[Marxism] Colonial atrocities and academic reputations on trial in a British courtroom

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 1 07:19:11 MDT 2016

(This is longer than my usual crossposting because it was behind a 
paywall. It is very interesting account about how Caroline Elkins, the 
author of a book on Britain's genocidal attack on the Mau Mau rebellion, 
got caught in the middle of a huge controversy over legal and scholarly 
ramifications over that colonial war.)

Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1 2016
A Reckoning
Colonial atrocities and academic reputations on trial in a British courtroom
By Marc Parry

Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request 
Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was 
both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the 
case, then being assembled by human-rights lawyers in London, would 
attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years 
earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those 
misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.

She had come to prominence in 2005 with a book that exhumed one of the 
nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of 
Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Elkins’s study, Imperial Reckoning, 
chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by 
confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and 
heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and 
high-level cover-ups.

It was also an unconventional first book for a junior scholar. Elkins 
framed the story as a personal journey of discovery. She published it 
with a trade press, Henry Holt & Company. Her prose seethed with 
outrage. Imperial Reckoning earned Elkins a great deal of attention and 
a Pulitzer Prize. But the book polarized scholars. Some praised Elkins 
for breaking the "code of silence" that had squelched discussion of 
British imperial violence. Others branded her a self-aggrandizing 
crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and 
dubious oral testimonies.

By 2008, Elkins’s job was on the line. Her Harvard tenure case, once on 
the fast track, had been delayed in response to criticism of her work. 
To secure a permanent position, she needed to make progress on her 
second book. This would be an ambitious study of violence at the end of 
the British Empire, one that would take her far beyond the controversy 
that had engulfed her Mau Mau work.

That’s when the phone rang, pulling her back in. A London law firm was 
preparing to file a reparations claim on behalf of elderly Kenyans who 
had been tortured in detention camps during the Mau Mau revolt. Elkins’s 
research had made the suit possible. Now the lawyer running the case 
wanted her to sign on as an expert witness. Elkins was in the top-floor 
study of her Cambridge home when the call came. She looked at the file 
boxes around her. "I was supposed to be spending my time working on this 
next book," she says. "Keep my head down and be an academic. Don’t go 
out and be on the front page of the paper."

She said yes. She wanted to rectify injustice. And she stood behind her 
work. "I was kind of like a dog with a bone," she says. "I knew I was 

What she didn’t know was that the lawsuit would expose a secret: a vast 
colonial archive that had been hidden for half a century. The files 
within would be a reminder to historians of just how far a government 
would go to sanitize its past. And the story Elkins would tell about 
those papers would once again plunge her into controversy.

Nothing about Caroline Elkins suggests her as an obvious candidate for 
the role of Mau Mau avenger. Now 47, she grew up a lower-middle-class 
kid in Ocean Township, N.J. Her mother was a schoolteacher; her father, 
a computer-supplies salesman. In high school, she worked at a pizza shop 
that was run by what she calls "low-level mob." You still hear this 
background when she speaks. Foul-mouthed, fast-talking, and hyperbolic, 
Elkins can sound more Central Jersey than Harvard Yard. She classifies 
fellow scholars as friends or enemies. When talking about academic 
criticism, she invokes a violent metaphor: "He just cut me off at the 

After high school, Princeton University recruited her to play soccer, 
and she considered a career in the sport. But an African-history class 
put her on a different path. For her senior thesis, Elkins visited 
archives in London and Nairobi to study the shifting roles of women from 
Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. She stumbled onto files about 
an all-female Mau Mau detention camp called Kamiti, a discovery that 
kindled her curiosity.

The Mau Mau uprising had long fascinated scholars. It was as an armed 
rebellion launched by the Kikuyu, who had lost land during colonization. 
Its adherents mounted gruesome attacks on white settlers and fellow 
Kikuyu who collaborated with the British administration. Colonial 
authorities portrayed Mau Mau as a descent into savagery, turning its 
fighters into "the face of international terrorism in the 1950s," as one 
scholar puts it. The British, declaring a state of emergency in 1952, 
proceeded to attack the movement along two tracks. They waged a forest 
war against 20,000 Mau Mau fighters, and, with African allies, also 
targeted a bigger civilian enemy: roughly 1.5 million Kikuyu thought to 
have proclaimed their allegiance to the Mau Mau campaign for land and 
freedom. That fight took place in a system of detention camps.

“Who is controlling the production of the history of Kenya? ... White 
men from Oxbridge, not a young American girl from Harvard.”
Elkins enrolled in Harvard’s history Ph.D. program knowing she wanted to 
study those camps. An initial sifting of the official records conveyed a 
sense that these had been sites of rehabilitation, not punishment, with 
civics and home-craft classes meant to instruct the detainees to be good 
citizens. Incidents of violence against prisoners were described as 
isolated events. When Elkins presented her dissertation proposal in 
1997, its premise was "the success of Britain’s civilizing mission in 
the detention camps of Kenya."

But that thesis crumbled as Elkins dug into her research. She met a 
former colonial official, Terence Gavaghan, who had been in charge of 
rehabilitation at a group of detention camps on Kenya’s Mwea Plain. Even 
in his 70s, he was a formidable figure: well over six feet tall, with an 
Adonis-like physique and piercing blue eyes. Elkins, questioning 
Gavaghan in London, found him creepy and defensive. He denied violence 
she hadn’t asked about.

"What’s a nice young lady like you working on a topic like this for?" he 
asked Elkins, as she recalled the conversation many years later.

"I’m from New Jersey," she answered. "We’re a different breed. We’re a 
little tougher. So I can handle this, don’t worry."

In the British and Kenyan archives, meanwhile, Elkins encountered 
another oddity. Many documents related to the detention camps were 
either absent or still classified as confidential 50 years after the 
war. She discovered that the British had torched documents in bonfires 
ahead of their 1963 withdrawal from Kenya. The scale of the archival 
cleansing had been enormous. For example, three departments had 
maintained individual files for each of the reported 80,000 detainees. 
At a minimum, there should have been 240,000 such files in the archives. 
She found only a few hundred.

But important records escaped the purges. One day in the spring of 1998, 
after months of often frustrating searches, she discovered a baby-blue 
folder that would become central to both her book and the Mau Mau 
lawsuit. Stamped "secret," it revealed a system for breaking 
recalcitrant detainees by isolating them, torturing them, and forcing 
them to work. This was called "the dilution technique." Britain’s 
Colonial Office had endorsed it. And, as Elkins would eventually learn, 
Gavaghan had developed the technique and put it into practice.

Later that year, Elkins traveled to the rural highlands of Central Kenya 
to begin interviewing former detainees. Some thought she was British and 
refused to speak with her at first. But she eventually gained their 
trust. Over some 300 interviews, she heard testimony after testimony of 
torture. She met people like Salome Maina, who had been accused of 
supplying arms to the Mau Mau. Maina told Elkins she had been beaten 
unconscious by Kikuyu loyalists collaborating with the British. When she 
failed to provide information, she said, they raped her using a bottle 
filled with pepper and water. A booted foot held it in place as the 
burning mixture poured inside her.

Elkins’s fieldwork brought to the surface stories that had been 
repressed by Kenya’s policy of official amnesia. After the country 
gained independence in 1963, its first prime minister and president, 
Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, declared repeatedly that Kenyans must "forgive 
and forget the past." This helped contain the hatred between Kikuyu who 
had joined the Mau Mau revolt and those who had fought on the side of 
the British. In prying open that story, Elkins would meet younger Kikuyu 
who didn’t know their parents or grandparents had been detained. Kikuyu 
who didn’t know that the reason they had been forbidden to play with 
their neighbor’s children was that the neighbor had been a loyalist 
collaborator who raped their mother. Mau Mau was still a banned movement 
in Kenya, and would remain so until 2002. When Elkins interviewed Kikuyu 
in their remote homes, they whispered.

Elkins emerged with a book that turned her initial thesis on its head. 
The British had sought to quell the Mau Mau uprising by instituting a 
policy of mass detention. This system — "Britain’s gulag," as Elkins 
called it — had affected far more people than previously understood. She 
calculated that the Mau Mau camps held not 80,000 detainees, as the 
official figures had it, but between 160,000 and 320,000. She also came 
to understand that colonial authorities had herded Kikuyu women and 
children into some 800 enclosed villages dispersed across the 
countryside. These heavily patrolled villages — cordoned off by barbed 
wire, spiked trenches, and watchtowers — amounted to another form of 
detention. In camps, villages, and other outposts, the Kikuyu suffered 
forced labor, disease, starvation, torture, rape, and murder.

"I’ve come to believe that during the Mau Mau war British forces wielded 
their authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic: 
only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million 
people and physically and psychologically atomizing its men, women, and 
children could colonial authority be restored and the civilizing mission 
reinstated," Elkins wrote in Imperial Reckoning. After nearly a decade 
of oral and archival research, she had uncovered "a murderous campaign 
to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, 
perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead."

Elkins knew her findings would be explosive. But the ferocity of the 
response went beyond what she could have imagined.

Felicitous timing helped. Imperial Reckoning hit bookstores after the 
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had touched off debate about imperialism. 
It was a moment when another historian, Niall Ferguson, had won acclaim 
for his sympathetic writing on British colonialism. Hawkish 
intellectuals pressed America to embrace an imperial role. Then came 
Bagram. Abu Ghraib. Guantánamo. These controversies primed readers for 
stories about the underside of empire.

Enter Elkins. Young, articulate, and photogenic, she was fired up with 
outrage over her findings. Her book cut against an abiding belief that 
the British had managed and retreated from their empire with more 
dignity and humanity than had other former colonial powers, like the 
French or the Belgians. And she didn’t hesitate to speak about that 
research in the grandest possible terms: as a "tectonic shift in Kenyan 

Some academics shared her enthusiasm. By conveying the perspective of 
the Mau Mau themselves, Imperial Reckoning marked a "historical 
breakthrough," says Wm. Roger Louis, a historian of the British Empire 
at the University of Texas at Austin. Richard Drayton of King’s College 
London, another imperial historian, judged it an "extraordinary" book 
whose implications went beyond Kenya. It set the stage for a rethinking 
of British imperial violence, he says, demanding that scholars reckon 
with colonial brutality in territories like Cyprus, Malaya, and Aden 
(now part of Yemen).

But many other scholars slammed the book. No review was more devastating 
than the one that Bethwell A. Ogot, a senior Kenyan historian, published 
in the flagship Journal of African History. Ogot dismissed Elkins as an 
uncritical imbiber of Mau Mau propaganda. In compiling "a kind of case 
for the prosecution," he argued, she had glossed over the litany of Mau 
Mau atrocities: "decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, 
torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, 
burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the 
stomachs of pregnant women." Ogot also suggested that Elkins might have 
made up quotes and fallen for the bogus stories of financially motivated 
interviewees. Pascal James Imperato picked up the same theme in African 
Studies Review. Elkins’s work, he wrote, depended heavily on the 
"largely uncorroborated fifty-year-old memories of a few elderly men and 
women interested in financial reparations."

Sensationalism was another charge. That manifested itself in a big 
debate over Elkins’s mortality figures. Imperial Reckoning opens by 
describing a "murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people" and ends 
with the suggestion that "between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are 
unaccounted for," an estimate derived from Elkins’s analysis of census 
figures. "In this very long book, she really doesn’t bring out any more 
evidence than that for talking about the possibility of hundreds of 
thousands killed, and talking in terms almost of kind of genocide as a 
policy," says Philip Murphy, a University of London historian who 
directs the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and co-edits the Journal 
of Imperial and Commonwealth History. This marred what was otherwise an 
"incredibly valuable" study, he says. "If you make a really radical 
claim about history, you really need to back it up solidly."

“If only all the rest of us could be ostracized and have to make do with 
a Pulitzer and a full professorship at Harvard.”
Critics didn’t just find the substance overstated. They also rolled 
their eyes at the narrative Elkins told about her work. Particularly 
irksome, to some Africanists, was her claim to have discovered an 
unknown story. This was a motif of feature articles on Elkins in the 
popular press. But it hinged on the public ignorance of African history 
and the scholarly marginalization of Africanist research, wrote Bruce J. 
Berman, a historian of African political economy at Queen’s University, 
in Kingston, Ontario. During the Mau Mau war, journalists, missionaries, 
and colonial whistle-blowers had exposed abuses. The broad strokes of 
British misbehavior were known by the late ’60s, Berman argued. Memoirs 
and studies had added to the picture. Imperial Reckoning had broken 
important new ground, providing the most comprehensive chronicle yet of 
the detention camps and prison villages. But among Kenyanists, Berman 
wrote, the reaction had generally been no more than "it was as bad as or 
worse than I had imagined from more fragmentary accounts."

He called Elkins "astonishingly disingenuous" for saying her project 
began as an attempt to show the success of Britain’s liberal reforms. 
"If, at that late date," he wrote, "she still believed in the official 
British line about its so-called civilizing mission in the empire, then 
she was perhaps the only scholar or graduate student in the 
English-speaking world who did."

To Elkins, the vituperation felt over the top. And she believes there 
was more going on than the usual academic disagreement. Kenyan history, 
she says, was "an old boys’ club." Women worked on noncontroversial 
topics like maternal health, not blood and violence during Mau Mau. Now 
here came this interloper from the United States, blowing open the Mau 
Mau story, winning a Pulitzer, landing media interviews. It raised 
questions about why they hadn’t told the tale themselves. "Who is 
controlling the production of the history of Kenya? And that was white 
men from Oxbridge, not a young American girl from Harvard," she says.

On April 6, 2011, the debate over Caroline Elkins’s work shifted from 
the pages of academic journals to the marbled Great Hall of the Royal 
Courts of Justice, in London. A scrum of cameras turned out to document 
the real-life imperial reckoning: four elderly plaintiffs from rural 
Kenya, some clutching canes, who had come to the heart of the former 
British Empire to seek justice. Elkins paraded with them outside the 
court. Her career was now secure: Harvard had awarded her tenure in 
2009, based on Imperial Reckoning and the research she had done for a 
second book. But she remained nervous about the case. "Good God," she 
thought. "This is the moment where literally my footnotes are on trial."

In preparation, Elkins had distilled her book — absent the oral 
testimony — into a 78-page witness statement for the court. The 
claimants now marching beside her were just like the people she had 
interviewed in Kenya. One, Paulo Nzili, said he had been castrated with 
pliers at a detention camp. Another, Jane Muthoni Mara, reported being 
sexually assaulted with a heated glass bottle. Their case made the same 
claim as Imperial Reckoning: This mistreatment was part of systematic 
violence against detainees, sanctioned by British authorities.

There was one difference now. Many more documents were coming out.

Just as the hearings were set to begin, a story broke in the British 
press that would affect the case, the Imperial Reckoning debate, and the 
broader community of imperial historians. A cache of papers had come to 
light. They documented Britain’s torture and mistreatment of detainees 
during the Mau Mau rebellion. The Times splashed the news across its 
front page: "50 years later: Britain’s Kenya cover-up revealed."

The story exposed to the public an archival mystery that had long 
intrigued historians. The British destroyed documents in Kenya — 
scholars knew that. But for years clues had existed that Britain had 
also expatriated colonial records that were considered too sensitive to 
be left in the hands of successor governments. Kenyan officials had 
sniffed this trail soon after the country gained its independence. In 
1967, they wrote to Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office asking for 
the return of the country’s "stolen papers." The response? Blatant 
dishonesty, writes David M. Anderson, a University of Warwick historian 
and author of Histories of the Hanged, a highly regarded book about the 
Mau Mau war.

Internally, British officials acknowledged that more than 1,500 files, 
encompassing over 100 linear feet of storage, had been flown from Kenya 
to London in 1963, according to documents reviewed by Anderson. Yet 
British officials conveyed none of this in their official reply to the 
Kenyans. "They were simply told that no such collection of Kenyan 
documents existed, and that the British had removed nothing that they 
were not entitled to take with them in December 1963," Anderson writes. 
The stonewalling continued as Kenyan officials made more inquiries in 
1974 and 1981, when Kenya’s chief archivist dispatched a team of 
officials to London to search for what he called the "migrated 
archives." This delegation was "systematically and deliberately misled 
in its meetings with British diplomats and archivists," Anderson writes 
in a 2015 History Workshop Journal article titled "Guilty Secrets: 
Deceit, Denial, and the Discovery of Kenya’s ‘Migrated Archive.’"

The turning point came in 2010, when Anderson, now serving as an expert 
witness in the Mau Mau case, submitted a statement to the court that 
referred directly to the 1,500 files spirited out of Kenya. Under legal 
pressure, the government finally acknowledged that the records had been 
stashed at a high-security storage facility that the Foreign & 
Commonwealth Office shared with the intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. 
It also revealed a bigger secret. This same repository, called Hanslope 
Park, held thousands of files that Britain had removed from a total of 
37 former colonies.

The disclosure sparked an uproar in the press. "Some of these colonies, 
as they moved toward independence, their sense of themselves as a people 
and a nation was shaped by their resistance to colonial rule and their 
determination to shake it off," says Ian Cobain, a Guardian reporter who 
covered the story. "And the British documentation that describes that 
process was a very important part of the establishment of their own 
nations. And it’s either been destroyed, or it’s been hidden in a sort 
of MI5, MI6 outpost north of London for the last few decades."

Its exposure flabbergasted Elkins: "After all these years of being just 
roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you 
frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career."

Events moved quickly from there. In court, lawyers representing the 
British government tried to have the Mau Mau case tossed out. Britain 
could not be held responsible because liability for any colonial abuses 
had devolved to the Kenyan government upon independence, they argued. 
But the presiding judge, Richard McCombe, dismissed the government’s bid 
to dodge responsibility as "dishonorable." He ruled that the claim could 
move forward. "There is ample evidence even in the few papers that I 
have seen suggesting that there may have been systematic torture of 
detainees," he wrote in July 2011.

And that was before historians had a chance to thoroughly review the 
newly discovered files, known as the "Hanslope disclosure." A careful 
combing through of these documents might normally have taken three 
years. Elkins had about nine months. Working with five students at 
Harvard, she found thousands of records relevant to the case: more 
evidence on the nature and extent of detainee abuse, more details on 
what officials knew about it, new material about the brutal "dilution 
technique" used to break hard-core detainees. These documents would 
probably have spared her years of research for Imperial Reckoning. She 
drew on them to compose two more witness statements for the court.

Back in London, Foreign Office lawyers conceded that the elderly Kenyan 
claimants had suffered torture during the Mau Mau rebellion. But too 
much time had elapsed for a fair trial, they contended. There weren’t 
enough surviving witnesses. The evidence was insufficient. In October of 
2012, Justice McCombe rejected those arguments, too. His decision, which 
noted the thousands of Hanslope files that had emerged, allowed the case 
to proceed to trial. It also fed speculation that many more 
colonial-abuse claims would crop up from across an empire that once 
ruled about a quarter of the earth’s population.

The British government, defeated repeatedly in court, moved to settle 
the Mau Mau case. On June 6, 2013, Foreign Secretary William Hague read 
a statement in Parliament announcing an unprecedented agreement to 
compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused during the 
insurrection. Each would receive about $4,000. "The British government 
recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of 
ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration," Hague said. 
Britain "sincerely regrets that these abuses took place." The 
settlement, in Anderson’s view, marked a "profound" rewriting of 
history. It was the first time Britain had admitted carrying out torture 
anywhere in its former empire.

The lawyers were done fighting, but the academics were not. The Mau Mau 
case has fueled two scholarly debates, one old and one new.

The old one is about Caroline Elkins. To the historian and her allies, a 
single word summarizes what happened in the High Court: vindication. 
Scholars had mistreated Elkins in their attacks on Imperial Reckoning. 
Then a British court, which had every reason to sympathize with those 
critics, gave her the fair hearing academe never did. By ruling in her 
favor, the court also implicitly judged her critics.

The evidence backing this account comes from Justice McCombe, whose 2011 
decision had stressed the substantial documentation supporting 
accusations of systematic abuses. That "spoke directly to claims that, 
if you took out the oral evidence" in Imperial Reckoning, "the whole 
thing fell apart," Elkins says. Then the Hanslope disclosure added 
extensive documentation about the scale and scope of what went on. At 
least two scholars have noted that these new files corroborated 
important aspects of the oral testimony in Imperial Reckoning, such as 
the systematic beating and torture of detainees at specific detention 
camps. "Basically, I read document after document after document that 
proved the book to be correct," Elkins says.

Her victory lap has played out in op-eds, interviews, and journal 
articles. It may soon reach an even bigger audience. Elkins has sold the 
film rights for her book and personal story to John N. Hart Jr., the 
producer of hits including Boys Don’t Cry and Revolutionary Road. An 
early summary of the feature film he is developing gives its flavor: 
"One woman’s journey to tell the story of the colonial British genocide 
of the Mau Mau. Threatened and shunned by colleagues and critics, 
Caroline Elkins persevered and brought to life the atrocities that were 
committed and hidden from the world for decades."

But some scholars find aspects of Elkins’s vindication story 
unconvincing. Philip Murphy, who specializes in the history of British 
decolonization, attended some of the Mau Mau hearings. He thinks Elkins 
and other historians did "hugely important" work on the case. Still, he 
does not believe that the Hanslope files justify the notion that 
hundreds of thousands of people were killed in Kenya, or that those 
deaths were systematic. "Probably most of the historical criticisms of 
the book still stand," he says. "I don’t think the trial really changes 

Susan L. Carruthers feels the same about her own criticism of Imperial 
Reckoning. Carruthers, a professor of history at Rutgers University at 
Newark, had cast doubt on Elkins’s self-dramatization: her account of 
naïvely embarking on a journey of personal discovery, only to see the 
scales drop from her eyes. She finds that Elkins’s current "narrative of 
victimization" also rings a bit false. "There’s only so much ostracism 
one can plausibly claim if you won a Pulitzer and you became a full 
professor at Harvard — and this on the strength of the book that 
supposedly also made you outcast and vilified by all and sundry," she 
says. "If only all the rest of us could be ostracized and have to make 
do with a Pulitzer and a full professorship at Harvard."

The second debate triggered by the Mau Mau case concerns not just Elkins 
but the future of British imperial history. At its heart is a series of 
documents that now sits in the National Archives as a result of 
Britain’s decision to make public the formerly secret Hanslope files. 
These files describe, in extensive detail, how the British government 
went about retaining and destroying colonial records in the waning days 
of empire. Elkins considers them to be the most important new material 
to emerge from the Hanslope disclosure.

On a Tuesday morning in late March, she visits the National Archives to 
have a look at those files. The facility occupies a 1970s-era concrete 
building that sits beside a pond in Kew, about an hour’s train ride from 
central London. It conveys efficiency, with bright red cubbies for 
retrieving documents, numbered tables for reading them, and scrupulously 
enforced rules for details as small as the type and quantity of pencils 
permitted inside (up to five, without erasers).

By Elkins’s account, the documents she is here to see demonstrate that 
Britain brought a similar degree of bureaucratic care to sanitizing its 
past. A blue cord holds together the thin, yellowed pages, which smell 
of decaying paper. One record, a 1961 dispatch from the British colonial 
secretary to authorities in Kenya and elsewhere, directs that no 
documents should be handed over to a successor regime that might, among 
other things, "embarrass" Her Majesty’s Government. Another details the 
system that would be used to carry out that order. All Kenyan files were 
to be classified as either "Watch" or "Legacy." The Legacy files could 
be passed on to Kenya. The Watch files would be either flown back to 
Britain or destroyed. A certificate of destruction was to be issued for 
every document destroyed — in duplicate. The files indicate that roughly 
3.5 tons of Kenyan documents were bound for the incinerator.

"The overarching takeaway is that the government itself was involved in 
a very highly choreographed, systematized process of destroying and 
removing documents so it could craft the official narrative that sits in 
these archives," Elkins says. "I never in my wildest dreams imagined 
this level of detail," she adds, speaking in a whisper but opening her 
green eyes wide. "I imagined it more of a haphazard kind of process." 
What’s more, "It’s not just happening in Kenya to this level, but all 
over the empire." For British historians, this is "absolutely seismic," 
she says. "Everybody right now is trying to figure out what to make of 

“That's exactly what you would expect of a colonial administration, or 
any government in particular, including our own.”
Elkins laid out what she makes of it in a 2015 American Historical 
Review essay. Basically, she thinks end-of-empire historians have 
largely failed to show skepticism about the archives. She thinks the 
manipulation of those records puts a cloud over many studies that have 
been written based on their contents. And she thinks all of this amounts 
to a watershed moment in which historians must rethink their field.

The issue of archival erasure figures prominently in Elkins’s next book, 
a history of violence at the end of the British Empire whose case 
studies will include Kenya, Aden, Cyprus, Malaya, Palestine, and 
Northern Ireland. But if the response to her latest claims is any 
indication, her arguments will be controversial. The same document 
shenanigans that leave Elkins wide-eyed prompt several other historians 
to essentially shrug. "That’s exactly what you would expect of a 
colonial administration, or any government in particular, including our 
own," laughs Louis, the UT-Austin historian of British Empire. "That’s 
the way a bureaucracy works. You want to destroy the documents that can 
be incriminating."

Murphy says Elkins "has a tendency to caricature other historians of 
empire as simply passive and unthinking consumers in the National 
Archives supermarket, who don’t think about the ideological way in which 
the archive is constructed." They’ve been far more skeptical than that, 
he says. Historians, he adds, have always dealt with the absence of 
documents. What’s more, history constantly changes, with new evidence 
and new paradigms. To say that a discovery about document destruction 
will change the whole field is "simply not true," he says. "That’s not 
how history works."

Some historians who have read the document-destruction materials come 
away with a picture of events that seems less Orwellian than Elkins’s. 
Anderson’s review of the evidence shows how the purging process evolved 
from colony to colony and allowed substantial latitude to local 
officials. Tony Badger, a University of Cambridge professor emeritus who 
monitored the Hanslope files’ release, writes that there was "no 
systematic process dictated from London."

Badger sees a different lesson in the Hanslope disclosure: a "profound 
sense of contingency." Over the decades, archivists and Foreign Office 
officials puzzled over what to do with the Hanslope papers. The National 
Archives essentially said they should either be destroyed or returned to 
the countries from which they had been taken. The files could easily 
have been trashed on at least three occasions, he says, probably without 
publicity. For a variety of reasons, they weren’t. Maybe it was the 
squirrel-like tendency of archivists. Maybe it was luck. In retrospect, 
he says, what is remarkable is not that the documents were kept secret 
for so many years. What is remarkable is that they survived at all.

Marc Parry is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.

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