Caroline Elkins, a professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard, won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005). Grounded in documents and interviews with elderly survivors of internment and torture, Imperial Reckoning is a masterly case study of how Britain “used violence and repression to maintain rule over its twentieth-century empire.” The book received wide praise, but it was also criticized for relying too heavily on oral evidence or for adding only details about what was already known. Elkins said she felt “roasted over the coals.” Then a lawsuit for reparations in a British court led to the discovery of voluminous colonial files preserved from destruction and sent to the UK in advance of Kenyan independence. As Elkins recounts in her new book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, those files vindicated her account of widespread “violence and repression” and helped win reparations for the survivors. The number of Kenyan victims and the extent to which officialdom in London controlled the destruction of incriminating evidence are still disputed.
Legacy of Violence extends the basic contention of Imperial Reckoning that “violence and repression” maintained the British Empire during the last century. Once again Elkins’s approach is what social scientists call “emic”—concerned above all with the point of view of colonial subjects. But in the new book, that means writing from the perspective of people about whom she has read rather than people she has interviewed. She has read widely but also selectively. We hear relatively little from colonial subjects who have good things to say about the British Empire. The Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, for example, once said, “What I felt as a colonial young man or boy was that I was part of this Civis Brittanicae or sum idea, you know, we’re all one; New Zealand, Egypt, you know, one-seventh of the world.” He is absent here. In contrast, Elkins devotes four pages to the rage of Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature six years before Walcott did. Soyinka was as unsparing of “liberals, humanitarians and reformers [who] had taken up the cause of justice for victims” as of imperialist victimizers: “kindly keep your comfortable sentiment to yourselves.”
Elkins’s style is raw, accessible, and often deeply moving, and the cruelties she evokes are horrifying. Occasionally, her method tempts her into a prosecutorial stance. Of Hersch Lauterpacht, a prodigy reared in a Galician shtetl, she writes: “he left continental Europe’s anti-Semitism for that of Britain, where he let his Jewish identity fade into the background as he assimilated.” The comparison fails. Lauterpacht was nonobservant but never disguised his ethnicity and enjoyed the patronage of the American Jewish Committee. That did not keep him from earning a knighthood. Among his family in continental Europe, only a niece survived the Shoah. To note Elkins’s omission of voices like Walcott’s or her misunderstanding of cases like Lauterpacht’s is not to urge balance, much less to defend the smug boast that the empire was actually a “Good Thing.” It is simply to note that her book’s scope is not as broad as it might have been.
Elkins cites a famous passage in Max Weber’s lynx-eyed “Politics as a Vocation”:
The early Christians knew full well the world is governed by demons and that he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers and for his action it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.
In politics the stimulus is power—desiring it, competing for it, exercising it, and retaining or losing it—and power is always shadowed by the threat or use of violence. St. Augustine knew as much. Elkins acknowledges that “all empires are violent” and that anti-colonial insurgents and postcolonial regimes can also act diabolically. But the ruthlessness of the latter is sometimes slighted in these pages, as if it were only a legacy of the empire’s “use of state-directed violence.” Elkins’s account of the IRA’s assassination of Louis Mountbatten is riveting, but she does not mention its collateral damage, which included two boys and an old woman.
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