Corey Robin makes the point that as far as we know, none of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo was tortured in order to defuse a ticking bomb (LRB, 19 May). This is hardly surprising: most (non-suicide) car bombs are set on as short a fuse as possible, to minimise the chance of discovery – a very few hours at most. The chances of being able to pick up a terrorist who knows about the bomb, in the time between its being planted and its going off, are minuscule. And most dedicated tough guys will be able to hold out for a couple of hours no matter what you do to them (bear in mind that if they know about the bomb, they’ll know how long they have to hold out for, which gives them an important psychological advantage). It is a scenario that exists only in philosophy textbooks and the neo-con imagination, not on the streets of Belfast or Baghdad. Current British SAS training for ‘resistance to interrogation’ requires recruits to hold out for only 24 hours, the time it usually takes for a soldier’s HQ to realise that he has been captured, and alter any plans that he knows about, on the assumption that he will eventually be made to tell all. Assuming that al-Qaida operatives are not so stupid as not to adopt a similar policy, any information gained from prisoners months or years after their arrest fades into irrelevance.
In his enthusiasm for Caroline Elkins’s Britain’s Gulag, Bernard Porter misses the glaring faults in her book (LRB, 3 March). He also misrepresents David Anderson’s account of the Mau Mau Emergency in Histories of the Hanged by aligning it with Elkins’s. Porter describes both as ‘brilliant, meticulously researched and shocking books’ in which ‘the scale of the British atrocities is the most startling revelation.’ Yet Anderson says that what is ‘most astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented’. All the ‘revelatory’ examples of atrocities quoted by Porter from both books were published during or immediately after the Emergency.
Porter is keen to emphasise that the number of Mau Mau hanged – 1090; 346 of them for murder – was a record for a British colony (though no other suffered an uprising so brutal). What he does not cite from Anderson is that hanging was commonplace in Kenya at the time: 247 non-Mau Mau murderers were hanged in the same period. And Anderson is not as dismissive of the judicial process as Porter implies (‘often they were innocent’). His careful account of the key Mau Mau trials demonstrates that the courts regularly threw out prosecution evidence: 48 men facing the death penalty had their convictions overturned at just one appeal hearing. Anderson spares us no details of the horrific massacre at Lari, where 120 Christian Kikuyu were burned alive or hacked to death by gangs of Mau Mau, 71 of whom were later executed, some having openly declared their involvement.
Porter claims that ‘the hanged represent only a small fraction of those who died in British custody during the Emergency.’ This is a misquotation from Elkins, who says ‘at the hands of the British government’, not ‘in British custody’. Neither version survives scrutiny. Elkins asserts that up to 300,000 Kikuyu died in the Emergency (the official figure is 12,000). Her only evidence, tucked away in a footnote, is a faulty analysis of the censuses of 1948 and 1962. She thinks these suggest that there were up to 300,000 ‘unaccounted for’ Kikuyu, who should have been alive in 1962 if the Kikuyu population growth rate had matched that for three other groups, not involved in the fighting. But this is true only if the Kikuyu-speaking Meru and Embu are included with the Kikuyu in the calculation: what Elkins does not reveal to her readers is that the Meru population grew by only 35 per cent between the two censuses, and the Embu declined by 15 per cent; and no one, including Elkins, suggests this had anything to do with the fighting. The Kikuyu increased in numbers by 56 per cent during the same period. This is only 5 per cent below the average for other groups, and can be explained by the number of Kikuyu held for years in detention and so unable to father children.
Elkins further undermines what case she has by claiming that the number of detainees was between double and quadruple the official estimate of 80,000. Porter offers a figure of 150,000, and says Elkins claims that ‘up to 100,000 died in the camps’ (in fact she makes no such claim). As it happens, Anderson provides the detainee numbers: 71,346 was the daily average in December 1954; it declined steadily to 19,535 by December 1957, then rapidly diminished. The little we know about rates of intake and release suggests that between 15,000 and 25,000 new detainees were added in the interim. There is no evidence to support a total higher than 100,000.
If Elkins is right about the 320,000 detainees (she offers no details of her calculations) then the birth rate among the non-detained Kikuyu must have been very high, as the Kikuyu population grew from one million in 1948 to more than 1.5 million in 1962. Yet Elkins claims ‘tens of thousands’ died in the Kikuyu villages as a result of ‘torture, disease, exhaustion and starvation’ caused by near-genocidal British policy. The numbers make no sense: Elkins is forced back on anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’.
Porter does not begin to challenge these contradictions. What’s more, he excuses Elkins’s continual references to Nazi camps and Soviet Gulags (for which she has been roundly condemned by other reviewers) by asserting that they ‘nearly all … come from contemporary accounts.’ This is untrue. Nearly all such references are introduced by Elkins, and she cites at least a dozen secondary works on the Holocaust and the Gulag while drawing increasingly overwrought parallels with the camps and villages in Kenya.
Bernard Porter writes: I’m happy to defer to David Elstein on the question of numbers. I too was unconvinced by Elkins’s, but didn’t have the resources at hand to check them. I thought that stating the 100,000 figure as a ‘claim’ of Elkins’s would let me off the hook. Obviously not. Otherwise I think I’ve represented both books accurately, apart from the slip confusing ‘the hands of the British’ with ‘British custody’. For example, I mention Anderson’s account of the Lari massacre. I also tried to indicate some of my problems with certain aspects of Elkins’s approach. I had heard the complaint about her ‘Nazi’ analogies before but what impressed me in reading these two books was that so many contemporaries made the comparison too. That, I think, is the more important point. I agree that the ‘Gulag’ comparison is inappropriate.
Niall Ferguson (Letters, 19 May) complains about the brief mention I made of his book Empire at the beginning of my review. The point I was making there was that British imperial historians generally have given these events less attention than we can now see – from Anderson’s and Elkins’s books – they deserve. I included myself in this criticism, quite specifically, and if Elstein is right about the long availability of much of this evidence maybe I was even more culpable than I thought; but I singled out Ferguson’s Empire because it doesn’t even mention the Emergency. I might not have made so much of this if it hadn’t been for a long passage in his introduction where he describes his own boyhood in Kenya, just a few years after these terrible events, in idyllic terms, including the claim that ‘scarcely anything had changed’ since colonial days. How could he leave that uncorrected later on? His excuse is that his book was not about Mau Mau, and that he was arguing that decolonisation was brought about by Britain’s poverty, not nationalism in the colonies; but even if that were true (or as simple as he presents it) it is irrelevant, because Anderson’s and Elkins’s books are not centrally about Mau Mau either, but about the British colonial state’s repression of it. That is a vital aspect of ‘empire’; which is what Ferguson’s book, after all, is called.
Ferguson also takes issue with my use of the word ‘panegyric’ (‘to British colonialism’) to describe his book more generally. In the same issue of the London Review that carries his letter, Eric Foner uses the word ‘sanitised’ to describe Ferguson’s treatment of American imperialism in his later book Colossus. That will do just as well. If Ferguson really doesn’t see what parts of his main argument – the empire bringing peace, the rule of law, markets etc – historians like me ‘can credibly disagree with’, he obviously hasn’t read all his reviews. (My own starting point would be to question his view of the extent of British ‘power’.) Even if we accept all this ‘civilising’ stuff for the sake of argument (and there’s a case to be made for some of it), we also need to be aware of the enormous pain that trying to achieve this through imperialism can cause, and the atrocities on all sides (Kenya saw some of the worst) that are almost bound to come in its train. This is especially so when you are urging present-day America to follow Britain’s 19th-century example, which of course is the message of Colossus. Americans have enough myths of their own without having ours foisted on them too.
Ross McKibbin throws away the party members (LRB, 19 May). They massively opposed the war, but were thwarted by the ‘Warwick agreement’ of the summer of 2004, when the unions promised not to challenge Blair’s leadership. It is quite right to propose that the cabinet is elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party, and legislation approved by it. But the struggle to rein in the Callaghan government in the late 1970s was waged by party members and union activists, not the mainly spineless parliamentarians who also voted this time round for the Iraq war and much illiberal legislation. It is fine to give the parliamentarians more power in choosing the leader and cabinet. It is essential, however, to give the party membership and affiliated rank and file trade unionists real influence with the parliamentarians.
James Meek tells us that the Jubilee line extension grudgingly gave Southwark its first Tube station (LRB, 5 May). Southwark has been served by the Tube since Borough Station opened (as Great Dover Street Station) in 1890. It was one of the six original stations on the City & South London Line, which, as Meek points out, was the first genuine Tube line. Its route was altered ten years later to provide another Tube station for Southwark: at London Bridge, underneath the surface railway station.
Tom Maschler, about whom John Sutherland writes (LRB, 5 May), is infamous among Barbara Pym fans. She was published by Cape until Maschler went there. After his arrival, she spent 14 years in the wilderness. His treatment of Pym merits at least a footnote to point up the failures among his accomplishments: not only did Pym eventually find a publisher, renewed critical acclaim and some commercial success, she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which Maschler devised. As a suitable revenge, Barbara and her sister Hilary invented a ‘Maschler pudding’, a kind of lime-flavoured milk jelly.
Peter Campbell’s contention that ‘all of Vlaminck demands a strong stomach’ in view of its thick surface textures (LRB, 19 May) sounds like the sort of thing one might have expected to hear from a Sunday watercolourist at a provincial gallery sixty years ago. I hate to think what his gastric responses would be to work by, say, Frank Auerbach or Anselm Kiefer.
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.