UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133d Homepage > Hist 133b+d Book Essays Index page > Student essay

"The British in Kenya:
An African Holocaust"

Book Essay on:
Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning:
The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya
(New York: Henry Holt, 2005),
475 pages. UCSB: DT433.577 .E45 2005.

by Brandon Sube
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$12 & searchable
at amazon

About Brandon Sube

I am a senior history major. My main focus of interest is twentieth century European history with added emphasis on World War II. My interest in the Holocaust developed after visiting Germany in 2005. While researching the holocaust in 2006 and 2007 I became aware of similar events that occurred in Africa and continue to occur to this day.

Abstract (back to top)

Mau Mau freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi
Deceased Mau Mau freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi, who received a posthumous monument on December 6th, 2006

Imperial Reckoning is Caroline Elkins' investigation into the events that transpired in Kenya, Africa while under British rule in the 1950s. Elkins describes the sadistic actions that were undertaken as a means to simplify the task of colonial rule. In “The British in Kenya : An African Holocaust” I argue that these actions occurred for the same reasons that Hitler committed his actions in Germany, because groups of indigenous people were considered to be subhuman and in need of removal. Both pieces look at why the Kenyan genocide occurred and analyzes the level of evil in the controlling party.

Essay (back to top)

During the 1940s, the German Nazi Party carried out what they called the “Final Solution”. During this period, Nazi followers carried out the systematic killing of millions of Jews, and other ethnic groups. The Nazis used multiple tactics to carry out their campaign of death, including torture, mass roundups and mass executions. Although looked upon by many as an isolated gruesome incident of the 20th century, in reality, the Jewish Holocaust represented the pinnacle event of a common practice throughout this period. One such event almost entirely overlooked by history and humanity was the imprisonment and ethnic cleansing of the Kikuyu people in 1950s Kenya. If the Holocaust is the pinnacle event of ethnic cleansing, then it must be the one that all others are compared to. Historian Caroline Elkins’ research into the Kikuyu experience demonstrates how the Holocaust was similar and different than the Kenyan Genocide. Her juxtaposition of the two events shows how each has been remembered since. In order to understand the comparison of each, it is necessary to summarize Caroline Elkins’ findings.

Caroline Elkins’ monograph Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya describes the sadistic events that occurred during the decolonization of Kenya during the 1950s. The gulag she is referring to are the violent actions taken against the Kikuyu people. Elkins also discusses the actions of the Mau Mau, an anti-colonial Kikuyu group responsible for heinous crimes committed against the British inhabitants. Elkins explores every aspect of the events, using both recently unearthed British documents that at one time was considered lost or destroyed, she also uses interviews that she conducted with survivors of the incident. By her own assessment at the end of the 4+ year period of research undertaken to write this study, Elkins had amassed “nearly six hundred hours of interviews with some three hundred ex-detainees and villagers”(xv). Unlike other books written by her contemporaries exploring the same events, Caroline Elkins’ diligence in unearthing the truth of the events resulted in new findings that outlined the magnitude of the British-led atrocities and also described the cover-up that followed.

Book Summary

Elkins first explores Britain’s initial involvement in the African country. In the introductory chapter titled Pax Britannica Elkins explains what life was like from the beginning of the 1900’s until the actions that occurred in the early 1950s. This was clearly another case of white superiority and the British could not and would not miss a chance to exploit a lesser people. The first British residents to permanently inhabit Kenya were British veterans of World War One. These veterans began to regularly and some cases forcibly remove Kenyan natives from their farm lands that they had inhabited for eons. It is due in part to their war experience that their actions were so violent.

The second chapter delves into the conflict between the two groups. Elkins does not keep the information one-sided. Although from the beginning the extent of the British imperialists’ actions is evident, Elkins also informs us about the actions of the Mau Mau Kikuyu. One of the first British led actions was Operation Jack-Scott (35-36), which led to the arrest and subsequent torture and in some cases murder of 180 suspected Mau Mau leaders. In response to this and other British attacks, the Mau Mau committed their first crime of the confrontation. Elkins describes the gruesome bludgeoning deaths of an entire British family including the six year old son whose bloody corpse was featured in international newspapers (42-43). It soon became clear to the colonialists after the rising tensions within the colony and the increasingly belligerent actions of the two sides that this was going to be a long and bloody fight, contrary to the expectations at the time (35). These incorrect estimates stemmed from a belief that the colonial powers were fighting an inferior population, and as a result of their initial failures, the British forces increased the magnitude and severity of their assaults.

In Chapters three through seven, Elkins describes the arrest and imprisonment of masses of Kikuyu. These chapters include the books’ most chilling moments because it is in these chapters that the interviews of survivors are discussed. Here you learn how despicable the actions of the British were. Chapter three explores the tactic of screening used by the British to weed out aggressive Kikuyu from the more subservient ones. Kenyan informants pointed out high ranking officials and other known Mau Mau fighters. These informants were forced to wear disguises to protect themselves from retaliation. After passing through a line where an informant revealed enemy insurgents, those chosen were than apprehended and subjected to beatings and unimaginable acts of torture. One interview revealed agonizing details. A villager named Margaret detailed how they “often thrust[ed] hot eggs into her vagina to force her to talk” (68). Chapter four discusses how the British thought that their violent tactics could cause a rehabilitation of the Kikuyu and make them subservient of their command. However, their rehabilitation failed, and in chapter five, “The Birth of Britain’s Gulag” readers learn about “Operation Anvil.” This is where the first cases of mass roundups occurred and innocent Kikuyu were imprisoned

Chapter six discusses life in these new concentration camps. The Kikuyu were forced to endure harsh conditions. One survivor recalls how ‘“I felt a presence in front of me…and the next thing I knew he took me by the shoulders and jammed me into the bucket. My entire bottom was folded inside and I couldn’t get out” (155). They also went lengthy periods without food, only to endure serious pain when eating because of the changes their bodies had made due to the hunger. They were made to dig ditches and other works projects. At this point they were separated in different groups based on the likelihood of their conversion into good Africans (subservient, quiet, and non-aggressive). The ones who were not able to be changed were called the “hard-core”. Chapter seven explores the depths of the harsh treatment of these stubborn ones. The beatings continued, labor was intensified and death was almost certain. However, after all of this ill-treatment, the Kikuyu people continued to fight as shown in chapter eight, and in this war of attrition, the Kikuyu people were determined and destined to win.

Chapters nine and ten describe the end of the conflict. Chapter nine discusses the actions following the Mau Mau uprising and the British attempts to destroy and suppress evidence. However, evidence was soon leaked from all parties involved, and in time former guards published columns in newspapers, and photographs were revealed showing the incarceration complexes built by the British. It also discusses how British officials burned documents, thereby hiding many details as to the exact numbers of tortured and killed individuals. Chapter ten discusses what happened to prisoners directly from their mouths which is the most damning evidence of British treatment. Some of the prisoners released a letter comparing their treatment to that of Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews during the Holocaust (355). This chapter goes into detail regarding public torture, rape, beatings etc. (321-322). All in all at the end of the 8 year event, Elkins surmises that the official total of 11,000 deaths is incorrect and that it is more likely that the deaths of the Kikuyu people number in the hundreds of thousands (366).


After reading Caroline Elkins book it is clear that her argument is that the eight year period in which British Imperialists led a campaign of terror was less an attempt to quell a popular political uprising and rather a failed attempt at an ethnic cleansing campaign. It is clear from the first chapter that the British did not recognize these people as equals. Sir Charles Eliot wrote that the “Africans [were] lacking in nearly every respect” (2). In fact, they looked at the Kikuyu much the same way they viewed animals. They felt the quicker the country was cleansed of them the easier the control of the country would become. British officials first came to Kenya because they recognized that economic possibilities were abundant. The country represented an opportunity for the British Empire to further expand into Africa and to capitalize on the lush farm lands that made up much of the country. Moreover, for the same reasons that Hitler committed his atrocities, the British felt that the indigenous people were subhuman and in need of removal.

In defense of her thesis, if the British were only attempting to quell an uprising, then it would appear unlikely that they would commit the level of atrocities that they did. They genuinely enjoyed the actions they undertook. Regularly the actions taken by the British were disproportionate to the assaults that they endured. It is interesting that with the end of the Second World War less than a decade behind them, they were willing to commit similar actions as those undertaken by Hitler and his minions. Elkins describes the “gestapolike [sic]” (121-122) techniques used by the colonialists. Initially, the mass roundups were reminiscent of those seen in German towns in the 1930’s. In Operation Anvil, British soldiers rounded up the Kikuyu (121-122):

Loudspeakers affixed to military vehicles blared directives: Pack one bag, leave the rest of your belongings in your home, and exit the streets peacefully…the targets of the sweep had no time to pack. People were picked up on the street or at their places of work, or the security forces knocked their front doors down with swift kicks and rifle butts. All Africans were then taken to temporary barbed-wire enclosures.

Elkins also describes the use of unnecessary torture; again a parallel to the holocaust occurs. The screening process of chapter three outlines the first unnecessary use of inhumane torture. One Screener, who worked privately for amusement, but in conjunction with the British, came to be known as Dr. Bunny by the locals (67) and his future moniker “the Joseph Mengele of Kenya” (67) was especially violent. Elkins uses the testimony of a settler who professed that Dr. Bunny “included burning the skin off Mau Mau suspects and forcing them to eat their own testicles” (67) as forms of torture to reveal information. Often times, even after information was gathered, the torturing and murdering continued for the joy of those in control. Unfortunately, the actions did not end at torture; there are also documented cases of murder for sport. One soldier, nicknamed “The killer” drove around town with a machine gun permanently affixed in his car. He would shoot the people lined up along the road, killing them by the dozens (253). It was not uncommon for there to be an occurrence of mass graves. One such mass grave was dug by the Kikuyu on the perimeter of a large compound. This trench included spikes and barbed wire to catch any escaping Kikuyu (255) and another larger trench was found at a forest edge and filled by fellow Kikuyu. One survivor recalled that “we would lift them one by one, one person holding the wrists while the other held the ankles’” (257). One cannot help but to imagine carrying out these gruesome endeavors, and knowing that more than likely you will be the next person shot, beaten, raped or stabbed, only to land in a pit next to your brethren.

Even with all her evidence and descriptions of the atrocities that occurred during this time, Caroline Elkins continues to have her detractors. The greatest criticism against her claims of atrocities conducted by the British colonialists is her statistical figures. Although Elkins argues that the levels of deaths range in the hundreds of thousands, no hard proof of that can be found in documents. Elkins bases her claims mainly on firsthand accounts from survivors, and while those should not be neglected, because it had been forty years since the events occurred, it is more than likely that many of the stories could have changed or been enhanced by other accounts. Others argue that this can be seen as a small war, because it contained acts of extreme violence on both sides, such as the case of the British family that was bludgeoned to death.

Caroline Elkins’ research thoroughly displays that the British colonialists initiated an ethnic cleansing campaign for the purpose of removing an inferior people. She shows that it failed because not all who endured the tragic episode perished, and instead have been able to tell their stories and condemn the actions. However, when looking at it from a comparative standpoint with the holocaust, it falls short. The Holocaust was similar in terms of mass round ups and mass murdering; it differs in terms of the violent response by the victimized side. Although there were cases of reciprocation that occurred by the hands of the Jews such as at the Sobibor death camp and the Warsaw ghetto, the Kikuyu and Mau Mau in particular regularly participated in murderous and extreme behavior. Also because of the size of the German Holocaust in terms of facilities and numbers versus those of Kenya, it allows for much more evidence to surface that has thoroughly substantiated all claims. Unfortunately, both events have been viewed much differently. Not surprisingly, many people still see the holocaust conducted by Nazi Germany as the sole occurrence of ethnic cleansing. It is rightly so that the Holocaust garners the most attention because of the sheer magnitude of the event, however, because of this overshadowing, action taken by other groups such as British imperialists in Kenya, the Hutus of Rwanda, and the Serbs in Bosnia have largely been downplayed in magnitude.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/08)

Book Reviews

  • Porter, Bernard. “How did they get away with it?”London Review of Books, March 3, 2005. <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n05/port01_.html>
  • Shorter, Aylward. Imperial Reckoning: “The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 29, No. 3.

Web Sites

  • Finke, Jen. “Kikuyu - The Mau Mau Uprising and Independence”. http://www.bluegecko.org/kenya/tribes/kikuyu/maumau.htm. 2000-2003.
    This interesting web site offers insight into some of the more cultural aspects of the events. Some of which include the “oathing” ceremony, hair styles and songs. Also includes interviews with leaders of independence movement.
  • Friedman, SGM. Herbert A. “PSYOP of the Mau Mau Uprising”
    http://www.psywar.org/maumau.php. 2006.
    This is an excellent website that quickly describes the events of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. It describes the tactics used by both sides including psychological warfare on the part of the British. This site does include some photography, some of which is graphic.
  • Kamua, John. “Kenya Today: Escapades of a Kenyan Journalist,” http://johnkamau.blogspot.com/.
    This is a blog featuring the postings of a Kenyan journalist. It features events of today as well as those of Kenya’s past, offering insight from the other point of view in Kenya. One blog from December 4, 2006, discusses the unveiling of a new monument to a killed Mau Mau fighter.
  • Staud, Frantisek. “The Kikuyu” <http://www.phototravels.net/kenya/kikuyu.html>. 2006-2007.
    Interesting site featuring photographs of the Kikuyu people of today. I include this website because it shows what the culture is of the people rather than how it is portrayed during the uprising. It also puts faces to the victims of the cruelty.
  • Wikipedia Article. “Mau Mau Uprising”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mau_Mau_Uprising.
    This simple site gives an overview of the events. One good aspect is the glossary of terms, which gives more insight into the development of terms such as Mau Mau.

Similar Books

  • Anderson, David. Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of an Empire. New York: W.W Norton, 2005. UCSB: DT433.577 .A53 2005.
  • White, Jaleh Keyhan. Background of a Conflict: The Conditions Leading up to the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. UCSB Dissertation: 1975. UCSB: DT433.575 .W45 1975

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/08; last updated:
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