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