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August 2022

Britain’s Gulag

Caroline Erskine

Bodley Head

The book Britain’s Gulag is a book about the crimes perpetrated against the African population by the colonial government and local allies during the Kenya Emergency in the 1950s. The book starts with a brief summary of the establishment of the Kenyian colony and the subsequent settlement of the area by white settlers whom were favoured by the colonial government and whom took the land of the native populations to cultivate crops. The book explains that it was this exact policy that would in the long term lead to the Mau-Mau rebellion and dissatisfaction with British rule along with other policies such as one enforcing racial segregation - the colour bar. The book, thereafter, describes the outbreak of the Mau-Mau rebellion in 1952 when a part of the African population (mainly from the Kikuyu tribe) of Kenya rebelled against the colonial government and the unfair policies regarding the distribution of land. For the Kikuyu, the possession of land was not only a necessity for survival, but also of great symbolic value and the crowded reserves set aside by the British administration were by no means adequate for the Kikuyu population. The main part of the book focuses on the detention of Africans in camps, deportation to reserves and containment in “prison-villages”. In the context of these arbitrary measures, the agents of the government perpetrated many crimes, forcing detainees to work, torturing, starving and killing them. This violence was consistently present in what was in essence the detention of all the Kikuyu population. The book refers in detail to a great many violent and cruel incidents mostly from primary sources whilst also underlining the role of high ranking British officials (Governor Evelyn Baring, Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd) in ignoring and covering up violence which was a product of official policies such as the pipeline system (detention of prisoners in order to make them confess Mau-Mau oaths). On the ground, the British, but mainly in the form of settler and loyalist soldiers and policemen under the auspices of British and settler officers, were brutal in their treatment of African detainees. The book also covers the cover-up of atrocities committed by government forces in Kenya in Britain. Overall, the book argues very convincingly that the end of British rule in Kenya was brutal and almost genocidal. However, the author admits that a full historical analysis would require further archival evidence which was destroyed or remains classified. Regrettably, the book does not also encompass, even in the most rudimentary fashion, the action taken in the military conflict (it focuses solely on the mass detainment). All the same, the book is interesting  describing an important part of Kenyan and colonial history and has much to offer to the current debate surrounding colonialism.

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