Empire & Decolonisation

When Colonial Loot is Hidden in Plain Sight

This article accompanies Tim Livsey’s article “Open secrets: the British ‘migrated archives’, colonial history, and postcolonial history” in History Workshop Journal 93, where it is currently free access.

The last few years have seen a heightened awareness that institutions in the Global North hold a lot of stuff from the Global South that they probably shouldn’t. Emmanuel Macron admitted in 2017 that ‘African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums’, while in Britain there has been a new focus on the artefacts looted by British forces from Benin in 1897. Recent debates about restitution have generated unprecedented momentum, but for decades these stories have been hiding in plain sight. Some of the cast metal panels from Benin at the British Museum are bent at the corners, from when British troops wrenched them off the gates of the Oba’s palace. How they got to London has never been a secret.

Benin artefacts at the British Museum. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

These recent controversies about restitution have only tentatively touched on archives from the Global South that have ended up in the Global North. European colonial powers had a habit, at around the time former colonies won their independence, of removing papers deemed useful, embarrassing, or otherwise awkward. In Britain, these practices were brought into sharp focus when five Kenyans, who in the 1950s had suffered horrific abuse from British forces, brought a case demanding compensation in 2009. The British government at first denied holding any documents relevant to the case, before backtracking under pressure from the Kenyans’ lawyers and expert witnesses. The Foreign Office in 2011 admitted to holding a large – but little known – collection of thousands of files that had been covertly removed from Kenya, and many other former British colonies. The revelations about these ‘secret archives’ caused a sensation. The Foreign Office, meanwhile, transferred most of the files to the National Archives at Kew, making them available to researchers.

One of the files that British authorities covertly removed from Nigeria. Photo by the author, used courtesy of the National Archives.

In my recent article in History Workshop Journal, I consider the strange, ambiguous status of these documents. They were never really secret, as hundreds of people knew about them: not least, the British colonial officials who had selected the files and discreetly sent them to Britain. Many of these officials regarded the removal of some documents from colonies as necessary and even obvious, while the British government sometimes partially admitted that it held them. Some researchers even managed to access the documents at the Foreign Office’s fortress-like facility at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire.

On the other hand, there were plenty of people who knew much less, or nothing, about the files that had been removed – especially people in formerly colonised countries. When some newly independent countries enquired about files that seemed to be missing, the Foreign Office did its best to be unhelpful. In the article, I argue that these files constituted a ‘racialised open secret’. There were plenty of people who knew about them, but because of the covert circumstances of the files’ removal, these people tended to be white British officials, while people of colour in the Global South generally knew much less about the documents.

One important issue raised by this story is how the Foreign Office’s cache of documents that had been spirited out of colonies remained a racialised open secret for so long. As with the circumstances surrounding the looted artefacts from Benin, there was information about the documents in the public domain, but for a long time few people were especially interested in piecing together the fragments. These stories suggest how a colonial-era mentality, in which white peoples’ claimed right to take stuff from the Global South seemed so natural as to be barely worthy of comment, outlived European empires – and has only recently faced sustained challenge.

As some British institutions start to return artefacts to Benin, the National Archives’ stewardship of these colonial files needs to be scrutinised. The National Archives have done a good job of caring for the records themselves, although they’ve done less to make the files available to researchers in the countries from which they were removed, or indeed to interested diaspora communities in Britain. And, as I write, the National Archives has temporarily withdrawn the documents from public access because of the presence of ‘historic insecticides’.

The National Archives have now held these files for ten years. It’s time for them to do more to address the inequalities inherent in the history of this collection of documents. The National Archives has huffed and puffed about the costs of digitisation, but in reality it would be a relatively straightforward first step towards righting the wrongs of these files’ removal. This is an issue which isn’t going to go away.

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