Mau Mau Rebellion: Caroline Elkins on Abuse in Colonial Kenya
Faculty insight with a Harvard historian
Caroline Elkins, a professor of history at Harvard, talks with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast about the Mau Mau rebellion and the evidence she unearthed of human rights violations against the Kikuyu people by British authorities in Kenya.
Video interview with Caroline Elkins on the Mau Mau uprising
Harvard historian Caroline Elkins is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, chair of the African studies department at Harvard, and an instructor at Harvard Extension School. Her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag, details the abuse and torture of Mau Mau prisoners by the British in the 1950s.
The Mau Mau were a part of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. They started an uprising in 1952 in an attempt to reclaim their “land and freedom.” Elkins and her supporters refer to her book as revisionist history, and it has played a role in changing how people think about the end of the British Empire.
The Mau Mau have been portrayed as vicious people guilty of torture and abuse. According to Elkins, the British were actually responsible for such atrocities in the detention camps. The British detained almost the entire Kikuyu population and deprived the detainees of food, almost to the point of famine. Elkins says the British authority used such tactics to maintain control and restore their mission of civilizing the population.
Elkins started the book when she was still a graduate student at Harvard. She was going to do her dissertation on the success of British liberal reform in the detention camps in Kenya. During her fieldwork, she found that details were not adding up and files were missing. Elkins conducted interviews with survivors of the camps and other witnesses of the Mau Mau rebellion. Elkins maintains that this is a story of murder, torture, and massive cover-up.
Elkins is also an expert witness in a landmark case about the Mau Mau uprising. The victims are seeking reparations from the British government. This is the first time Britain has been sued by a former colony. Key documents surfaced that help the case and also support much of Elkins work, but also show Britain was complicit in the hidden history of the Mau Mau uprising.
Elkins’ course, history courses and degree
- Africa and Africans: The Making of a Continent in the Modern World
- See all history courses
- Master of Liberal Arts Degree Program
Caroline Elkins’ articles and books
- Read The Wrong Lesson by Elkins for The Atlantic
- Buy Elkins’ book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya
- Buy Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies edited by Elkins and Susan Pederson
- Read an NPR interview with Elkins.
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