How an African history scholar’s work led to groundbreaking lawsuit against the British government

A great article for those who believe history is just for history sake.

It tells the story of Prof Caroline M. Elkins of HBS whose doctoral work on colonial-era African history just opened a pandora box.

Sixteen years ago, Elkins completed a dissertation on colonial-era Africa, which earned her a PhD in history from Harvard and ended up making history in the world.

Based on years of extensive interviews with elderly Kenyans and veteran British colonial officials, her work focused on a military conflict known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, which took place in Kenya throughout the 1950s, at the end of British colonial rule. The study revealed how the British government had secretly detained and tortured hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu people—then and now Kenya’s largest ethnic group—in an attempt to squelch their demands for independence.

The research became the basis for her 2005 book Imperial Reckoning, which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. That honor alone could have been a satisfying coda to a project that had begun more than a decade prior. As it turned out, though, her research also led to a groundbreaking and successful lawsuit against the British government; an upcoming feature film; and a visiting professorship at Harvard Business School.

“People often ask about the relevancy of education today,” says Elkins. “We can say to ourselves that we’re relevant because we’re important, or we can show people that we’re relevant. I’ve always needed my work to be relevant.”

In 2008, Elkins was still a junior faculty member, focused on making tenure and writing a second book. That’s the year she got a call from the law firm Leigh Day, which was looking to sue the British government for reparations on behalf of the Kikuyu detention camp survivors. The suit would be based almost entirely on the research in Imperial Reckoning.

“They wanted to bring forward the strongest claimants in what would be a tort claim—basically a big personal injury case that accused the British government of systematically torturing them and systematically murdering others,” Elkins recalls.

It was the first time the British Government would be sued by any former colonized population, and the lawyers were eager to move forward. But the case hinged on Elkins agreeing to serve as expert witness.

Taking such a public stand was a politically risky prospect for a not-yet-tenured professor. Her work was already facing a fair amount of criticism and controversy. “There were a lot of people who did not like [Imperial Reckoning] because it really challenged the very notions about things that people held true about the empire in the West,” Elkins says.

Her testimony against all odds led to proving British attrocities:

In 2010, almost two years into the case, the judge made a stunning announcement: After multiple discovery requests from the claimants, the government had revealed 300 boxes of previously undisclosed files, many of which detailed the treatment of Kikuyu detainees during the Mau Mau Rebellion. The files had been removed from Kenya and relocated to Britain in the 1950s, along with reams of documents removed from 36 other former British colonies. For decades, these documents had sat hidden in a repository called Hanslope Park, 10 miles south of Northampton. (Known colloquially as spook central, it’s the real-life version of the fictionalized intelligence branch in James Bond films, where the government keeps all its MI5 and MI6 files.)

The discovery of the documents was at once validating, exciting, and maddening for Elkins. “I had spent years of my life trying to put these pieces together, and they had been sitting on these files all this time,” she says.

As expert witness, Elkins was charged with reviewing and analyzing the documents in time for the next hearing, so she recruited a team of Harvard doctoral students and undergrads to help her. “If I had gone through them systematically by myself, I would have been looking at another three to four years of work,” she says. “We had less than a year.”

Over several months of meticulous evaluation, the team discovered that the Hanslope files corroborated the Kikuyu testimony that Elkins had collected through her field interviews—thousands of pages documenting the systematic torture, rape, and slaughter of thousands of Kikuyu. The evidence also revealed a chillingly bureaucratic process for deciding which evidence to destroy and which to hide.

“I had known that the British government had destroyed evidence, but I had always imagined in my mind that it was this big haphazard bonfire type process,” Elkins says. “And it wasn’t, really. It was highly choreographed.”

Along with the documents that had escaped destruction, Hanslope Park held detailed records of which files had been destroyed, and how: for instance, which files had been burned, which had been dumped into the Indian Ocean, and so on.

“They had documents documenting the destruction of documents,” Elkins says. “For every file that was destroyed, they created a special document destruction certificate, in duplicate, one to be left in Kenya, one to go back to London.”

In 2013, five years after that fateful phone call from Leigh Day—and six decades after the Kenyan rebels were detained and tortured, the British government settled out of court with some 5,500 Kikuyu detention camp survivors. The monetary payout was 19.9 million pound sterling, the equivalent of about 4,000 American dollars per person.

More significantly, the government apologized. In order for the settlement to go through, every single claimant had to agree to the terms of the deal. “The one thing these claimants wanted, over and over, was an apology,” Elkins says. “And they got it.”

Wow. Just amazing. Never heard something like this.

Kudos to Prof Elkins and the legal firm..What a story..


2 Responses to “How an African history scholar’s work led to groundbreaking lawsuit against the British government”

  1. thesignaregriotte Says:

    I’m a historian, African history, so I think history is fundamental. Thank you for sharing! Also as a side note my undergrad honors thesis adviser actually had Dr. Elkins as his thesis adviser in grad school.

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