Caroline Elkins (born 1969) is a professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Her most noted publication, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (2005) won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It also was the basis for successful claims by former Mau Mau detainees against the British government for crimes committed in the detention camps of Kenya in the 1950s. Elkins served as expert witness from the time of the claimant's filing of their case in 2009 until it was settled in June 2013. In addition to her award-winning work on colonial Kenya, Elkins also studies the colonial encounter in Africa during the twentieth century, as well as in many parts of the former British Empire including Malaya, Singapore, Cyprus, and Zimbabwe. She has won numerous other fellowships and awards, including those from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Elkins majored in history at Princeton, graduating summa cum laude before moving to Harvard for her master's and doctorate. Her signature historical methodology, which includes an integrative reading of written sources and extensive ethnographic field work and oral interviews, has led to major revisions in the fields of African and British imperial histories, and has also generated significant criticism, particularly from conservative academics. Elkins' Harvard PhD focused on the British detention system deployed during the Mau Mau Uprising, and served as the basis of the 2002 BBC documentary, "Kenya: White Terror," in which Elkins and her fieldwork were both profiled. "Kenya: White Terror" won the International Red Cross Award at the Monte Carlos Film Festival.  Elkins's dissertation also provided the foundation for her 2005 publication, Imperial Reckoning, which was met with critical acclaim in newspapers and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Economist. In addition to winning the Pulitzer-Prize for General Nonfiction in 2006, Imperial Reckoning was also named as a book of the year by The Economist, an editors' choice by The New York Times, and was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Award. In its commendation of Elkins, the Pulitzer Prize Committee wrote: "Imperial Reckoning is history of the highest order: meticulously researched, brilliantly written, and powerfully dramatic. An unforgettable act of historical re-creation, it is also a disturbing reminder of the brutal imperial precedents that continue to inform Western nations in their drive to democratize the world."
Elkins has been a professor at Harvard University since she completed her doctoral degree in Harvard's history department in 2001. She received full tenure in 2009, and is currently also chair of Harvard's University-wide program in African Studies. At the time of her promotion to tenure, the then Harvard dean of social sciences, Stephen Kosslyn remarked of Elkins, "Her ‘Imperial Reckoning’ has realigned historians’ understanding of the final years of colonial Kenya, providing an unparalleled study of the Mau Mau Emergency of the 1950s. She has been a dedicated and exceptional teacher, a very good citizen of Harvard, and a prominent intellectual in the fields of African and empire studies.” Elkins currently teaches courses on modern Africa, protest in East Africa, human rights in Africa, and British colonial violence in the 20th century.
In 2009, Imperial Reckoning served as the basis for an unprecedented legal claim filed by five Mau Mau detention camp survivors against the British colonial government, and Elkins became the claimants first expert witness before being joined by other historians in late 2010 and 2011. The case, known as Mutua and FIve Others versus the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), was heard in London's High Court of Justice with the Honourable Justice McCombe presiding. London human rights law firm, Leigh Day, and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) in Nairobi, were the claimants' legal representatives. During the course of legal discovery the FCO discovered some 300 boxes of previously undisclosed files that validated on a large scale Elkins' claims in Imperial Reckoning and provided thousands of pages of new evidence supporting the claimants' case of gross abuses perpetrated by British colonial officials in the detention camps of Kenya in the 1950s.
The Mau Mau case settled in June 2013, with Foreign Secretary William Hague reading a statement of "sincere regret" into the record in the House of Commons, and British High Commissioner Christian Turner reading the same statement to the Mau Mau claimants in Nairobi, where Elkins was present to witness the historic moment. In an extensive profile of Elkins done in the wake of the Mau Mau settlement, Machua Koinange of Kenya's leading newspaper The Standard, wrote: "her research work is being credited with providing the crucial evidence that compelled the British Government to settle a multi-billion shilling lawsuit filed by Mau Mau war veterans out of court." In the same article, Kenya Member of Parliament, the Honourable Paul Muite, praised Elkins for her courage and the singular role she played in the initial publication of Imperial Reckoning, and in writing voluminous witness statements for the High Court on behalf of the claimants, stating: “Without her research work, we would not have been able to mount this suit...The research portion was a momentous task and I credit Elkins for the success of filing the case. We recognised the research and preparatory work (to file the case) had to be perfect.” Similarly, in commenting upon the significance of Elkins and her work, the lead barrister from Leigh Day, Daniel Leader, stated: "Caroline's work has been absolutely fundamental to the case...She was uniquely responsible for beginning to change the public's understanding of that period in history....The victims are forever in her debt. She put their stories on the map." Later, Leader followed-up, stating: "I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this case wouldn’t have been brought without her [Elkins’] efforts." Similarly, George Morara, program officer for KHRC in Nairobi, stated of Elkins: "Without her [Elkins'] seminal work, this story wouldn't have come to the fore."
Elkins was a strong public figure throughout the case, providing three witness statements to the High Court of London on behalf of the claimants, as well as commentary in a variety of media outlets, raising awareness about the case and the crimes perpetrated by British officials in colonial Kenya. She penned several essays in The Guardian, where she and her work were also the subject of other essays critiquing the British government and empire. She has regularly appeared on such outlets as Charlie Rose, NPR, CNN, BBC World, Al Jazeera, Radio 4, and has been quoted in various newspapers and magazines around the world. In her June 2013 essay for The Guardian in the immediate wake of the Mau Mau case settlement, Elkins wrote: "Ultimately, the Mau Mau case is as symbolic as it is instructive. Regardless of future claims, Britons can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of unequivocal imperial success. Instead, British liberalism in the empire – with its alleged spread of civilisation, progress, liberty and rule of law justifying any coercive actions – has been irreversibly exposed."
- "Alchemy of Evidence: Mau Mau, the British Empire, and the High Court of Justice". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39 (5): 731–748. 2011.
- Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York, NY: Henry Holt. 2005.
- (Co-editor with Susan Pedersen). Settler Colonialists in the 20th Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies. New York, NY: Routledge. 2005.
- "Detention, Rehabilitation, and the Destruction of Kikuyu Society". In A. Odhiambo & J. Lonsdale, eds., Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. Oxford: James Currey. 2003. pp. 191–226.
- "The Struggle for Mau Mau Rehabilitation in Late Colonial Kenya". International Journal of African Historical Studies 33 (1): 25–57. 2000. JSTOR 220257.(subscription required)
- "Reckoning with the Past: The Contrast between the Kenyan and South African Experiences". Social Dynamics 26 (2): 8–28. 2000. doi:10.1080/02533950008458693.(subscription required)
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Elkins' 2005 Imperial Reckoning aroused considerable controversy.
Like many, Bethwell Ogot, one of Kenya's leading historians, was critical of the book's blatant pro-Mau Mau slant. While not denying British crimes, he highlighted the appalling crimes perpetrated by Mau Mau militants against fellow Kikuyu, including old people, women and children: "decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women . . . [yet] Elkins sees no atrocities on the part of Mau Mau." Elkins' Harvard colleague, Niall Ferguson, while praising her research as "painstaking", described her book as a highly "sensationalist account of the rebellion". Historian Susan Carruthers of Rutgers University charged that Elkins' determination to gun down the still-widespread, imperial-propaganda view of Mau Mau adherents as mindless savages had unfortunately led her into "unintended condescension". Carruthers also chastised the book's portrayal of settlers and colonial administrators, who, she said, were reduced to "cartoonish grotesques".
An established historian on Elkins’ book:- Bruce Berman. Dept of Political Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario. Review Article. Mau Mau and the Politics of Knowledge. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 41, Number 3, 529-545, 2007, noted that the book, which was summarised as a “deeply flawed work” (Page 531), had:- “Generated considerable anger among Africanist historians and political scientists ……. as a reaction to the book’s analytic and methodological shortcomings” Page 531, and “The British, whether white settlers, colonial administrators, prison officials, or soldiers and the Kikyuyu loyalists … are simply stigmatized and dehumanised" Page 535, and “The object of British policy was not, as she (Elkins) claims, simply to hang on to control but to find a way of leaving that would provide a stable political and economic environment for a handover of power as well as protect long term British interests. It was these programs that laid the basis for ….. Kenya’s 15 years of economic growth and political stability under Jomo Kenyatta” Page 536, and “The detention camps … were intended to protect the social and economic reforms amongst the Kikuyu and other Kenyan ethnic communities, and the political movement from 1954 onwards toward decolonization and self government from disruption by what the British regarded as Mau Mau fanatics; certainly this was not to “eliminate” the Kikuyu" Page 537, and “In sum, Imperial Reckoning … is likely to have far less influence on the historiography of Kenya and Africa more widely than its public acclaim might suggest. Students will more likely receive it with a warning about its methodological and analytical failings, rather than as an example to be followed. Page 538.
The most contentious part of Imperial Reckoning, however, was its estimate of the death toll caused by the British reaction to the rebellion and the conditions it engendered. David Elstein argued that there were severe shortcomings in Elkins' methodology and conclusions, that her casualty figures were derived from an idiosyncratic reading of census figures and a tendentious interpretation of the fortified village scheme. Elkins responded that
Elstein is not a historian, but rather an independent television executive. He is also a long-standing advocate of Terence Gavaghan, the Officer-in-Charge of Rehabilitation in the Mwea Camps. Gavaghan was responsible for implementing systematised violence in several of the detention camps after 1957 vis-à-vis the dilution technique, and there are multiple sources, written and oral, which implicate him in grave acts of colonial brutality perpetrated against detainees.
The Mau Mau torture hearings in the UK and its outcome
In 2009 five former Mau Mau fighters (Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara, and Susan Ngondi) filed papers to take the British government for alleged abuses by the colonial government during the Mau Mau uprising. The purported abuses noted by the claimants were brutally excruciating offenses. The amended particulars of claim in the High Court of Justice in London allege that both Mutua and Nzili were castrated without being provided with any medical support. The officers employed by the colonial government forced Nzili to accept unpaid labor where he was beaten by gun butts and sticks on a regular basis. Wambuga Wa Nyingi was a victim of both physical and psychological abuse. He was severely beaten and also forced to witness the torture and murder of other detainees. Mrs Mara subjected to appalling sexual abuse in detention camps. Susan Ngondi claims to be a victim of brutal interrogation and sexual abuse by the officers. She was regularly abused with whips and glass bottles during the rebellion. Elkins' Pulitzer Prize award winning book, Imperial Reckoning, details many specific beatings executed by the colonial government unto the unfortunate Mau Mau fighters, aiding the proposed claims made in the UK court hearing.
In 2011 the High court ruled that the petitioners had an arguable case. In July 2012 during hearings the British government accepted in court that colonial forces in Kenya tortured and abused detainees during the Mau Mau rebellion. In October 2012 the UK High Court ruled that the five claimants can proceed with their legal claims against the UK government despite the time elapsed.
- 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Imperial Reckoning
White Terror: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3y3zccaj8w
- "History Department Faculty: Caroline Elkins". harvard.edu. Retrieved 11 November 2012.
- The Magazine of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. "Press Award in Monte Carlos". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- BBC Documentary. ""Kenya: White Terror"". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Harvard University Department of History. "Faculty Home Page". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Pulitzer Prize Committee. "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Harvard Gazette. "Caroline Elkins named professor of history". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- BBC News. "Hague: 'Sincere Regret' for Mau Mau victims". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- The Standard. "From thesis to unspeakable torture evidence that UK wanted buried". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Harvard Gazette. ""Strong Evidence"".
- Harvard Gazette. "Justice by Committee". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Caroline, Elkins. ""Britain has said sorry to the Mau Mau. The Rest of the empire is still waiting"". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Ogot 2005, p. 502.
- Ferguson, Niall (14 June 2006). "Niall Ferguson: Home truths about famine, war and genocide". The Independent (London). Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- Berman 2007, p. 529. "[T]he image of this official version of Mau Mau has embedded itself in the Western mind as the metaphor for deranged violence, primitive savagery, and rejection of 'civilization'".
- Carruthers 2005, p. 492.
- See Elstein's various letters:
- "Letters: Tell me where I'm wrong". London Review of Books 27 (11). 2005. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- "The End of the Mau Mau". The New York Review of Books 52 (11). 2005. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- "Letters: Tell me where I'm wrong". London Review of Books 27 (14). 2005. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
See: Elstein, David (7 April 2011). "Daniel Goldhagen and Kenya: recycling fantasy". openDemocracy.net.; Anderson (2005), p. 294; and Elkins (2005), p. 240–1.
- Elkins 2011, p. 738.
- Blacker 2007.
- Elkins 2011, pp. 738–9.
- "Mau Mau uprising: Hearing into alleged torture begins". BBC News. 17 July 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
- "Mau Mau case: UK government accepts abuse took place". BBC News. 17 July 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
- "Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans win UK torture ruling". BBC News. 5 October 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
- "Caroline Elkins: 2010 Fellow, Humanities—British History". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
- Anderson, David (2005). Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Berman, Bruce (2007). "Mau Mau and the Politics of Knowledge: The Struggle Continues". Canadian Journal of African Studies 41 (3): 529–545. JSTOR 40380102.(subscription required)
- Blacker, John (2007). African Affairs 106 (423): 205–227. doi:10.1093/afraf/adm014.(subscription required)
- Carruthers, Susan (2005). "Being Beastly to the Mau Mau". Twentieth Century British History 16 (4): 489–496. doi:10.1093/tcbh/hwi037.(subscription required)
- Ogot, Bethwell Allan (2005). "BRITAIN'S GULAG Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. By DAVID ANDERSON. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005. Pp. viii+406 (ISBN 0-297-84719-8). Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. By CAROLINE ELKINS (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). Pp. xiv+475". The Journal of African History 46: 493–505. JSTOR 4100642.(subscription required)
- Caroline Elkins - Colonial War Crimes in Kenya: Prospects for Reconciliation (2005, video program)
- Ofcom report on complaints against the documentary "Kenya: White Terror"