Britain's Ugly History in Kenya

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Britain's Ugly History in Kenya

In her new book Imperial Reckoning, Caroline Elkins examines the sinister, largely unpublicized history of Britain's colonization of Kenya. Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, was interviewed this wek by Atlantic Monthly, and the interview is posted on the magazine's website. Some excerpts:
You write that the Kikuyu rebels "became for many whites in Kenya … what the Armenians had been to the Turks, the Hutu to the Tutsi, the Bengalis to the Pakistanis, and the Jews to the Nazis…. They had to be eliminated." But you also make the distinction that this scenario was not like Germany under Hitler. Can you elaborate on the difference?

ELKINS: In my mind the main distinction is that in Kenya there were no extermination camps. There was no Auschwitz or Treblinka. These were work camps. I think the closest parallel is with the Soviet gulag. But while it's true that these were work camps rather than extermination camps, people were regularly being tortured and beaten to death within them. The British were relying on these detainees to build major parts of the colony's infrastructure. But they were also decimating and incapacitating their detainee workers ...

So technically would what went on there qualify as genocide?

ELKINS: I certainly believe it does with respect to the logic and behavior of many of the British forces on the ground. It's hard to get concrete figures, because the British destroyed so many of the documents. But regardless of the numbers, it's clear that they were interning an entire population and, in some cases, doing their best to eliminate them. So in my mind this is certainly something that should be considered within the context of comparative genocide. Was this a genocide to the same degree as the Nazi system? Absolutely not. But is it something that has many of the elements of a genocide? Yes.

... Why is it that we know so much about Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and the like, but that we rarely associate imperial Britain with those kinds of things?

ELKINS: That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? The British in Kenya saw themselves as different from the Germans, different from the French in Algeria, different from the Belgians. It was simply not British to behave that way. There was a carefully constructed image of the British Empire as being benevolent. Ostensibly the British were concerned with spreading civilization and were not sullying themselves as other Western nations were in their colonial efforts.

Also, by and large, I find many in Britain to be much less critical of their empire than, say, Americans are about their own. I think that's helped to foster a relatively benign interpretation of Britain's past.

Then, of course, there's the matter of the degree to which files have been withheld and destroyed. In the case of Kenya, there was a systematic attempt to get rid of any incriminating evidence. It raises a red flag when people are busy destroying lots and lots of files. You have to wonder why.

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