Britain’s secret archive of decolonisation…

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall...

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall, seen from St. James’s Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

  • British-Guiana-300x200

    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 th

    • British-Guiana-300x200

      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. Read more below:

      http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/britains-secret-archive-of-decolonisation/

      http://huttriverofnz.blog.co.uk

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