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

Author:Brandabur, A. Clare
Position:Book review

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...

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