Blotting Out the Past

This is my reply to a former colonial official denying British atrocities in Kenya

Published in a Guardian comment thread, 10th May 2012

John Allen really should have read Caroline Elkins’s book before he wrote this article. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the events he dismisses so lightly, or – remarkably – blames on the Kikuyu themselves, are supported by a wealth of material, as well as 600 hours of interviews with Kikuyu survivors – both rebels and loyalists – and British guards, settlers and officials. Many of the most shocking accounts in fact come from the unembarrassed testimony of the British men who meted out or witnessed the torture and killings.

It testifies to our remarkable ability to airbrush the past, and the widespread lack of curiosity in this country about what really happened in Britain’s colonies, that John can so breezily and blatantly rewrite history, and that so many people in the comment thread are prepared to believe his whitewashed account. I am not suggesting he is lying: on the contrary, I believe he has thoroughly convinced himself of the account he has provided, having seen and remembered only what he wanted to see and remember.

We’re all capable of this. But what is striking is that such self-serving disavowal of colonial atrocities is so normal in Britain that it scarcely raises an objection, while the detailed and horrific accounts provided by authors such as Caroline Elkins (a Harvard professor who spent almost ten years on her book and won a Pulitzer Prize for it) are ignored by almost everyone, or furiously denied by those who are aware of them (but in most cases have not read them). John’s response perfectly illustrates the points about denial I made in my article.

I now challenge him to read Elkins’s book and to see what he has so far managed not to see.