, electroshock, dog attacks, drowning and mind games."
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly dubbed Imperial Reckoning a "major historical study," as well as a "superbly written and impassioned book." Booklist critic Gilbert Taylor described the work as "pioneering," while a critic for the New Yorker thought that Elkins's book supplies "potent evidence of how a society warped by racism can descend into an almost casual inhumanity." And a writer for Kirkus Reviews concluded that Imperial Reckoning is "sure to touch off scholarly debate and renew interest in recent, deliberately forgotten history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asia-Africa Intelligence Wire, January 30, 2005, Paul Redfern, review of Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.
Booklist, November 15, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, p. 548.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2004, review of Imperial Reckoning, p. 1062.
Library Journal, January 1, 2005, Edward McCormack, review of Imperial Reckoning, p. 127.
Nation, February 21, 2005, Daphne Eviatar, "In Cold Blood," review of Imperial Reckoning, p. 30.
New Statesman, January 31, 2005, Kwamchetsi Makokha, "Touch of Evil," review of Britain's Gulag, p. 51.
Newsweek International, March 14, 2005, John Ness, "The Fight for Freedom," review of Imperial Reckoning, p. 57.
New Yorker, March 28, 2005, review of Imperial Reckoning.
New York Times Book Review, January 30, 2005, Daniel Bergner, "White Man's Bungle," review of Imperial Reckoning.
Publishers Weekly, November 22, 2004, review of Imperial Reckoning, p. 50.
Guardian Online, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (February 2, 2005), Richard Dowden, "State of Shame," review of Britain's Gulag.
Harvard University Web site, http://www.fas.harvard.edu/ (May 9, 2005), "Caroline Elkins."
London Review of Books Online, http://www.lrb.co.uk/ (March 3, 2005), Bernard Potter, "How Did They Get Away with It?," review of Britain's Gulag.
Kenya: White Terror (television documentary), British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002.