Africa, World, Politics

File destruction 101: How to whitewash the colonial legacy of ‘cool Britannia’

By Kevin Bloom 25 April 2012

Compared to the Belgians in the Congo, the British were relatively benign imperialists in Africa, right? Wrong. They were just better at destroying the evidence. A story that went spectacularly unreported in the British press last week reveals how. By KEVIN BLOOM.

In July last year, four Kenyans who claimed they had been systematically tortured by British colonial officials during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s won the right to sue the British government.

There were five original claimants but, because most were in their 80s, one had died by the time the court decided they had “arguable cases in law”. Although the allegations of the remaining four included castration, sexual assault and brutalisation in detention camps, the British Foreign Office had put forward the argument that the current UK government was not responsible. Liability for compensation, they averred, had devolved to the current Kenyan government.

Which wasn’t an altogether new tactic. Initially, Switzerland tried to pass the buck in a similar vein when Jewish survivors of the Holocaust claimed restitution for the Nazis’ looted gold. But the wasn’t-us defence didn’t work for the Swiss banks, nor did it work for the Foreign Office.

Instead, what happened was that files that had been illegally hidden for five decades in the UK’s national archives, the contents of which pointed to previously unseen evidence of atrocities committed in the colonies, were discovered by historians working with the claimants’ lawyers.  

Last week, after an official review, the first of these files was made available to the public. Although an apparent victory for transparency, the review made clear that what the public is now able to see is a fraction of what had originally existed.

An insurmountable problem for historians – and, more importantly, for any future claimants – is that while the sun was setting on the British empire, colonial officers were directing all of their efforts towards destroying thousands of the most awkward documents.

On 18 April, the Guardian provided a few specifics: “Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.”

The lengths to which the British went to ensure that nothing incriminating landed in the hands of post-independence governments was remarkable. Colonial officials faced prosecution if they were caught taking sensitive documents “home”; files were removed from colonial ministries and placed in new safes in governors’ offices; only British subjects of “European descent” were allowed to participate in the “purge”; and dummy files were created to slot in the place of destroyed files.

In Kenya, strict instructions were left as to the method of destruction. If the chosen method was incineration, noted one of the top-secret circulars, “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”.

Alternatively, officials were informed, “it is permissible… for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast”.

As is well known in the postcolonial world today – and was better known by colonial subjects back then – the British empire had a lot to hide. In Africa particularly, many of the strategies of subjugation fell into categories that could quite easily have been classified as “war crimes” by a modern international court.

Of course, Britain was never officially “at war” with any of its colonies, and the idea of David Cameron’s government submitting to a judicial inquiry for something that happened half a century ago is the stuff of genre fiction.

Still, the case of the four Kenyan claimants offers ample evidence that the Foreign Office, and by extension the entire British government, was embarrassed enough to want the files kept secret. And, although they have ostensibly failed in that endeavour, they are very much enjoying the fruits of their forebear’s expertise in document obliteration.

Of course, “cool Britannia” also has its media to thank for keeping the brutal truth safely beyond the realms of public discourse. “The story of benign imperialism,” wrote George Monbiot in the Guardian on Monday, “whose overriding purpose was not to seize land, labour and commodities but to teach the natives English, table manners and double-entry book-keeping, is a myth that has been carefully propagated by the rightwing press.”

So what would the British public know if the above wasn’t the case? As a taster, Monbiot summarised a selection of passages from the Pulitzer-winning non-fiction book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, by Harvard professor Caroline Elkins.

“Interrogation under torture was widespread,” Elkins found. “Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, while sand was rammed into his rectum with a stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women’s breasts. They cut off inmates’ ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound.”

Elkins compiled her book mostly from interviews (in total, 600 hours’ worth), and only partly from surviving documentation. Suggesting that, had the bulk of the colonial files not been destroyed, the world would be looking at the United Kingdom through a very different set of eyes. DM



Read more:

  • Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes, in the Guardian.
  • Deny the British empire’s crimes? No, we ignore them, by George Monbiot in the Guardian.

Photo: A Union flag flies near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London 24 October 2011. REUTERS/Toby Melville.

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