Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"...a propaganda stick with which they will beat us for years." Thoughts on Imperial Reckoning

If nothing else, my visits to Africa over the last two years have done a lot to expose my own naivete and confront some truths about the world I was formerly pleased to ignore. It was during my first trip to Africa that I read State of Africa by Martin Meredith and King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. The latter book in particular (concerned with the history of the Belgian Congo, especially the largely-forgotten humanitarian crisis circa 1900) exposed the worst side of colonialism and why it was such a good thing it ended.

Reading up on Africa somehow led me most recently to Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, a 2005 book by Caroline Elkins which won her a Pulitzer Prize. Learning a supposedly-enlightened nation like England perpetuated a brutal concentration camp system in the 1950s brought to mind some of Romeo Dallaire's assertions about the Holocaust in Shake Hands With the Devil - that when the world declared "never again" at the Holocaust, they didn't actually mean it. History seems to bear this out as the British - including people who had suffered in Japanese concentration camps in the previous decade - brought the boot down on hundreds of thousands of innocent Kenyan victims for most of the 1950s.

"In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation."

It's a terrible story of human depravity in which those who inflicted the suffering are never brought to justice, instead just mildly rebuked (if at all). The British cover-up essentially began the same day as the human rights abuses, making it tricky to determine the final body counts. Elkins' book seems determined to indict those responsible, but makes the case all too strongly. The book starts off very strong in recounting the rise of the Mau Mau and how the colonials justified breaking every law of human rights to combat the "emergency," but after the first hundred pages a bit of rot sets in. The same abuses are inflicted on people again and again in different prisons or rehabilitation camps. Stories which are narrated by people who lived through the events are compelling, but all too often I feel like Elkins showed too much of her work as the book repeats itself. It also seriously loses the thread of the Mau Mau uprising when the focus shifts to the camps - terrible as the abuses the detainees suffer are, what's the context? Where are the British in their fight against the Mau Mau as the torturing/mass burials/sodomy is inflicted? All often, the author plunges into rants comparing the camps to the Soviets & Nazis instead of letting the testimonies of those she interviewed stand on their own.

Altogether, it's a sobering read, but could have been tightened up. An entire book of anecdotes from survivors would have been more to my liking, personally.

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