Sunday, February 17, 2008

Imperial Reckoning

I have just read one of the most incredible books I have seen in a very long time, Imperial Reckoning, by Caroline Elkins, 2005, Henry Holt, N.Y.

Caroline Elkins is an Assistant Professor of History at Harvard University. She spent years researching the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya for her dissertation. She not only employed all the resources of the archives, but interviewed dozens of people who lived through those dreadful years, both natives and colonials. There is no reason to suppose that what she has written is not the truth, or an exceedingly close approximation of the truth. It is a horrible story. I confess that while reading it I truly resisted believing it, even though I know it is true. It’s a sad and depressing account of the Mau Mau rebellion and how the British dealt with it. The Mau Mau were cruel, and in their attempt to win back their homeland and overcome the years of abuse they experienced at the hands of the British, they spared no one. Their grisly attacks on settlers and on the natives that were collaborating with the British caused the latter to panic. An Emergency was declared, and an attempt was made to eliminate the Mau Mau completely. British propaganda immediately branded the Mau Mau fighters as bestial, evil, primitive savages, obsessed with blood lust and the desire to just kill, kill, kill. They were presented as creatures no better than animals. At the same time British colonial society was presented as a peaceful, noble enterprise attempting only to bring “civilization” to the natives of Kenya.

The first attempt to eliminate the Mau Mau consisted of what were termed “screenings.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands of natives were made to undergo a screening. The purpose of these screenings were to determine who had taken the Mau Mau oaths and were therefore Mau Mau, or at least to learn if they knew any Mau Mau. The nature of these screenings can be seen in the following quotes from some who had experienced them.

An account from Ndirita Kibira, a gardener:

“we were taken to a camp in a farm {Bhati} owned by a settler whom we had nicknamed Nyangweso. That was where we were screened. We would be asked whether we had taken the oath, and those who denied having taken it were beaten badly until they were forced to confess or at least gave them some information. Many died from the beatings…The black askaris {guards} were the ones who were doing most of the beating, but the white settlers and policemen were there as well, directing it and also beating us. (Elkins, 12005:65).

“Margaret Nyaruai, a young woman at the time of Mau Mau, was taken to the screening hut on the estate of her settler employer near Kabaru not long after the start of the Emergency. There she was beaten by a white man whom the Kikuyu had nicknamed Koroki, or He Who Comes at Dawn, by the young settler turned British colonial officer nicknamed YY. While being screened, Margaret was asked:
‘Questions like the number of oaths I had taken, where my husband went, where two of my stepbrothers had gone (they had gone into the forest). I was badly whipped while naked. They didn’t care that I had just given birth. In fact, I think my baby was lucky it was not killed like the rest...Apart from the beatings, women used to have banana leaves and flowers inserted into their vaginas and rectums, as well as have their breasts squeezed with pliers; after which a woman would say everything because of the pain...even the men had their testicles squeezed with pliers to make them confess! After such things were done to me, I told them everything. I survived after the torture, but I still have a lot of pain in my body even today from it.’” (Elkins 2005:68).

These are not the only accounts given in the book. There are dozens of them. This was mild, however, compared to what was to come for the Mau Mau. As it was basically a nationalistic movement with the goal of recapturing their lands that had been taken from them, as well as their dignity that had also been taken, it had an extremely broad membership and a great deal of popular support. It became impossible to deal with in this way. Eventually most of the Kikuyu were rounded up and put in camps. These camps were easily a match for, if not worse than the German concentration camps and the Russian gulags. Indeed, Elkins terms them just that – gulags. The accounts from those who survived these camps are worse that the ones quoted above, and, again, there are many of them which I will not quote here. The fact is, these British gulags existed, the inmates were subjected to horrible tortures and, yes, savagery beyond belief. The British government naturally tried to cover this up but eventually the truth came out, the camps were disbanded, and Kenya was given its independence with Jomo Kenyatta as its first President.

To me this story seems almost unbelievable. Remember, we’re not talking about 1750, or 1850, we’re talking about 1950. The British and the rest of the world were well acquainted with the German camps as well as the Russian gulags. That the British would have behaved in this way in 1950 tells us something about human nature, something most unpleasant. It is true that such institutionalized brutality seems to attract the scum of the earth, and much of the torture was conducted by natives recruited for the purpose (some from other countries), but it is also true that white settlers and British military personnel were involved as well. Not only did they order it and condone it they also at times participated in it. Many of these British officers were educated in fine schools in England before finding themselves in Kenya in positions of power. This kind of thing is occurring at the present time in places like Darfur, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, West New Guinea, Timor, and yes, unfortunately, even closer to home. I recommend this book highly, but you will need a strong stomach.

Do not speak to me of Intelligent Design. If there was any such creator involved in the creation of the human species, it must have been a vicious, malevolent, sadistic, perverted, inhuman creature or thing at best. There is a terrible flaw built into our species, a flaw not shared by any other living thing.

"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."
Bertrand Russell

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