Two women are seated on a stage, looking toward the audience and holding microphones. In front of them is a table with a copy of a book upright. On the left is an American flag and signage that reads: Distinguished Lecture Series, Adelphi University.
Joanne Corbin, PhD, dean of the School of Social Work (left), with Caroline Elkins, PhD, Harvard professor and author

Caroline Elkins, PhD, Harvard professor and author, presented on the untold history of colonialism in Kenya.

The untold history of colonialism in Kenya was the subject of the inaugural lecture of the Bhisé Global Understanding Project speaker series on November 14. “A Global Reckoning: Colonialism and the Quest for Justice,” featured Caroline Elkins, PhD, a professor at Harvard University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt/Jonathan Cape, 2005). Students and other Adelphi community members attended in person in the Ruth S. Harley University Center Thomas Dixon Lovely Ballroom, with others logging in online.

Joanne Corbin, PhD, dean of the School of Social Work, moderated the talk. She and Dr. Elkins discussed global issues—specifically those in Kenya, a country impacted by hundreds of years of European colonialism.

Telling the Full Story of History

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Dr. Elkins developed a keen interest in African history, particularly Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising. While studying in Kenya during her senior year and researching the country’s history, she found that the national archives lacked documents that could shed light on this period.

“So many documents were missing,” she said, explaining that she decided the country’s untold history deserved to be told. She did hundreds of interviews with Kenyans and visited archives all over the world to piece together fragments lost in fires or uprisings. Her retelling of history in Kenya won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Her belief in telling the full story of history also led to a second book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (Knopf, 2022).

Understanding British Colonialism

Dr. Elkins emphasized that, for many historians, the British Empire was inseparable from Britain’s economy. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the demand for raw materials and cheap labor rose. She explained that the violence that came about in Kenya, including the detention system organized by colonizers during the Mau Mau uprising, was the result of this process.

“It wasn’t just the structure of colonial rule that shaped systems and practices, nor was it just capitalism,” she said. “Rather, it was liberal imperialism ideology as well, which enacted violence while promising freedom and equality—a seat at the table in the modern world.

“I keep coming back to the young people today—they’re the lifeblood of change,” Dr. Elkins said. “What I’m hoping is that they can look at this and discern these patterns … . My hope in discerning these patterns is for young people to be critical of this and understand why this is happening. We think about change and demanding new change, and oftentimes we think about violent revolutions, but a lot more often than not, it comes from people who are challenging the status quo.”

The Bhisé Global Understanding Project

The Bhisé Global Understanding Project launched at Adelphi in October 2023 as a result of the desire of global transportation leader and Adelphi alumnus Bharat Bhisé, MBA ’78, to give back to the Adelphi community. One of the project’s primary goals is to strengthen Adelphi’s distinction for academic excellence through valuable experiential learning opportunities. To do so, among other initiatives, the project supports two faculty fellowships and seven faculty research grants focused on topics that explore globalization, colonialism and postcolonialism, with a particular emphasis on the South Asia region. In addition to the speaker series and faculty scholarship, students will continue to explore this topic through new academic opportunities and study abroad programs in 2024.

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