In recent years, Elkins has broadened the scope of her inquiries beyond Kenya, publishing a new book in March called “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.” I spoke to Elkins last week about her work. Our conversation was edited for clarity.
Peter Bergen: When Queen Elizabeth died, what was running through your mind?
Caroline Elkins: First, what an extraordinary life. Seventy years as monarch. As a person, as an historian, how can one not marvel at that? Second, the differences in public reactions in Britain and in the former empire. Incredible national mourning and outpouring of grief in Britain, yet in the former empire and now current Commonwealth there were different reactions — that the Queen oversaw what was a violent and exploitative empire.
Bergen: King Charles III doesn’t elicit quite the same feelings as his mother did: How will this affect the Commonwealth?
Elkins: There are 56 nations in the Commonwealth, most of whom were former British colonies, and of those former British colonies, 14 are what we would call “Commonwealth realms.” That is, they’re not republics, and they still recognize the British monarch as their head of state. So, Charles III is also King of Canada and King of Australia, and it’s in these countries where there is a real push for referendums to change and to become republics.
And then there’s the question of, what is the purpose of the broader 56 nations in this Commonwealth? The Queen obsessed over the Commonwealth; it was the coda to empire. She oversaw in her reign the dissolution of much of the empire and the creation, with a kind of monarchical mythmaking, of the Commonwealth as being a force of good, a force of peace, a force of democracy in the contemporary modern world of which she remained the head.
So, King Charles III is in a tricky situation because, in some ways, the Commonwealth is a confidence trick. How much do these nations today believe that they are part of something that’s greater than themselves? When these nations joined the Commonwealth in the ’50s and ’60s, one could make that claim. But I suspect there are now a lot of Commonwealth nations looking at this and asking themselves, “What’s the point?” Britain’s economy is in bad shape; going it alone with Brexit was a mistake, and geopolitically it’s on the wane.
Bergen: Queen Elizabeth found out that she was the new monarch in Kenya in 1952 when she was on a safari there. Tell us about your research in Kenya and reflect on the fact that the newly minted Queen Elizabeth was in the country around the time that the anti-British Mau Mau rebellion was starting to get serious.
Elkins: There’s the famous story that Elizabeth, staying at Treetops Hotel in Aberdare National Park in Kenya, went up a tree as a princess and came down a queen. At the same time, just beyond where Queen Elizabeth was viewing game, the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, were taking mass oaths to join a movement called Mau Mau, whose stated purpose was, to kick all Whites out of the country, which were the British settlers and the British colonial administration.
Almost from the get-go in 1952, there were whistleblowers in Kenya. Missionaries were saying that torture by the British was going on. Eventually, the Church Missionary Society published a pamphlet called “Kenya — Time for Action!” describing the kind of horrible things that were happening.
When I started researching the history of the Mau Mau uprising, there were difficulties in writing the book because at the time of decolonialization, Britain went through a very systematic process of destroying documentation about the empire. In the case of Kenya, I estimate that about 3 1/2 tons of documents were destroyed, and some other documents were repatriated back to Britain and kept under lock and key. So, what it meant for an historian like me is I had to try to piece this story back together again, and it took about 10 years to do that.
In my 2005 book, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” I concluded that while the British government said that they had detained 70,000 to 80,000 Kenyans, in fact my research revealed that 1.5 million Kenyans were detained either in detention camps or in barbed-wire villages. These detention camps and villages were not the sites of “hearts and minds” campaigns but instead sites of systematized violence condoned from the very top of the British government and executed in a routinized way, and that every effort was made to cover this up.
The book came out to “critical acclaim.” There was probably more emphasis on the “critical” and less on the “acclaim” in part because it was one of the first books that really challenged this narrative of British exceptionalism in the empire. At that time, in 2005, I was a young academic historian. It was a rather crushing reception.
And then I was asked to be an expert witness for a case involving Kenyans suing the British government for torture endured while they were detained during the Mau Mau uprising. During the discovery process for this case, the British government said for the first time, “We’ve just discovered boxes of previously undisclosed files that we found at Hanslope Park.” Hanslope Park is where all the very highly sensitive British government documents are kept. And alongside those boxes from Kenya, there were also 8,800 files from 36 other British colonies similarly packed up and spirited away at the end of empire.
Having this documentation was crucial to the case. I pulled together a group of Harvard students, and we worked 24/7 going through these documents, and what became clear is that we had thousands of pages of additional evidence supporting my research and claims about what had happened in Kenya, and at the end of the day, the British government settled the case that had been brought by the Kenyan victims.
Bergen: Was Kenya exceptional in the British Empire?
Elkins: That took me about 15 years to answer and over 800 pages in my new book, “Legacy of Violence.” Not only is Kenya not exceptional, it’s one moment in a longer period of time that shows how the British created systems and practices to enforce colonial control, such as forced labor, torture and murder throughout the British Empire.
During the Boer War from 1899 to 1902 was the first time in history where extensive concentration camps were used to confine one ethnic population, in this case, the white Afrikaners, who the British considered uncivilized, although Africans were also detained.
Britain undertook similar confinement policies for criminals, as well as plague and famine victims, in India beginning around 1857. One of the things I spent a lot of time doing was tracing how these policies evolved — these practices of concentrating populations as well as forcibly moving them.
Bergen: This reassessment of British Empire: You are leading the charge. And also, William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire,” his history of the British East India Company is also part of this reassessment?
Elkins: There are many historians working on this. When you think about the kind of work that must take place for each colony, you have a lot of people who are real specialists in particular areas who might specialize in Cyprus or might specialize in India. Some of what I’m doing in this recent book, “Legacy of Violence,” is really drawing off this huge movement towards revisionism.
Bergen: Is all history revisionist history?
Elkins: Always. History is always being revised by folks like myself. I think in this case, it’s really a massive revision insofar as it really questions what continues to be a strongly held belief about British exceptionalism when it comes to empire.
Bergen: So, are the British in high school as they learn about British history being told a bunch of fairy tales?
Elkins: I think they’re being told a very particular official narrative that has been carefully cultivated, both by the British government and the monarchy. History is always used for national identity to galvanize a population, to imagine itself as something greater than any individual. And it’s important to remember that beginning in the 19th century, quite intentionally under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, there was an entwinement of nation, monarchy and empire that was the bedrock of British national identity, a kind of British imperial national identity of which the monarchy is a part. And that continues down to the present day.
Should British school history textbooks be revised? There’s a struggle over this in Britain now. It will be a big moment when we start to see revisions within the textbooks of schoolchildren in Britain that reflect the kind of larger conversations that are happening now between historians and the broader public.
Bergen: “The Crown” on Netflix was a very well-executed TV drama. How does that contribute to the way Britain and the world in general sees all this history?
Elkins: I have to say, full disclosure, I watched all of “The Crown.” It’s very compelling, and I was writing this book, “Legacy of Violence,” while watching it. One of the few times that the Queen Elizabeth weighed in with her authority is around the issue of apartheid in South Africa.
Bergen: To say what?
Elkins: To basically disagree with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to say that apartheid cannot continue, that Britain cannot be on the wrong side of history, and she used the Commonwealth as a vehicle to make that known.
The second of which that struck me was the death of her cousin Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was the last viceroy of India. He oversaw the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 in which somewhere between 200,000 to 2 million people died from brutal sectarian violence, according to estimates.
The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, which was a paramilitary organization, formed in 1919 to end British rule in Ireland and create a republic, engaged in a long struggle to end Britain’s continued rule in Northern Ireland after 1922. There were many terrorist attacks, including the IRA planting a bomb on Mountbatten’s boat off the coast of Northern Ireland in 1979, killing him and three people on the boat. And that scene is in “The Crown.” Mountbatten was probably the closest confidant and mentor to Prince Charles, now King Charles III.
There is kind of a coda to this story when the Queen became the first British monarch in 100 years to go to Ireland in 2011 and (later) extended her hand to one of the former leaders in the IRA.
Four years later Prince Charles met with former IRA leader Gerry Adams and did a similar kind of thing. They had a private conversation. This shows you what the British monarchy can accomplish, the kind of moral authority that it does have, and instances of reaching out their hands to make reconciliation.
Bergen: Do the British pat themselves on the back because they were relatively early to abolish slavery, and that has colored their own self-conception as empire builders?
Elkins: Yes, I think it’s an important point. I think it’s often held up that Britain led the charge on the abolition movement in the trade of enslaved people (in 1807) and decades later in the use of enslaved labor (in 1833).
At the same time, I think it’s important to bear in mind that this is the same country that amassed the largest empire history has ever known, with a quarter of the world’s land mass and 700 million people at its height.
On the heels of the abolition of the trade in enslaved people and the use of enslaved labor, the British launched what is known as their “civilizing mission.” This idea was that, in fact, empire is not about national benefit and exploitation, but it’s really our duty, our “white man’s burden” to go and uplift and bring into the modern world the “backward populations.”
The interesting part to me is how is it that Britons in general can continue to work and rework their understanding of what the empire meant. What was the civilizing mission? How are they able to accommodate all this into this broader narrative of what is ultimately British imperial exceptionalism, that somehow or another — and it’s a narrative that endures to this present day — that Britain got empire right, particularly when compared to all the other European nations.
And so, to me that’s also wrapped up into how the Queen is being remembered today. By some, she’s being remembered as the matriarch of empire, an empire that was a force of good in the world, that really extended the notions of rule of law and free trade — all those things that we hold dear in liberal democracies — while others who say, no, that’s actually not what happened.
Look at all this violence in the empire. I think we’re in a particular moment because formerly colonized populations are demanding that there should be a reckoning, not just in terms of acknowledgement that certain things happened, but also how we write about and remember the past.
Bergen: The 1619 Project has reframed the history of the United States around the history of slavery in the country. Are there similarities between the 1619 Project and what you and other colleagues are doing in your reassessment of the British Empire?
Elkins: Yes, I do think so. If we look at the ways in which the struggle to understand who we are in the present day and what the future holds is also a struggle about the past. What gives us legitimacy? How did we come to be who we are today? In the United States, it’s often thought that the original sin is the period of enslavement, and we must contend with that if we’re going to move forward as a nation.
Now, the suggestion being made by many in the former empire is that the “original sin” on a global scale was empire. They’re asking: How do we contend with this, and how do you, Britain, address this in such a way that we can all move forward, both from a societal standpoint and an economic one? And it’s not just about reparations. It’s about looking at structural inequities on a global scale and how and why the world is the way it is today.
Look at Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world today. In the mid-18th century, Eastern Bengal was one of the wealthiest parts of the world. What happens in between? A very long period of wealth extraction and decimation engendered by British colonial rule.
Look at Jamaica and imagine the fact that this nation was populated because its citizens were literally chained and shackled beneath ships and brought over. At first, this wasn’t even a self-reproducing population because it was more economical to work people to death than it was to allow them to self-reproduce.
And so these nations are born out of a similar kind of cauldron of violence that has dramatic societal and economic consequences, and I think this is coming to a head, just as the 1619 Project is really raising all these issues about the kind of structural inequities that we have in the United States today. We must understand the past and really have a comprehensive accounting of it. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in different kinds of ways with the history of the British Empire.