Britain’s Secret Archive of Decolonisation

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By Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, Kings College London

In April 2011, the British government admitted that it had a secret archive over two thousand boxes, 8,800 files from 37 former colonies, which had been brought back from these former colonies when they became independent. It did so only because it was forced by a judge in the High Court who was assessing the suit of five former Mau Mau members for damages in compensation for experiences of torture and mutilation at the hands of British troops in the 1950s. David Anderson of Oxford, Caroline Elkins of Harvard, and Huw Bennett of KCL had found evidence in the National Archives of Kenya which proved that a substantial cache of official archives had both been selected for transfer, and had been received in London. The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) suddenly admitted that it held these Kenyan documents as part of a collection of “migrated archives” which had been selected at the moment of decolonisation in British colonies for repatriation. This was having chosen previously to “ignore” their existence following three Freedom of Information requests from the Kenyans’ lawyers in 2005 and 2006.

The FCO claimed in an official report that these archives had simply been misplaced and forgotten about, and the Foreign Secretary William Hague declared that efforts would be made to release them promptly to the public through the National Archives, “subject only to legal exemptions”, a task over which Tony Badger, a senior historian of the United States at Cambridge, was given oversight.

British troops with colonial police in British Guiana in 1962

Many historians were sceptical about the FCO’s claims to have simply forgotten or lost these materials. What was known from the Kenyan archives was that three criteria used for selecting “Watch” files to be repatriated, as against “Legacy” files to be handed on to the successor regime, were that those papers might potentially have led to the criminal prosecution of British officers for crimes of murder or torture or other abuses, to the exposure of local collaborators and informants, and to the embarrassment of Britain. It was noted that the place where these archives were held – Hanslope Park – was an important centre of the British intelligence community, from which the FCO ran its own sister organisation to GCHQ, and where high security protocols operated. This was, in other words, a high value site to store records, not some secondary rural storage centre.

On April 18, the FCO released its first tranche of the archive papers from Anguilla, Aden, Cyprus, British Indian Ocean Territories (aka Diego Garcia), Kenya, Malaya, Bahamas, Basutoland, and Bechuanaland. It has to be said that historians have been quite disappointed, so far, by what they have found in them. The Kenyan material involves little that historians did not already have information on from other archives, the Malaya sources are thin on operational material from the hot period of the Malayan insurgency and have nothing about mass internment or detention, and while the Aden documents contain things about tourism and fisheries there is nothing about torture or detention or sequestration of the population (all of which we already have documents on in the National Archives), and the Cyprus records only go up to 1938, long before the emergency. It is hard to escape the impression that there is little controversial in these releases which was not already in the public domain, and it was almost as if the material now made public had also been screened according to the same criteria applied c1960 – preventing potential prosecutions, protecting collaborators, and protecting the reputation of Britain.

It is the assertion of the FCO that this is a full and complete disclosure, and Tony Badger assures us that the redactions have been minor, merely of names, but never of whole files. I am confident that Badger is a plain dealer in this matter, and indeed all the materials over which he was given oversight have been passed on to the public domain. The FCO states that all other materials were either destroyed in the colonies themselves, or at some point after return to Britain. The problem here is that the FCO has refused to give historians a full and complete inventory of the materials held at Hanslope Park at the time of ‘discovery’, insisting that requests be made on a case by case “fishing” basis using the Freedom of Information protocol.

What is also missing from the public domain are the detailed lists of files which were destroyed: even if original documents do not exist, what the Colonial Office would have been created and held were inventories of materials destroyed. It would be of particular value to see the dates on which material was destroyed.

Of particular interest to me is that FCO asserts that the secret archive at Hanslope Park contained no migrated British Guiana sensitive archives. In my view this claim discredits the entire release process. British Guiana saw one democratically-elected government overthrown by British troops in 1953, a heavy British security presence in the late 1950s, and then from 1962-4 a very well-documented joint British and American covert operation, which involved terror bombings, detention of politicians, and black propaganda. This United States involvement was unprecedented in any British colony. The decolonisation of British Guiana was part of the Cold War: the security files kept at Government House would have been recognised to have potential future operational value and would have been repatriated, as were much less sensitive and useful documents from other colonies at the same time. Independent Guyana remained an area of interest for Britain and the United States: the British government would not have destroyed resources for its foreign and security policy, in particular the kind of thick data on local people which the Government House files would have held.

Nationalist politicians Cheddi Jagan & Martin Carter behind bars in British Guiana, 1954

When the Kenyan historians requested documents in the past, they were told repeatedly by the FCO that they had been destroyed, only for the FCO, under judicial pressure, to yield them. It is to be hoped that the FCO will at some point “discover” its British Guiana archive. Already, under my pressure, having asserted that it held no British Guiana materials whatsoever, the FCO has found one document which describes “a formidable schedule of documents which the Governor of British Guiana sent home in April 1966 showing how the accountable documents in his custody were disposed of”. Historians, should at the very least, be given a full and unredacted version of that inventory of those documents destroyed on the spot.

The point that Decolonisation was connected directly to how the West after Suez sought to prosecute the Cold War through managing colonial nationalism (or eliminating uncooperative nationalists) has general relevance. These archives at Hanslope Park were not there merely to preserve the record of Britain’s past relations with its colonies. They had an operational value in terms of Britain’s capacity to intervene in pursuit of its economic and strategic objectives in its former colonies. We are left to wonder whether if, at some point prior to Professor Badger’s appointment, certain tranches of material were not moved sideways, from one secret archive to another?