Empire & Decolonisation

Britain’s Secret Colonial Files

The British government has just revealed the existence of a large cache of extraordinarily sensitive colonial era archives which came to light as a result of a court case by Mau Mau veterans. Martin Plaut tells the story of Britain’s secret colonial files.

A few days ago, on 5th May, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, William Hague, issued a written ministerial statement:

As a result of searches in connection with a legal case brought by Kenyan Mau Mau veterans, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in January became aware of the significance of a large collection of files sent to the United Kingdom from various former British territories generally at the time of their independence.

I commissioned an internal review to establish why the files had not already been dealt with in accordance with the Public Records Act 1958. That review was undertaken by the former British High Commissioner to Canada, Mr Anthony Cary.  I have today deposited in the Libraries of both Houses the findings of that investigation. The report is critical of past management practices but pays tribute to the professionalism and commitment of current FCO staff, who have done much to bring the material to light. I fully endorse that tribute. The report makes a number of recommendations regarding information management at the FCO and I am committed to ensuring their full implementation.

I believe that it is the right thing to do for the information in these files now to be properly examined and recorded and made available to the public through the National Archives. This will be taken forward rapidly. Given the size of the archive the process may take some time to complete in full. It will be overseen by a senior and independent figure I shall appoint. I will inform the House further once details of the appointment and terms of reference are decided. It is my intention to release every part of every paper of interest subject only to legal exemptions.

Foreign Office officials have briefed the governments of those former British territories who may have an interest.

Cary’s report – click above

The review, by Anthony Cary, makes clear the importance of the files. His report says that as Empire drew to a close a decision had to be made on what to do with the papers held by Britain in what would soon be independent countries. Should they be destroyed or handed over to the ‘successor administrations?’

Mr Cary quotes from a Colonial Office guidance telegram dated  3rd May 1961 on ‘the disposal of classified records and accountable documents,’ which says that successor Governments should not be given papers which:

  • might embarrass HMG or other Governments;
  • might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers;
  • might compromise sources of intelligence information; or
  • might be used unethically by Ministers in the successor Governments

A large number of files were destroyed, but 8,800 were returned to the UK as so-called ‘migrated archives’. Between 1963 and 1994 they were held at the Hayes repository before being moved to Hanslope Park, in Milton Keynes.


During this time they languished, sometimes consulted by the FCO and more often forgotten. At one point they were in a stack labelled ‘Hayes Classified Archive’ which some Foreign Office staff assumed was being held on behalf of some other agency. On the whole they were effectively ‘out of bounds’ but occasionally the documents were consulted. As Anthony Cary indicates they were consulted for information about the treatment of the Chagos Islanders on Diego Garcia, a book on medicine murders in colonial Lesotho and cargo cults in the New Hebrides. It also contains five boxes containing ‘files on the bombing of the King David Hotel’ in Palestine.

At various times consideration was given to destroying these troublesome and bulky files, but various archivists objected, arguing that they contained material that was just too valuable. There was a long, and tortuous debate on what was to become of the archive, but it was the Freedom of Information requests from the legal representatives of the Kenyans that finally forced the Foreign Office’s hand.


So what might the files contain? Professor David Anderson, Professor of African Politics at St Cross College, Oxford, was an expert witness for the prosecution in the Kenya case.  He says that once they are made public, these files will clarify the last days of Empire in ways that will be shocking for some people in Britain.

“In the 1950s and 60s this was a deliberate attempt to conceal things. But we must understand that from the mores of the time not from our view on transparency and accountability now. Those attitudes were not present in the sixties. It was not thought at all unusual to hide these things away,” Professor Anderson told the BBC.


Anthony Cary’s review is available on line here

BBC News website: Colonial secret papers to be made public

Africa Review: The files nobody wants

Foreign and Commonwealth Office website

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