The secret sins of Britain’s colonial past

By Lucy Edwardes-Jones

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the release of 8800 files recording British action in 37 of its former colonies, now on display to the general public at the National Archives. Yet does this inflammatory disclosure really mark a milestone in the journey towards openness about our colonial past?

The content of the reports is horrifying. The torture and killing of Mau Mau rebels in 1950s Kenya was meticulously relayed to London, including one man being ‘roasted alive’. In the aftermath of the rebellion, the name of Barack Obama’s father featured on a watch list of Kenyans studying in America.

At the same time, the British foreign office was receiving monthly reports from Malaya (modern day Malaysia), detailing the colonial government’s ‘elimination’ of enemies. From another corner of the empire came documents of Britain’s brutal expulsion of the indigenous population of Diego Garcia during the late 60s, in order to clear the island for a US military base. The words of the British attorney general in 1950s Kenya encapsulate the chilling nature of this cover up: ‘if we are going to sin, we must sin quietly’.

Undoubtedly, the disclosure of these files represents a positive step towards recognising British colonialism’s darker side and towards achieving justice for its victims.

However, it would be wrong to applaud the recent disclosure of these documents as the endpoint in Britain’s endeavour for greater transparency. Recognition of their significance should not detract from the suspicious way in which the files were released.

The release of Britain’s colonial documents is long overdue. These papers have been hidden away for over half a century in a secret archive at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. The Foreign Office has long denied any knowledge of a secret archive; previous requests for documentation of the Mau Mau rebellion have been repeatedly blocked. The initial need to suppress such sensitive documents, as a means of avoiding further conflict, is arguably understandable. Yet the 30-year release rule usually applied to sensitive documents has long been surpassed, leaving these files in violation of legal compulsions for their public release.

This raises the question of ‘why now?’. The documents were only exposed due to last year’s legal battle between Mau Mau veterans and the British government, over the British use of systematic torture in 1950s Kenya. The Foreign Office’s hand was forced. It is likely that, if it were not for these circumstances, the government would have continued to deny the existence of any such archive.

Given the government’s secrecy thus far, we must question what proportion of British colonialism’s failings has actually come to light. The much-applauded release of carefully selected documents has acted as an effective diversion from those which remain buried.

There are many files which will never emerge. Among those disclosed this month are instructions for the destruction of thousands of the most incriminating documents. The suppression of systematic torture and murder is surely not an acceptable price for the protection of a government’s reputation.

The more justifiable motive of avoiding outrage within precarious post-colonial states is also mentioned. Within the wrong hands, documentation of colonial government’s brutality could be used to provoke further conflict. The 1960s context of the Cold War must also be considered. What appears to be a hysterical over reaction in hindsight may have seemed an entirely reasonable measure at this time of intense international suspicion.

Yet within the correspondence of British officials, the issue of security seems to remain of secondary importance to the maintenance of Britain’s reputation. These lost files mean that true accountability remains an unattainable ideal.

Among the surviving files, an abundance remain unreleased. Public documentation of colonial Malaya remains limited. As a result, similar claims to those of the Mau Mau veterans are emerging within groups of Malayan veterans. It is clear that there are many more shelves of secret archives in Britain.

From the comfort of our modern, Western society, it is all too easy for us to feel smug whilst condemning the informational restrictions of governments from the past. We are aware of the Nazis’ attempts to destroy their sickeningly thorough documentation of the Holocaust. North Korea’s continued censorship of the internet is frequently deplored.

Although these cases are far more extreme, greater attention should be paid to the situation closer to home.  The extent and longevity of the colonial cover up makes me question if Britain is as open as we like to think. There remains a long way to go before Britain has fully faced up to the sins of her colonial past.

 

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