MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a saying that the past is never really past. We have a story that speaks to that now. It dates from the era of British colonial rule in Africa. The British government recently agreed to pay reparations to more than 5,000 Kenyans who the government acknowledged had been subjected to torture and other abuses by colonial administrators during the so-called Mau Mau Insurgency against British rule in the 1950s. In that time, more than 150,000 Kenyans were placed into detention camps, where thousands suffered severe mistreatment. Here's the U.K.'s Foreign Secretary William Hague.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAGUE SPEECH)
WILLIAM HAGUE: The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment of the hands the colonial administration. The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.
MARTIN: Joining us to talk about this now is Harvard professor Caroline Elkins. She spent years researching the story of the Mau Mau, and is the author of the book "Imperial Reckoning," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006, and her evidence was among that used to achieve this settlement. Thanks for joining us now, professor.
CAROLINE ELKINS: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: So what kinds of mistreatment are we talking about that was the subject of this settlement? And this is probably a good place to tell our listeners that, you know, there are maybe aspects of this that are not suitable for all...
MARTIN: ...Given what we're talking about here. So Professor Elkins, what kind of treatment are we talking about that led to this settlement?
ELKINS: You know, absolutely horrific, just unimaginable. For several years, I took oral testimonies about this and it's the kind of abuse that, quite frankly, if listeners are concerned with young children or themselves, don't have a strong stomach, they should turn themselves away. I mean, we're talking about castrations, forced sodomies with broken bottles and vermin and snakes, tying suspected Mau Mau adherence to the back of Land Rovers and dragging them until they were left in bits. I mean it just - these kinds of horrors I collected day after day, and they were simply unimaginable.
MARTIN: I think it's fair to say that many people who have heard about this era have heard that there were atrocities, but believed that it was the Kenyans who were committing these atrocities. Did both sides give as good as they got, as it were, or was it in fact that the weight of this conduct really does fall on the British?
ELKINS: Your question cuts to the heart of this case. And it's this, it's the fact that the Mau Mau were depicted as the most bestial, horrible, savage movement ever to hit Africa. But at the end of the day, you know, only 32 European settlers died. As opposed to the British who detained, in fact, you pointed out, 150,000 in the detention camps, but all of the women and children were detained in rural homesteads. So, in fact, what we find out is that there was a kind of disproportionate horror going on, but it was - the balance sheet was weighted against the Kikuyu. Nearly 1.5 million were detained and subjected to just horrendous conditions, as I pointed out. And the key to all of this is that when the British decolonized, they burned nearly all of the files, and so this episode was silenced.
MARTIN: Well, how was persuasive enough evidence gathered to cause the government to want to settle at this juncture.
ELKINS: So, you know, listen, to get to your question we have two issues going on in terms of discovery of evidence. First of all, I don't think the British government or anyone would have even imagined that a young Harvard graduate student, which I was at the time, would be willing to spend 10 years looking to find whatever the purge left behind. The second thing that they didn't count on, is that actually, at the time of decolonization when they burned nearly three and a half tons of files in Kenya, they also secretly brought back about 300 boxes. These boxes had been sitting in the MI5 warehouse for the last 50-plus years. And inside those boxes were document after document validating the claims of the case. And when those came out, it was really the final nail on the British government's coffin.
MARTIN: May I ask you what drew you to this? You're not a British national, correct?
MARTIN: You're not Kenyan, you're not British.
ELKINS: No, a middle-class kid from New Jersey. So what on earth am I doing, right?
MARTIN: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I wasn't going to put it quite that way, but that was my question.
ELKINS: No, that's quite all right. We can scroll back. I went to University of Princeton, took an amazing course with an amazing professor on African history. And one of his specialties was Kenya, so I ended up doing my senior thesis research in Kenya in Nairobi. And when I was there, I came across a couple documents on these detention camps, and like a good student, I went to look for a book or an article and there was nothing on this. And so I said, right then and there, that if I ever went back to graduate school, I was going to write my dissertation about the detention camps of Kenya.
MARTIN: Were you sad to find this out?
ELKINS: You know, I think for me, this has certainly been, if you will, a path of both intellectual and self-discovery, right. And when I began my dissertation, I went in with more or less the party line. I was going to write a dissertation about the success of liberal reform behind the barbed wire of detention in Kenya. And it was about a year in when I realized all of this evidence wasn't adding up, and I was quite distressed. I thought, good grief, I don't have a dissertation here. And finally I said to myself, which seems rather self-evident now, what if this is a story about extraordinary systematized violence and even greater level of cover-up. And suddenly, it all made sense. And this work has been done at great professional peril, most people have a very different view, both in the academy and the public world, and certainly amongst politicians of the British Empire.
MARTIN: Well, I mean, you're American, though. So, I mean, I don't know that - I mean, are you really in that great, professional peril in the United States? Are people really that...
MARTIN: Because people are really invested in their version? Is that it?
ELKINS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because you have to bear in mind that as an academic...
MARTIN: Well, give an example.
ELKINS: I'll give you a couple examples. I mean, one of which has to do with the fact that I'm an academic, right. And so, therefore, in the academy, when I wrote this I was untenured here at Harvard. Whatever you write when you're up for tenure, you're up for review by other academics in your field. Well, the majority of mine were from Britain, from Oxford and Cambridge, and I was absolutely reviled. The sense was that I was - that this was a work of fiction. And, of course, as I was told quite publicly in open lectures, that, you know, well, Africans make up stories, Elkins. So this is just one big myth that you've created here. And more than that, that I was an irresponsible historian, that I certainly did not belong in the profession and certainly not at Harvard. And so it was, you know, a very strong uphill battle. And so you can imagine when this announcement is made by William Hague in Parliament, I, of course, my first feeling is just utter vindication for these claimants, but this was an enormous moment of professional validation.
MARTIN: Professor Caroline Elkins is the author of the book "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." She joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Professor Elkins, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ELKINS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.