This winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction reveals the terror at the heart of Britain's "civilizing" mission in Kenya, where after World War II the British colonial government detained nearly the entire population of Kenya's largest ethnic minority, the Kikuyu. In a cruel system of prisons and work camps—and during the Kikuyu's "Mau Mau" uprising—tens of thousands of Kenyans were exterminated by British colonizers.
The catalog of cruelty Elkins uncovered—bits from surviving documents, more from interviewing survivors—makes for quite nauseating reading that descends the slope of depravity from torture to outright killing. Inevitably news of incidents leaked out, igniting parliamentary rows in London, which Elkins chronicles with contained fury. Filling a previously blank page in history, Elkins’ pioneering study is a crucial recording of Kenyan history in particular, and that of African decolonization in general.
Elkins, working in archives and travelling throughout Kenya, has undertaken an extraordinary act of historical recovery ... 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.
Imperial Reckoning is an important and excruciating record; it will shock even those who think they have assumed the worst about Europe's era of control in Africa ... [Elkins's] method is relentless; page after page, chapter after chapter, the horrors accumulate ... Yet for all its power, Imperial Reckoning is not as compelling as it should be. With so much evidence of atrocity, Elkins often forgoes complexity and careful analysis. Not only are the colonists barbaric in their treatment of the Kikuyu, but, as she has it, they are basically barbarous in private as well ... Unfortunately, Elkins's prosecutorial zeal in a sense precludes a true 'imperial reckoning.'