Her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (2005), won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It also was the basis for successful claims by former Mau Mau detainees against the British government for crimes committed in the detention camps of Kenya in the 1950s. The case, known as Mutua and Five Others versus the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was filed in London's High Court of Justice in 2009 and, claiming systematic abuse and torture during the late colonial era in Kenya, is the first case of its kind filed by any former colonized population against the British government. Elkins served as expert from the time of the claimant's filing until it was settled with a substantial cash payment and official apology to the Mau Mau claimants in June 2013.
In addition to her work on colonial Kenya, Elkins also studies the colonial encounter in Africa during the twentieth century, as well as in many parts of the former British Empire including Malaya, Singapore, Cyprus, and Zimbabwe. She has won numerous other fellowships and awards, including those from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Elkins majored in history at Princeton, graduating summa cum laude before moving to Harvard for her master's and doctorate. Her signature historical methodology, which includes an integrative reading of written sources and extensive ethnographic field work and oral interviews, has led to major revisions in the fields of African and British imperial histories, and has also generated significant criticism, particularly from conservative academics. Elkins' Harvard PhD was concerned with the detention system employed by the British colonial authorities during the Mau Mau Uprising, and served as the basis of the 2002 BBC documentary, Kenya: White Terror, in which Elkins and her fieldwork were both profiled. Kenya: White Terror won the International Red Cross Award at the Monte Carlos Film Festival. Elkins's dissertation also provided the foundation for her 2005 publication, Imperial Reckoning, which was met with critical acclaim in newspapers and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Economist. In addition to winning the Pulitzer-Prize for General Nonfiction in 2006, Imperial Reckoning was also named as a book of the year by The Economist, an editors' choice by The New York Times, and was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Award. In its commendation of Elkins, the Pulitzer Prize Committee wrote: "Imperial Reckoning is history of the highest order: meticulously researched, brilliantly written, and powerfully dramatic. An unforgettable act of historical re-creation, it is also a disturbing reminder of the brutal imperial precedents that continue to inform Western nations in their drive to democratize the world."
Elkins has been a professor at Harvard University since she completed her doctoral degree in Harvard's history department in 2001. She received full tenure in 2009, and subsequently became the founding director of Harvard's Center for African Studies. She was appointed the Oppenheimer Faculty Director and in her six years as director created one of the world's largest institutions for the study of Africa, raising significant funds and garnering from the US Department of Education's the distinction as a National Resource Center for African Studies. At the time of her promotion to tenure, the then Harvard dean of social sciences, Stephen Kosslyn remarked of Elkins, "Her Imperial Reckoning has realigned historians’ understanding of the final years of colonial Kenya, providing an unparalleled study of the Mau Mau Emergency of the 1950s. She has been a dedicated and exceptional teacher, a very good citizen of Harvard, and a prominent intellectual in the fields of African and empire studies". Elkins currently teaches courses on modern Africa, protest in East Africa, human rights in Africa, and British colonial violence in the 20th century.
In 2009, Imperial Reckoning served as the basis for an unprecedented legal claim filed by five Mau Mau detention camp survivors against the British colonial government, and Elkins became the claimants first expert witness before being joined by other historians in late 2010 and 2011. The case, known as Mutua and FIve Others versus the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), was heard at the High Court of Justice in London with the Honourable Justice McCombe presiding. London human rights law firm, Leigh Day, and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) in Nairobi, were the claimants' legal representatives. During the course of legal discovery the FCO discovered some 300 boxes of previously undisclosed files that validated on a large scale Elkins' claims in Imperial Reckoning and provided thousands of pages of new evidence supporting the claimants' case of gross abuses perpetrated by British colonial officials in the detention camps of Kenya in the 1950s.
Although the British government tried to fend off the claims at first, arguing that the Kenyan government should take responsibility, the Mau Mau case settled in June 2013, with Foreign Secretary William Hague reading a statement of "sincere regret" into the record in the House of Commons, and British High Commissioner Christian Turner reading the same statement to the Mau Mau claimants in Nairobi, where Elkins was present to witness the historic moment. In an extensive profile of Elkins done in the wake of the Mau Mau settlement, Machua Koinange of Kenya's leading newspaper The Standard, wrote: "her research work is being credited with providing the crucial evidence that compelled the British Government to settle a multi-billion shilling lawsuit filed by Mau Mau war veterans out of court." In the same article, Kenya Member of Parliament, Paul Muite, praised Elkins for her courage and the singular role she played in the initial publication of Imperial Reckoning, and in writing voluminous witness statements for the British High Court on behalf of the claimants, stating: “Without her research work, we would not have been able to mount this suit...The research portion was a momentous task and I credit Elkins for the success of filing the case. We recognised the research and preparatory work (to file the case) had to be perfect.” Similarly, in commenting upon the significance of Elkins and her work, the lead barrister from Leigh Day, Daniel Leader, stated: "Caroline's work has been absolutely fundamental to the case...She was uniquely responsible for beginning to change the public's understanding of that period in history....The victims are forever in her debt. She put their stories on the map." Later, Leader followed-up, stating: "I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say this case wouldn’t have been brought without her [Elkins’] efforts." Similarly, George Morara, program officer for KHRC in Nairobi, stated of Elkins: "Without her [Elkins'] seminal work, this story wouldn't have come to the fore."
Elkins provided three witness statements to the High Court in London on behalf of the claimants, as well as commentary in a variety of media outlets, raising awareness about the case and the crimes perpetrated by British officials in colonial Kenya. She wrote several articles for The Guardian, where she and her work were also the subject of other essays critiquing the British government and empire. She has regularly appeared on such outlets as Charlie Rose, NPR, CNN, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, and has been quoted in various newspapers and magazines around the world. In her June 2013 essay for The Guardian in the immediate wake of the Mau Mau case settlement, Elkins wrote: "Ultimately, the Mau Mau case is as symbolic as it is instructive. Regardless of future claims, Britons can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of unequivocal imperial success. Instead, British liberalism in the empire – with its alleged spread of civilisation, progress, liberty and rule of law justifying any coercive actions – has been irreversibly exposed."
The Mau Mau torture hearings in the UK and its outcome
In 2009, five former Mau Mau fighters (Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara, and Susan Ngondi) filed papers to take the British government for alleged abuses by the colonial government during the Mau Mau uprising. The purported abuses noted by the claimants were brutally excruciating offenses. The amended particulars of claim in the High Court of Justice in London allege that both Mutua and Nzili were castrated without being provided with any medical support. The officers employed by the colonial government forced Nzili to accept unpaid labor where he was beaten by gun butts and sticks on a regular basis. Wambuga Wa Nyingi was a victim of both physical and psychological abuse. He was severely beaten and also forced to witness the torture and murder of other detainees. Mrs Mara subjected to appalling sexual abuse in detention camps. Susan Ngondi claims to be a victim of brutal interrogation and sexual abuse by the officers. She was regularly abused with whips and glass bottles during the rebellion. Elkins' Pulitzer Prize award winning book, Imperial Reckoning, details many specific beatings executed by the colonial government unto the unfortunate Mau Mau fighters, aiding the proposed claims made in the UK court hearing.
In 2011, the High court ruled that the petitioners had an arguable case. In July 2012, during hearings the British government accepted in court that colonial forces in Kenya tortured and abused detainees during the Mau Mau rebellion. In October 2012 the UK High Court ruled that the five claimants can proceed with their legal claims against the UK government despite the time elapsed. On June 6, 2013, the British government announced its historic and unprecedented settlement with the Mau Mau claimants, issuing its official apology of "sincere regret," a ₤20 million cash payment, and a monument to those tortured under British rule to be erected in Nairobi's Uhuru Park.
- British Empire
- Fitz R S de Souza
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office migrated archives
- Mau Mau Uprising
- BBC Kenya: White Terror
- "History Department Faculty: Caroline Elkins". harvard.edu. Retrieved 11 November 2012.
- The Magazine of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. "Press Award in Monte Carlos". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- BBC Documentary. "Kenya: White Terror". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Harvard University Department of History. "Faculty Home Page". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Pulitzer Prize Committee. "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Harvard Gazette. "Caroline Elkins named professor of history". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Los Angeles Times. "British government apologizes for colonial abuses in Kenya".
- BBC News (6 June 2013). "Hague: 'Sincere Regret' for Mau Mau victims". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- The Standard. "From thesis to unspeakable torture evidence that UK wanted buried". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- Harvard Gazette. "Strong Evidence".
- Harvard Gazette. "Justice by Committee". Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- =Elkins, Caroline. "Britain has said sorry to the Mau Mau. The Rest of the empire is still waiting". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- "Mau Mau uprising: Hearing into alleged torture begins". BBC News. 17 July 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
- "Mau Mau case: UK government accepts abuse took place". BBC News. 17 July 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
- "Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans win UK torture ruling". BBC News. 5 October 2012. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
- "Caroline Elkins: 2010 Fellow, Humanities—British History". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
- Anderson, David (2005). Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Berman, Bruce (2007). "Mau Mau and the Politics of Knowledge: The Struggle Continues". Canadian Journal of African Studies. 41 (3): 529–545. JSTOR 40380102.(subscription required)
- Blacker, John (2007). "The demography of Mau Mau: fertility and mortality in Kenya in the 1950s: a demographer's viewpoint". African Affairs. 106 (423): 205–227. doi:10.1093/afraf/adm014.(subscription required)
- Carruthers, Susan (2005). "Being Beastly to the Mau Mau". Twentieth Century British History. 16 (4): 489–496. doi:10.1093/tcbh/hwi037.(subscription required)
- Ogot, Bethwell Allan (2005). "BRITAIN'S GULAG Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. By DAVID ANDERSON. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005. Pp. viii+406 (ISBN 0-297-84719-8). Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. By CAROLINE ELKINS (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). Pp. xiv+475". The Journal of African History. 46: 493–505. doi:10.1017/s0021853705000939. JSTOR 4100642.(subscription required)
- "Alchemy of Evidence: Mau Mau, the British Empire, and the High Court of Justice". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. 39 (5): 731–748. 2011. doi:10.1080/03086534.2011.629084.
- Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York, NY: Henry Holt. 2005.
- (Co-editor with Susan Pedersen). Settler Colonialists in the 20th Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies. New York, NY: Routledge. 2005.
- "Detention, Rehabilitation, and the Destruction of Kikuyu Society". In A. Odhiambo & J. Lonsdale, eds., Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. Oxford: James Currey. 2003. pp. 191–226.
- "The Struggle for Mau Mau Rehabilitation in Late Colonial Kenya". International Journal of African Historical Studies. 33 (1): 25–57. 2000. JSTOR 220257.(subscription required)
- "Reckoning with the Past: The Contrast between the Kenyan and South African Experiences". Social Dynamics. 26 (2): 8–28. 2000. doi:10.1080/02533950008458693.(subscription required)
- Caroline Elkins - Colonial War Crimes in Kenya: Prospects for Reconciliation (2005, video program)
- Ofcom report on complaints against the documentary "Kenya: White Terror"