ccording to an official report, thousands of documents showing the criminals and crimes committed in the last years of the British Empire have been systematically destroyed so that they do not fall into the hands of governments in countries that have gained independence from Britain. The documents that survived the “cleansing” were secretly brought to the UK, where they were then hidden for 50 years in a secret archive of the Foreign Office, far from the eyes of historians and the public.
Hiding the documents for so long represents a violation of the legal obligations, according to which they had to be made public after a shorter period of time. The archive came to light last year when a group of Kenyans detained and, they say, tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, obtained the right to sue the British government. The Foreign Office had promised to publish 8,800 files from 37 former colonies.
The historian in charge of this process, Tony Badger, said that the discovery of this archive had put the Foreign Office in a “shameful, scandalous” position. “These documents should have been in the public archives since the 1980s,” he says, and the deadline had long since passed. The documents, kept in a very well-guarded government center, also include information reports on the “elimination” of the enemies of the colonial authorities in Malaysia in the 1950s. Others show that members of the London cabinet were aware of the torture and killing of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, and others show how far the British went to force Diego Garcia residents.
The systematic destruction of the files
However, among all these documents there are some that show that some of the most delicate files regarding the actions of the English in the years of decolonization were not hidden but simply destroyed. There are documents showing that there were clear instructions for the systematic destruction of files, instructions given after 1961, when Iain Macleod, the Secretary of State for the colonies, demanded that the governments of the countries that would gain independence should not obtain any material which could “disrupt His Majesty’s government” or create problems for members of the police, military, civil servants or other persons such as informants.
Also, documents that compromised the sources of information or could be used “immorally” by ministers of future governments had to be destroyed. Among the documents that were to be destroyed were those that testified to the abuses committed against the Mau Mau insurgents by the colonial authorities, who were tortured or even killed. There were reports that could have provided information on the killing of 24 unarmed villagers in the area. In 1948 most of the delicate documents were kept by the colonial authorities in Aden, where the army intelligence service had a secret torture center.
Documents were kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policy was influenced by the US government and whose post-independence leader was ousted following a coup orchestrated by the CIA. Documents that were not destroyed were kept secret not only to protect the reputation of the United Kingdom but also to protect the government from litigation. If the legal actions initiated by these Kenyans are successful, we can expect new lawsuits to emerge since hundreds, even thousands of conflict veterans from the years of decolonization are still alive.
In Uganda, this process had been codenamed Operation Legacy. In Kenya, the process of checking the files, which was described as “a thorough clearance”, was supervised by officers. There were clear instructions that no African should be involved in these trials, only someone who was a “Kenyan government official but subject to British descent from Europe” could take part in clearing the incriminating files.
Also, harsh measures have been taken to ensure that governments in the newly independent countries never find out that the files have ever existed. One of the instructions given to the colonial authorities says that the documents left behind should not refer to the other materials. The existence of the missing documents did not have to be revealed. If one document was removed from a file to be left behind, another was put in its place so there were no inconsistencies.
The files that eventually arrived at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire, come from 37 former colonies and total over 200 meters of the archive. But it is clear that most of the documents considered “dangerous” were probably destroyed. Authorities in some colonies, such as Kenya, were told at the time that documents should be destroyed, not brought to the UK, and that no traces of documents or their destruction should remain.
These documents represent a real goldmine for historians, but it will take some time before they all reach the public archives. By the time they will be made public, they would be mostly obsolete, however, as a historian, I am dying to find out the truth.