Top Young Historians: 33 – Caroline Elkins


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

33: Caroline Elkins, 10-23-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Hugo K. Foster Associate Professor of African Studies, Department of History, Harvard University, July 2005 to present.
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Harvard University, July 2001 to July 2005.
Area of Research: Modern Africa, including human rights and British colonial violence.
Education: Ph. D. History, Harvard University, June 2001.
Major Publications: Elkins is the author of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Henry Holt, 2005). Caroline Elkins JPG This book was simultaneously published in Britain and the Commonwealth by Jonathan Cape under the title Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya; Elkins is the co-editor of Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies, with Susan Pedersen (New York: Routledge, 2005). Elikins is currently working on a book project entitled Twilight: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire that will re-examine the end British colonial rule during the years after World War Two. The research combines archival and oral data in order to integrate perspectives from the metropole and the colonies, and focuses primarily on the nature of British colonialism and the violence and human rights abuses that accompanied retreat.
Awards: Elkins is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, 2006;
Walter Channing Cabot Fellow, Harvard University, 2005-06;
Gelber Prizer for Non-Fiction, Finalist, 2006;
The Economist, Best History Book Selection for Imperial Reckoning, 2005;
The New York Times, Editors’ Choice, Imperial Reckoning, 2005;
The Daily Telegraph, Editor’s Choice, Paperback, Britain’s Gulag, 2005;
Phi Beta Kappa, Honorary Member, Harvard University Chapter, June 2006;
Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Fellowship, 2006-07;
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Faculty Research Leave Fellowship, spring 2005;
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Bunting Fellow, 2003-04;
J. William Fulbright Fellowship for Kenya (IIE), 1998-1999;
Social Science Research Council, International Dissertation Research Fellowship, 1998-1999;
Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship, 1997-1998;
Krupp Foundation Fellowship in European Studies, 1997-1998;
Harvard University Derek Bok Award for Teaching Excellence, 1996-1997 and 2000-01;
Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, Intensive Swahili III, 1995;
Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, 1994-1995.
Additional Info:
Elkins has appeared on a number of television news media shows including; ABC, Radio Australia; Charlie Rose Show, PBS; Tavis Smiley Show, PBS; Here and Now, NPR, “Imperial Reckoning,” Talk of the Nation, NPR, “Pulitzer Winners Describe that Winning Feeling;” Morning Edition, NPR, “Kenya’s Mau Maus Seek Restitution;” BBC World, “Imperial Reckoning;” Here and Now, NPR, “Imperial Reckoning;” BBC, Radio Four, “The Mau Mau Rebellion;” BBC, Five Live; All Things Considered, NPR, “Author Details Harsh British Rule in Kenya.”
Elkins’s research on detention camps and villagization during the Mau Mau Emergency was the subject of a one-hour film on the BBC, “Kenya: White Terror.” Elkins was a feature of the documentary, as well as a consultant to the project. The documentary was filmed in Kenya and Britain, September/October 2002. It was aired in Britain on 17 November 2002 to an audience of some 1.5 million viewers. It has subsequently been aired on BBC Worldwide several times. It won the International Committee on the Red Cross Award at the Monte Carlos Film Festival in June 2003.
Founder and Co-director, Kenya Oral History Centre, Nairobi, Kenya. Directing a project aimed at the collection of several thousand life histories of Africans from various ethnic groups who lived through the colonial experience in Kenya. The Center is modeled on similar projects in South Africa and post-WWII Germany, though it is the first of its kind in Kenya. Nearly $100,000 of funding has been drawn primarily from the Kenya Government, Harvard University, Ford Foundation, and the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
Editorial Board Member, Princeton University Press Series, “Crimes Against Humanity,” August 2005 to present.

Personal Anecdote

It was September 2003 and I still remember the feeling of opening my office door for the first time at the Radcliffe Institute where I was beginning my fellowship year. I practically dropped to my knees and wept. The room was spacious with sun streaming in and had an enormous desk with a computer that was the latest in technology. But, those weren’t the reason for my out-of-character moment of emotion. The office was, to take off from someone else’s words, a room of my own. It was away from the teaching and administrative distractions of my department office, and away from the lovable chaos generated by my two young sons, then one and three, at home. When I shut my Radcliffe door, I was alone, joyfully alone with my ideas and my writing.

And, it was at Radcliffe that I immersed myself in routine. When I write I love routine. I would come at almost precisely the same time day in and day out and leave at the same time. After I put my children to bed, I did the same thing in the evening; on the weekends the same thing. I had a story to tell, and like some athletes, when I’m in my routine, or game, I feel as if I’m in the “zone.” It’s as if I can hear or think of nothing else; instead, I can almost see the words and story in my mind before they unfold on the computer screen. Routine also has other implications. I don’t answer the phone (except for the emergency cell phone number which is given to my sons’ schools), I occasionally answer email, I almost never accept lunch or coffee invitations, I eat the same thing for lunch at my desk (with Imperial Reckoning it was butternut squash soup from Hi-Rise Bakery with a hunk of bread and loads of butter), I wear virtually the same clothes every day, I get my mid-morning and late afternoon coffee at the same time – the list could go on and on. Some might call this compulsive. I like to think of myself as focused!

Of course, I had every reason to keep my eye on the ball during my time at Radcliffe. I was up for my first review at the end of the academic year, and I had to finish my manuscript. I had also agreed with my publisher to deliver the draft by May of 2004. In other words, the whole book had to be written from start to finish during my year of leave. But, I suspect, with or without these deadlines I would have written the book at the same pace. For me, once I sit down to write I can’t stop. I become so utterly focused that it is simply better for everyone around me to let me finish rather than to drag it out. In the case of writing Imperial Reckoning, it meant making up a lot of time with my family once the book was finished. Fortunately, the writing projects I’ve taken on since then have been smaller – articles, book reviews, and short essays – so I’m cloistered less often in my own world. That said, whether the project is big or small, I’m ruthless with my routine, and, gratefully, I’ve adjusted to thinking and writing without a room of my own.


By Caroline Elkins

  • “Imperial Reckoning is a piece of historical revisionism that re-examines the nature of the Mau Mau war in Kenya and, with it, the character of Britain’s late colonial empire. For decades variations of the official version of the detention camps and Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya  JPG Emergency villages pervaded the literature on Mau Mau, albeit with some skepticism. But with Imperial Reckoning, the proverbial dots are connected and what emerges is a story of the mass detention of some 1.5 million Africans under conditions that were nothing short of deplorable. The British forces resorted to tactics such as mass population movements, forced labor, starvation, and various forms of torture to break the Mau Mau adherents of their anti-colonial doctrine. But Imperial Reckoning is much more than just an exposure of British colonial war crimes. It examines the nature of institutions and laws, demonstrating how colonial crimes were not the result of a series of one-offs, but rather embedded in the structures of the colony and its Emergency legislation. To understand the colonial violence occurred during the Mau Mau Emergency we must, as I argue in the book, recognize the weakness of the Kenyan colonial state and its place within a declining empire. Caroline Elkins in “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”

About Caroline Elkins

  • “I congratulate Professor Elkins on this extraordinary honor. History can be grueling to reconstruct, even without the hindrance of institutional secrecy; and even the most well-documented findings can fail to regain life when translated to the page. Professor Elkins has researched the Kikiyu detentions with rigor, perseverance, and courage; and she has told this story in ways that few will ever forget.” — William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in honor of Caroline Elkinsbeing awarded the Non-Fiction Pulitzer Prize, 2006 for “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “I have read practically all the books written about the Mau Mau. In my view, Ms Elkins book is so far the best researched and the most authoritative account on how the British prosecuted the Mau Mau followers and of the atrocities committed by the British in and outside the concentration camps between 1952-1957…. But for many of us who lived through the Emergency, this is a book which was long overdue. As I read it, I felt as if the whole thing was happening only yesterday. I would hate my children to be ignorant of what it was like to live through the Emergency. Now that the surviving official records have been de-classified let us hope that there will be many other writers laying bare the true picture of this important turning point in the history of Kenya…. I certainly hope that Ms Elkin’s book will be made compulsory reading at the last two years of high school or in the first year at university. – Mr. Gachukia, patron of Kenya Private Schools Association reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya” in “Africa News”
  • “Caroline Elkins has written an important book that can change our understanding not just of Africa but of ourselves. Through exhaustive research in neglected colonial archives and intrepid reporting among long-forgotten Kikuyu elders in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Elkins has documented not just the true scale of a huge and harrowing crime — Britain’s ruthless suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion — but also the equally shocking concealment of that crime and the inversion of historical memory.” — Bill Berkeley, author of The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “On the basis of the most painstaking research, Caroline Elkins has starkly illuminated one of the darkest secrets of late British imperialism. She has shown how, even when they profess the most altruistic of intentions, empires can still be brutal in their response to dissent by subject peoples. We all need reminding of that today.” — Niall Ferguson, Professor of History, Harvard University, and Senior Research Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “In the 1950s, Mau Mau provided the Western world with photographic evidence of what Africa and Africans “were like”: savage, bloodthirsty, and in need of British civilization. Imperial Reckoning shows us how these images neglected to show the brutality and savagery being committed against the Kenyan Kikuyu people detained by the British. Caroline Elkins fills out the images, tells the rest of the story, and corrects the record in this masterful book.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “Rarely does a book come along that transforms the world’s understanding of a country and its past by bringing to light buried, horrifying truths and redrawing central contours of its image. With voluminous evidence, Caroline Elkins exposes the long suppressed crimes and brutalities that democratic Britain and British settlers willingly perpetrated upon hundreds of thousands of Africans — truths that will permit no one of good faith to continue to accept the mythologized account of Britain’s colonial past as merely a “civilizing mission.” If you want to read one book this year about the catastrophic consequences of racism, about the cruelty of those who dehumanize others, or about the crimes that ideologically besotted people – including from western democratic countries — can self-righteously commit, Imperial Reckoning is that book.” — Daniel Jonah Goldhagen reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “Given the number and nature of the atrocities that filled the 20th century, the degree of brutality and violence perpetrated by British settlers, police, army and their African loyalist supporters against the Kikuyu during the Mau Mau period should not be surprising. Nor, perhaps, the fact that the British government turned a blind eye, and later covered them up. What is surprising, however, is that it has taken so long to document the whole ghastly story-this is what makes Caroline Elkins’s disturbing and horrifying account so important and memorable.” — Caroline Moorehead reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “Imperial Reckoning is an incredible piece of historical sleuthing. The author has reconstructed the story that British officialdom almost succeeding in suppressing. Her sources are the Mau Mau fighters and sympathizers whom the British detained in concentration camps during the 1950s. Her interviews with the survivors of this British ‘gulag’ are a labor of love and courage-impressive in their frankness and deep emotional content as well as properly balanced between men and women, colonial officials and Mau Mau detainees. Caroline Elkins tells a story that would never have made it into the historical record had she not persevered and collected information from the last generation of Mau Mau detainees alive to bear witness to what happened.” — Robert Tignor, Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Princeton University reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”
  • “When the British left Kenya in 1963, they built bonfires and burned the meticulous records they kept. Most of these dealt with a period known as “the Emergency,” when the colonial government attempted to stamp out the Mau Mau movement—an inchoate drive for “land and freedom,” notorious for its machete killings—that arose among the Kikuyu, a hill-dwelling farming tribe and Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Elkins, working in archives and traveling throughout Kenya, has undertaken an extraordinary act of historical recovery, to find out what the burned documents would have told us: the British, in their “civilizing mission” to pacify the colony, created a cruel system of detention centers, where interrogations often ended in death. With the moral fervor (and, occasionally, the overreachings) of a prosecutor, Elkins provides potent evidence of how a society warped by racism can descend into an almost casual inhumanity.” — The New Yorker reviewing “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya”

Posted on Sunday, October 22, 2006 at 8:24 PM

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