African Gulag

Daniel Francis

The atrocities were carried out in the name of some version of “civilization” that the Queen represented.

In 1952, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip visited Kenya, then a British colony, and stayed for a night at Treetops, a tiny, rustic structure in the branches of a fig tree, where guests could watch the wild animals that came to drink at an adjacent waterhole. Treetops was built with two rooms in 1932, but it was renovated and expanded to four rooms for the royal visit.

During the night, Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, died, so when she clambered down out of the tree in the morning she was the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and, of course, Canada). Within months of Elizabeth’s visit, the political situation in Kenya deteriorated into armed conflict and Britain declared a state of emergency to deal with a native insurgency led by a secret society known as Mau Mau. (One of the early targets of Mau Mau was the Treetops Hotel, which was burned in 1953 in defiance of colonial rule.)

In her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, the historian Caroline Elkins describes the ensuing war, which resulted in Kenya’s independence. Before Elkins, the official version of these events described the Mau Mau as bloodthirsty terrorists, mainly from the Kikuyu tribe, who slaughtered innocent white settlers in their beds and carried out a vicious campaign against the loyalist Black Africans who supported British rule. In response, the British waged war on the Mau Mau. During this conflict, about 8, Kikuyu were said by British authorities to have been detained for their suspected terrorist affiliations, and 11, natives killed.

Elkins reveals a different story. She describes a vast system of barbed wire and blood created by the British: concentration camps, captive villages, sadistic torture and murder, and a cover-up by colonial officials that extended all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. She estimates that during the 195s the British detained 1.5 million Kikuyu people, almost the entire population, and were responsible for as many as 3, deaths. Testimony from survivors reveals how inhabitants of this African gulag were starved, beaten, hung upside down until they bled from their eyes and ears, rolled in barbed wire across the ground, raped and murdered. In the history of colonialism, the brutality of the British in Kenya—what Elkins calls a “pornography of terror”—rivals anything attributed to the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria or the Dutch in South Africa.

As in any war, a key element in the campaign against the Kikuyu was propaganda. The state of emergency was characterized as a struggle between European civilization and the most primitive forces of darkness. The British successfully depicted the Mau Mau as devils incarnate, cannibals who drank blood, swore mysterious oaths deep in the jungle and slaughtered white settlers indiscriminately (even though fewer than 1 Europeans were killed during the war). There was no room in this story for any discussion of land grievances or political rights. In Canada, where I was a boy at the time, the Mau Mau, whom we learned about from books and movies, became spectral figures haunting our imaginations, much like Al Qaeda terrorists in our own time. They stood for everything that was dark about the Dark Continent. Even today, the contemporary phrase “mau-mauing” means to intimidate or terrorize.

In 1959, while the war in Kenya was still going on, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Vancouver during a tour of Canada. I was in grade six. Our teachers took us out of class, handed us tiny Union Jacks on sticks and marched us up to the nearest main street to wave at the royal couple as their black limousine passed. While the Queen was visiting Canada, her government back in England was dealing with a scandal that threatened to destroy it. Elkins relates how guards at one of the detention camps in Kenya had clubbed eleven prisoners to death early in 1959, and word had leaked out. In London, the opposition was demanding an investigation, something Prime Minister Harold Macmillan knew would be fatal for his government. The most brutal tactics in the camps had been approved at the highest levels: the blame could not be laid on a few “rogue” guards or local officials. Macmillan toughed it out, arguing that the victims were collateral damage in the war on terror, and no investigation was held. Kenya got its independence, but the truth about the gulag never came out. Interestingly, Kenyans were as eager as the British to sweep this episode under the carpet. Mau Mau had become such an image of shame and horror that everyone, black and white, African and European, wanted to turn away from it.

Of course Elkins does not mention the Queen’s visit to Vancouver or the appearance on the sidewalk of myself and my flag-waving schoolmates. But as I read her book, I felt more implicated in the events that she describes than I usually do with a book of history. After all, these atrocities were committed on behalf of Anglo-Canadians like myself. They were carried out in the name of some version of “civilization” that the Queen represented and that we were honouring, however unwittingly, by our presence at the motorcade.

When we know that things have been done in our name, the distance between ourselves and the past collapses. The events remain historic, done by others, but they also become favours, done for us. We find ourselves in the camp of the perpetrators, and it is deeply unsettling.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at


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