A Review of "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya" By Caroline Elkins Owl Books $17.00
One of the great mysteries of the twentieth century was the way Britain got away with pillaging nearly every country on the planet without suffering any retribution. I've spent a long, bitter time brooding over this experimental proof that there's no such thing as karma. Among the reasons I've found for this failure to prosecute are the reluctance of the raped to report their sufferings, the stupidity and credulity of American scholars vis-a-vis their Oxbridge colleagues, and the charmed life that seems to reward those individuals and nations lucky enough to lack any vestige of conscience.
But there are simpler reasons, bravely revealed in Caroline Elkins's account of the slaughter of some 300,000 ethnic Kikuyu of Kenya, the torture of hundreds of thousands more, and the internment of the entire Kikuyu population, in mid-20th-century Kenya. As Elkins reveals, the Brits simply destroyed every record of the massacres they could find, and -- unlike the French, Germans or other conscience-harried colonials -- kept the settlers' oath of Omerta, never revealing what they did to the "Kukes" to anyone except other vets whose anecdotes were as bloody and full of blame as theirs. The difference between the British Empire and other fascist empires is not that these guys were nicer. Nobody who reads this book could continue to believe that, if they were fool enough to believe it beforehand. The difference is that the Brits were good at it, and had no conscience to trouble them. Thanks to that careful incineration of records and highly adaptive national sociopathic disorder, "...there would be no soul-searching or public accounting [in Britain] for the crimes perpetrated against the hundreds of thousands of men and women in Kenya."
The Brits had the perfect timing of the sociopath too, unlike the stubborn French who held on too long in Algeria and Indochina. The white settlers of Kenya felt that, having waded through African blood with the Tories, they were bound by a blood-oath to the incoming MacMillan administration of 1959. The fools didn't even know their own government; as Elkins recounts, "The 'prevailing mood'...was best captured by the remarks of a young Conservative MP who proclaimed, 'What do I care about the f...cking [sic] settlers, let them bloody well look after themselves.' Rather than functioning as a referendum for empire, the general election of 1959 was its death knell." Yup, that's the great thing about sociopaths, their loyalty.
Luckily, when you torture and imprison several hundred thousand people, you can't help but leave a messy paper trail behind you. Elkins uncovers classic blurts of British Imperial discourse that happened to survive the fires, like an early administrator's grumpy concession that he can't afford to wipe out the Kikuyu at the moment: "There is only one way of improving the Waikikuyu, and that is wipe them out...but we have to depend on them for supplies."
If you come from a country invaded by the Brits -- and the odds are you do, even if you're from Maryland -- then this rhetoric should be familiar to you. I recognize it as a nearly word-for-word paraphrase of Spenser's view of Irish affairs (and T. H. White's, and Trevalyan's...), but I'm sure the same sentiment survives in the chronicles of British civilizers from Myanmar (invaded on a pretext and sacked in the 1880's) to Tibet (invaded, from sheer boredom, in the 20th century, conquered by massacre and deceit, and unacknowledged to this day by British historians).