Caroline Elkins won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book in 2005 and it's plain to see why. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya is a fierce, unapologetic, and impeccably researched chronicle of Britain's futile and destructive effort to maintain colonial control of Kenya in the fifteen or so years preceding the African nation's independence. Elkins turned up never-before-published information on the calculated decimation of Kikuyus (the largest ethnic group in Kenya). Nearly the entire population of Kikuyu were put into a system of forced labor and prison camps (and this,just a few years after World War II, which saw many Kenyans fighting in the British army). There, in an underfunded and desperate attempt to extinguish the Mau Mau freedom fighting movement, Kenyans were tortured, starved, and occasionally fed a diet of thin Christian and British propaganda. It is worth noting that the Mau Maus were capable of brutality of their own, though the crushing, systemic, and indiscriminate response by the British was off-the-charts disproportionate. Elkins is darkly bemused as she notes how Britain's prime justification for colonialsm was its "civilizing" mission–the fact that it ostensibly could bring the virtues of hard work, Christianity, discipline, and democracy to those who, it believed, would not otherwise have them. The hypocrisy evidenced by the cruel detention system they instituted to force their point was not lost on its Kenyan victims.
Once Kenyans won independence in 1963, the British contingent destroyed all the documentation it could of the gulag it oversaw, per official order–which makes Elkins' work of historical recovery especially momentous and moving. I swung my head up innumerable times while reading Imperial Reckoning, exclaiming to whomever was in earshot: "Why don't more people know about this?" Well, there are reasons: the colonial power didn't want us to know.
I appreciated how Elkins was able to weave more than a decade of research into a concise, plainly written chronicle, and I am impressed with her unwavering moral stance at both the broad colonial system that led to these destructive concentration camps, as well as the individuals who made choices to either support it or to turn a blind eye or to simply not do as much as they were capable of to stop it. The book is, however, rather dry and distanced–and this can't be ascribed simply to the subject or its historical genre. I think of the close cousins of Imperial Reckoning: Peter Gourevich's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which takes an extraordinary and riveting close-up stance on the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s (see excerpts that especially impressed me here, here, and here), and Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost: Stories of Greed, Terrorism, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, which has a truly compelling and even occasionally humorous storyteller voice guiding you through events that might seem at first too removed or too horrifying to pay attention to. I wish Elkins had chosen a more inviting narrative voice here–especially for a book that moves among the voices of survivors of the gulag in Kenya, both victims and perpetrators. I wish she had at least dropped the instinct to give the full names of every tertiary character who arises on the scene for a moment or two. This book would find more readers if she had. And this is a story that deserves their attention.