‘Imperial Reckoning’, ‘Histories of the Hanged’: White Man’s Bungle

New York Times Book Review
January 30, 2005

‘Imperial Reckoning’ and ‘Histories of the Hanged’: White Man’s Bungle

IN a war-ravaged town in Sierra Leone a few years ago, I listened as five
men debated the idea of recolonization, which many of their countrymen
favored. They sat in a derelict shed, the office of a building contractor
who’d lost all his equipment to rampaging soldiers. He was lucky to be alive
and unmutilated; factions in the civil war had cut off the hands of
civilians, then let them live as the ultimate message of terror. Amid the
ruin of their nation, only one of the five men objected to the idea. ”We
had segregation, right over there,” he said, pointing toward the desolate
grounds of a secondary school, his voice rising in outrage. ”We couldn’t go
to that school!” To which the contractor, white-haired and old enough to
have spent his childhood under British rule, said, ”At least there was
school for Africans.”

The men spoke during extreme times in their country; their desperation had
reached this pitch after 10 years of anarchy. But despair pervades the
continent. ”The average African,” Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the
South African Institute of International Affairs and brother of South
Africa’s president, declared recently, ”is poorer than during the age of
colonialism.” Yet for anyone tempted, even fleetingly, to look to the past
for solutions to Africa’s problems, two new books, ”Imperial Reckoning,”
by Caroline Elkins, and ”Histories of the Hanged,” by David Anderson, give

Focusing on the final decade of British rule in Kenya (ending in 1963), both
writers evoke a period when, especially in Elkins’s view, the colonial
pretense of civilizing the dark continent gave way to the savagery of
imperial self-preservation. Some 40,000 whites lived in Kenya by the early
1950’s, drawn by promises of long leases on fertile land and native labor at
low wages. ”Whatever his background,” Anderson, a lecturer in African
Studies at Oxford, writes, ”every white man who disembarked from the boat
at Mombasa became an instant aristocrat.” But by midcentury, many of the
natives, particularly those of the Kikuyu tribe, refused to play their
assigned role. The Kikuyu had been put off their most arable land by white
farmers. They, like other Kenyan tribes, had been banished to ethnic
reserves too small to sustain them. They were forced to carry passbooks as
they searched for work from the governing race. In 1952, stirred partly by
their displacement and partly by British efforts to prohibit traditional
Kikuyu customs, a Kikuyu secret society, the Mau Mau, launched a rebellion,
attacking white-owned farms and brutally killing perhaps a hundred whites
and 1,800 of their African supporters. In retaliation, the British carried
out a campaign that, Elkins suggests, amounted to genocide.

Anderson’s book, meant as a kind of requiem for the ”as yet unacknowledged
martyrs of the rebel cause: the 1,090 men who went to the gallows as
convicted Mau Mau terrorists,” never manages to render a vivid martyr.
Examples of colonial judicial corruption and hypocrisy are thoroughly
explored, but little room is left for character. Elkins, a history professor
at Harvard, also neglects individual portraits, but she develops an
unforgettable catalog of atrocities and mass killing perpetrated by the
British. ”Imperial Reckoning” is an important and excruciating record; it
will shock even those who think they have assumed the worst about Europe’s
era of control in Africa. Nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million
was, by Elkins’s calculation, herded by the British into various gulags.
Elkins, who assembled her indictment through archives, letters and
interviews with survivors and colonists, tells of a settler who would burn
the skin off Mau Mau suspects or force them to eat their own testicles as
methods of interrogation. She quotes a survivor recalling a torment
evocative of Abu Ghraib: lines of Kikuyu detainees ordered to strip naked
and embrace each other randomly, and a woman committing suicide after being
forced into the arms of her son-in-law. She quotes an anonymous settler
telling her, ”Never knew a Kuke had so many brains until we cracked open a
few heads.” Her method is relentless; page after page, chapter after
chapter, the horrors accumulate.

Yet for all its power, ”Imperial Reckoning” is not as compelling as it
should be. With so much evidence of atrocity, Elkins often forgoes
complexity and careful analysis. Not only are the colonists barbaric in
their treatment of the Kikuyu, but, as she has it, they are basically
barbarous in private as well, maintaining ”an absolutely hedonistic
lifestyle, filled with sex, drugs, drink and dance.” More important, there
is the case that Elkins apparently wishes to make — for genocide. ”Mau
Mau,” she writes, ”became for many whites in Kenya, and for many Kikuyu
loyalists as well, what the Armenians had been to the Turks . . . and the
Jews to the Nazis. As with any incipient genocide, the logic was all too
easy to follow.” According to the official statistics, the British killed
11,503 Mau Mau adherents. By contrast, Elkins estimates that ”somewhere
between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are unaccounted for.” She reaches her
figures by reviewing colonial censuses taken in 1948 and 1962; she compares
the increase in the Kikuyu population to the larger increases in three other
Kenyan tribes. It’s a fragile means to support her case, partly because
we’re left wondering whether the other tribes also grew more swiftly than
the Kikuyu during earlier periods.

Unfortunately, Elkins’s prosecutorial zeal in a sense precludes a true
”imperial reckoning.” For British rule brought crucial benefits that
persist — among them modern education and a degree of infrastructure — as
well as violent oppression to its subjects. A thorough reckoning would
provide, by way of paradox, not only a more deeply insightful but a more
deeply wrenching work of imperial history.

Daniel Bergner’s ”In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black
in West Africa” won an Overseas Press Club Award and a Lettre Ulysses Award
for the art of reportage.