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In Cold Blood | The Nation

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In Cold Blood

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This is the focus of Elkins's Imperial Reckoning, which provides a painfully thorough catalogue of previously unknown atrocities by the British. Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, says she began her project expecting to tell a British success story. But after a decade combing through British archives and interviewing some 300 survivors of the war, she discovered that what had long been depicted as a laudable withdrawal and "rehabilitation" by the British was actually a cover-up of unimaginable proportions.

Daphne Eviatar has written on Africa for the New York Times Magazine and the Boston Globe, among other publications. She last wrote for The Nation on Angola.

About the Author

Daphne Eviatar
Daphne Eviatar, a Brooklyn-based lawyer and journalist, is a senior reporter for The American Lawyer.

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In 1952, a week after one of Mau Mau's more notorious strikes--the murder of a prominent chief by attackers dressed as policemen--the British declared a state of emergency and rounded up prominent Kikuyu leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta, who would later become Kenya's first president. Although Kenyatta was a widely respected leader of a moderate Kikuyu-led political party, the British deemed all Kikuyu suspect and so assumed Kenyatta was leading the Mau Mau revolt. His subsequent show trial and seven years' imprisonment removed a prominent voice of progressive reform and created a rallying symbol for the radicals' cause.

This was indicative of the course of the war. Instead of understanding Mau Mau as a radical movement among a population with legitimate political grievances, alarmed white settlers viewed each Mau Mau attack as a sign that an inhuman viciousness had seized the entire Kikuyu population. Their smiling servants had inexplicably become violent savages.

As the hysteria mounted after each attack, the British imposed harsher and harsher emergency measures. Thousands of suspected Kikuyu were rounded up, interrogated, beaten and humiliated, detained without charge, denied access to the evidence against them, convicted merely for suspected association with Mau Mau, and--since the British never declared the conflict a real war--denied the rights of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Reports of abuse and human rights violations from the International Committee of the Red Cross were ignored, as were complaints from representatives of the opposition party in London.

It all sounds eerily familiar: The British colonial government believed it was under siege from "evil"--an incomprehensible force beyond its control. There were meager attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Kikuyu behind barbed wire. The renowned archeologist and ethnographer Louis Leakey insisted Mau Mau must "confess" their oath and take a counter-oath to cure them of its powers. But any real attempts at "rehabilitation" of Mau Mau were quickly overwhelmed by the deprivation and brutality employed to extract confessions.

Not surprisingly, the British actions only drove more into the Mau Mau fold. Under the banner of a state of emergency, the colonial administration imprisoned innocents and punished entire villages when terrified residents refused to testify against their neighbors. Fearful settlers fired their Kikuyu laborers and ejected squatting farmers. And the administration closed Kikuyu schools, leaving more newly idle and angry Kikuyu with nothing to do but join the rebels.

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