When many people think of the colonial era, they think of slave ships and plantations, of a bygone age before the advent of industrial machinery and modern conveniences. But as scholar Caroline Elkins notes in her latest book, many parts of Africa and the Far East remained under European control well into the 20th century.
Elkins, an historian at Harvard University, was recently awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her book, "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya" (Henry Holt, $27.50).
The book, a product of 10 years of research, depicts the British colonial practices of detention, mass torture and rape of the Kikuyu people in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising from 1952 to 1960.
Elkins says that nearly 1.5 million Kikuyu were imprisoned in detention camps or forced to live in "enclosed villages" — essentially open-air prisons.
"I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead," Elkins writes.
Estimates made prior to Elkins' book claim 11,000 Mau Mau were killed by British forces.
Elkins interviewed hundreds of survivors and former British colonial officers, and pored through years of documents during the course of her research. She asserts that British officials lied about the number of people and British settlers killed by the rebels to give the colonial authorities a carte blanche to imprison, torture and kill Kenyans.
She also says that thousands of documents regarding the detention camps were either sealed or missing from the National Archives, and that British authorities burned many of the files to cover their tracks before they exited Kenya in 1963.
"Imperial Reckoning" throws a welcome light on a period of imperial oppression often overlooked by the public.