How an African History Scholar Became a Modern Righter of Wrongs

 
 
A scholar of colonial-era African history, Caroline M. Elkins had dramatic success turning prior knowledge into real-world action—namely, with a groundbreaking lawsuit against the British government, which revealed a chillingly bureaucratic process for destroying evidence of torture.
 
 
by Carmen Nobel

Harvard MBA students visit the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town, May 1, 2017 (Photo credit: Caroline Elkins)

Recently, a first-year MBA student at Harvard Business School was overheard gushing to a friend about a professor’s deep knowledge of Africa’s past.

He was talking about Caroline M. Elkins, a visiting professor at HBS who teaches in the School’s FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) global immersion course, which sends groups of students all over the world to get first-hand experience doing business in an unfamiliar location. This past May, Elkins and her students traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where they engaged with 10 global partners on a dozen different design projects.

A renowned scholar of colonial-era African history, she isn’t the most obvious candidate for teaching modern business lessons to future executives. But Elkins, who has spent years conducting intensive field research in rural Kenya and other parts of the former British Empire, argues that there are clear parallels between academic knowledge and business intelligence.

Elkins conducting field research in Kiambu, Kenya in 2002. (Photo credit: Steven Wairimu)

“You need to be interested in what people think, and you need to find the right people to talk to you,” says Elkins, a professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard, and the founding director of the Harvard Center for African Studies. “That’s the thing that vexes social scientists the most, whether it’s someone in the History Department trying to make sense of the past, or somebody trying to do customer research on widgets in South Africa.”

One of the key components of the FIELD course is contextual intelligence—the ability to apply prior knowledge to real-world situations, Elkins explains. Elkins and her students spent considerable time, before and during their immersion in Cape Town, unpacking cultural and contextual knowledge specific to South Africa, including its apartheid legacies. “Making students aware of this contextual intelligence even before they arrive makes them better global citizens, and better representatives of Harvard,” she says. “It’s a huge bonus when their professor knows Africa really well.”

With regard to her African studies, Elkins is a case study on how to turn academic knowledge into real-world action.

A doctoral dissertation that made a difference in the world

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.

Cover photo for Imperial Reckoning, Central Province, Kenya, c. 1954 (Photo credit: Popperfoto/Retrofile.com)

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.”

Expert witness in a case against the British government

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.

“We can say to ourselves that we’re relevant because we’re important, or we can show people that we’re relevant.”

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.

Time was a factor, too. Teaching, writing, and preparing a tenure packet was keeping her pretty busy already.

And so? Elkins agreed to be the expert witness in the case. “I didn’t hesitate,” she says. “I’m a pretty strong-willed person. And I also really didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into.”

The case, known as Mutua and Others versus the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was filed by five detention camp survivors. Thousands of Kikuyu would benefit from the outcome.

Kikuyu claimants in the case against the British government, April 7, 2011 (Photo credit: Caroline Elkins)

In the early days of the case, the prospect of winning felt like a long shot for several reasons, not the least of which was the statute of limitations—typically three years for personal injury and tort claims in Britain; the Kikuyu were suing over events that had occurred half a century prior. The claimants successfully argued that the statute should be waived because the case was only made possible once Elkins’ research came to light.

But the government kept searching for other reasons to nix the lawsuit, checking every detail in Elkins’ book, which stressed her out. “To know that the British government is carefully going through your footnotes to find anything that it can dispute—that’ll keep an academic awake at night,” she says.

Meanwhile, Leigh Day continued to hound the government for evidence. Elkins made tenure in 2009 and continued her double duty as professor and expert witness. And the arguments dragged on.

A stunning revelation of hidden documents

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.

Document documenting the destruction of documents (Photo credit: Caroline Elkins)

“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.”

The British government pays up

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.”

Click to watch.
Foreign Secretary William Hague announces the settlement and formally apologizes on behalf of the British government, June 2013

Shortly thereafter, John Hart, the movie producer behind Boys Don’t Cry and Revolutionary Road, bought the rights to develop a film based on Imperial Reckoning and the subsequent court case. The project is still in the pre-production stage.

This summer, Elkins will be focusing on her latest research project, which will become her next book. It’s a deep dive into the recent history of violence in several former British colonies; she has set up research sites in 14 countries including Cyprus, Israel, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, and Kenya.

“I’m interested in tracing the way violence develops: the ideological reasons behind it, the bureaucratic reasons, the legal codes that enable this, and then also how it moves,” Elkins says. “You can trace the history of violence through people moving from one part of the Empire to another. So in other words, the individual different historical actors were the ones who transferred the knowledge of violence. It’s about logics, and ideas, and bureaucracies, but it’s ultimately about people. Legal systems don’t kill people. People kill people.”

In reflecting upon the connections of her latest work to the world of business, Elkins sees multiple points of entry. “When we think about emerging markets, for instance, we also need to understand their histories,” she says. “The post-colonial world is one that has deep historical legacies – legacies that are embedded in present-day administrative structures, legal norms, cultural forms, questions about ethnicity and race, and, of course, ongoing economic relations between the former colonized and colonizer.”

Related information:

Kenya: White Terror, a BBC documentary about Elkins’ research

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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