The Books

Book #17

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, Caroline Elkins

Recommended by John Warner. John and I spent five years in the same boarding house at Uppingham before he went off to university in his parents’ native USA. In the days before common internet access or social networking we lost touch completely, only to rediscover each other on facebook 11 years ago. We’ve kept in touch sporadically and met up a couple of times since, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing what he would suggest – John is (unless he’s changed jobs recently!) an academic, with a particular interest in cultural anthropology – perhaps an interest germinated by his childhood living in the Philippines and Kenya, before attending an English public school then moving to the states, running away to the circus (literally) for a couple of years and then settling in New York!

His recommendation read as follows: “A great many favorites (he’s reverted to American spelling, I see) come to mind, fiction and non, but I think this book – given my time in Kenya surrounded by many with such a passionate nostalgia for the days of British rule – speaks to me personally and does what so much scholarship only dreams it could: actually shed light on those dark and hidden pasts and help to bring about some form of reparation. I hope you find it an interesting read.”

I wouldn’t put it past John to have remembered my early interest in the ways authors deal with the themes of suffering. I wrote a rather precocious (intended with the perjorative slant) essay for GCSE coursework studying the different ways Solzhenitsyn and Levi dealt with the themes of suffering in Cancer Ward and If this is a man, and have always been fascinated by the ways authors tell the stories of humanity’s darkest hours. I was horrified to read this extraordinary book – Elkins has made it her life’s work to uncover what went on in the time of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s and 60s, and this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that is the most public portrayal of her research.

I am ashamed to say that I had only ever read of the Mau Mau as a child in Willard Price’s African Adventure. (Incidentally, for any children/pupils reading this – the Willard Price series is excellent, if not terribly trendy these days.) On reading Elkins book I discover that the crimes perpetrated by the British colonial rulers against the Kikuyu people in Kenya rival some of the very worst described in Russian work camps, Cuban prisons or some of the Nazi camps. Whilst there was not the full out intentional genocide, Elkins’ research points to a likely final death total in Kenya of between 130,000 and 300,000 (as opposed to current official figures of 11,000).

This book is incredibly well-researched, and whilst dense, utterly compelling. I always struggle to comprehend how man’s inhumanity to man can proliferate, and Elkins does not address philosophical questions like this beyond commenting on Britain’s need to maintain the colonies.

I suspect many will not wish to believe that our own country could be responsible for crimes such as these, particularly so soon after the second world war, but here is a brief flavour of the crimes described.

Staggering to his feet with blood oozing from his nose and mouth, Nderi Kagombe saw a double image of Isaiah Mwai Mathenge standing over him, his club ready to strike another blow. In front of Nderi lay the heavy metal bucket that he had been carrying on his head for nearly the entire morning. Much of the sand, urine and feces mixture was still inside; some was caked on Nderi’s face. Exhaustion and a final blow to his nose had sent him tumbling to the ground, headfirst into the splattering excrement. “Mathenge was shouting at me to get up,” Nderi later remembered, “but I couldn’t. I was on my knees, but everything was moving and I couldn’t see Mathenge properly because my vision had been affected from carrying the bucket for so long and for being beaten with the clubs.” After the warm-up of “bucket fatigue” as the camp authorities called it, Nderi was kicked along toward one of the cement-blocked screening rooms that were scattered through the five detention camps that made up Mwea. There he saw two men stung up by their ankles, hanging from the rafters. They were naked and dripping wet from the cold water that was being poured over their bodies. The man hanging nearest the door had blood and puss running from his nose, his face swollen and distorted…. Either you confessed or you died.”

There is a good article here in the Guardian about the subsequent discovery of papers and legal action taken against the British government, which goes into plenty of detail about the reception of Ekins’ book. I don’t think I need say any more about this book – I’m ashamed that I hadn’t realised how my own country had behaved in the desperate pursuit of maintaining the Empire, but glad to have had my eyes opened. Whilst one is never really happy to have read a book like this, I valued the experience hugely, so thank you John.


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