Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Right Now | African Atrocities

10 Downing Street's Gulag

March-April 2005

 In October 1952, the British governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, declared a state of emergency. Mau Mau rebels were attacking and killing African loyalists and white settlers in a quest for "land and freedom." Whites were in a panic, and the empire needed a swift show of force. What began as a military operation turned into an eight-year campaign of terror against Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. British soldiers herded nearly one million of them into detention camps and "emergency villages," where they endured forced labor, starvation, torture, and disease. At least 100,000 died. When the British left Kenya in 1963, they destroyed all official files relating to their crimes. The Kikuyu story was effectively buried until assistant professor of history Caroline Elkins provided a thorough historical documentation of the capital crimes in her new book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.

Elkins didn't set out to uncover British war atrocities. Based on her early research in the official archives, she planned to write a history of the success of Britain's "civilizing mission" -- including civics courses and home-craft classes -- in the detention camps of Kenya during the Mau Mau conflict. But private archives and interviews with former colonial officers produced material that didn't match the official account. "It wasn't adding up," she says. "Then, I turned it upside-down and suddenly it all made sense."

Wearing a helmet topped with ostrich plumes, His Excellency Sir Evelyn Baring, governor of the Kenya colony from 1952 to 1959, inspects African troops.
Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Kikuyu survivors, most in their seventies and eighties, told harrowing tales of life in the camps. The detention system, officially named the "Pipeline," meticulously sorted people according to their Mau Mau sympathies. "Whites" -- mostly women and young children -- were viewed as the least dangerous; their only crime was being ethnic Kikuyu. The government shipped them on trains and lorries to the overcrowded reserves, where they lived and worked under armed guard. "Greys" were guilty of Mau Mau involvement and drew stints in moderately punitive labor camps. "Blacks" -- hard-core insurgents -- were banished to the harshest prisons.

Detainees moved "up" or "down" the Pipeline depending on their degree of resistance or acquiescence. But brutality was common and took place at every level, ranging from electrocution and mutilation to beatings and various forms of sexual assault and humiliation. Many of the women forced to labor on so-called "poor relief" projects on the reserves died of exhaustion and disease. Others found their babies had died while strapped to their backs during work brigades. Both British officers and loyalist African guards raped women with impunity.

Elkins spends much of her book trying to account for how a brief British military operation turned into a systematic assault on an entire people. By the early 1950s, Kenya was Britain's remaining prize colony. The Indian subcontinent had gained independence, and the British looked to Africa to help finance the homeland's postwar reconstruction. As Conservative Party governments funneled investment into white settlers' estates, the Kikuyu saw their already diminished landholdings and economic opportunities shrink further. The Mau Mau rebellion, like so many anticolonial uprisings, sprang from a reservoir of popular suffering and anger that the authorities had long managed to ignore.

British soldiers guard Mau Mau suspects on their way to a detention camp.
Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

But the Mau Mau were also qualitatively different from any insurgents the British had faced. Although only 32 whites in total were killed, the rebellion's "primitive" symbolism shocked colonial society. Mau Mau leaders relied on elaborate "oathing" rituals, involving the blood and body parts of sacrificial goats, to bind new recruits to the struggle. Government authorities viewed these ceremonies as evidence of backwardness. They called in J.C. Carothers, a famous ethnopsychiatrist, who diagnosed the Kikuyu with a form of "mass psychosis" arising from "a crisis of transition between primitive and modern worlds." Confession was eventually determined to be the only path to recovery: once the Kikuyu had renounced their oaths they could begin their moral reeducation under British tutelage. Many detainees resisted, and forced confession became an end in itself.

Most British citizens saw little reason to question their government's line on the internment camps. The newspapers had helped stir up racist fears during the rebellion by printing gory photographs of murdered settlers and detailing the "bestial" and "degraded" practices of the insurgents. The sensational coverage made Mau Mau a household word, synonymous with savagery. "There was a sense," Elkins points out, "that [the Mau Mau] got what they deserved." The colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, and his party's prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, continued to tout the system's successes despite mounting evidence of abuses. "It was," Elkins writes, "as if by insisting loudly enough and long enough, [the authorities] could somehow revise the reality of their campaign of terror, dehumanizing torture, and genocide."

As disturbing reports trickled out of Kenya, a handful of Labour Party MPs led by Barbara Castle began to press for an independent investigation into the detention system. But not until 1959, after the fatal beating of 11 detainees in Hola prison, were the detention camps finally closed, heralding the end of British rule in Kenya. Still, the full story never came out. The political focus in England shifted quickly enough to allow the perpetrators time to cover their tracks. Kenyans recall seeing bonfires around Nairobi in the final days before the British departure in 1963; former colonial officers have acknowledged receiving orders to destroy hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the Pipeline's victims.

When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke last summer, Elkins was completing the final chapter of her book. She found the parallels unnerving. The excuses for torture given by American officials closely resembled those that British prime minister Harold Macmillan and his colonial secretary gave in 1959 when they were confronted with the 11 beating deaths. "Whether it's Britain's 'civilizing mission' or America's 'freedom and democracy,'" she says, "the dark side of Western imperialism and the official wisdom behind it have not changed much in the last 50 years."

~Ashley Pettus

 

Caroline Elkins e-mail address: [email protected]