UK ordered destruction of ‘embarrassing’ colonial papers

Tony Gosling tony at
Tue Dec 3 14:18:21 GMT 2013

What archives? UK ordered destruction of 'embarrassing' colonial papers

Edited time: December 02, 2013 09:33

Britain systematically destroyed documents in colonies that were 
about to gain independence, declassified Foreign Office files reveal. 
'Operation Legacy' saw sensitive documents secretly burnt or dumped 
to cover up traces of British activities.

The latest National Archives publication made from a collection of 
8,800 colonial-era files held by the Foreign Office for decades 
revealed deliberate document elimination by British authorities in 
former colonies.

The secret program dubbed 'Operation Legacy' was in force throughout 
the 1950s and 1960s, in at least 23 countries and territories under 
British rule that eventually gained independence after WWII. Among 
others these countries included: Belize, British Guiana, Jamaica, 
Kenya, Malaysia and Singapore, Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia and 
Zimbabwe), Tanzania, and Uganda.

In a telegram from the UK Colonial Office dispatched to British 
embassies on May 3, 1961, colonial secretary Iain Macleod instructed 
diplomats to withhold official documents from newly elected 
independent governments in those countries, and presented general 
guidance on what to do.

British diplomats were briefed on how exactly they were supposed to 
get rid of documents that "might embarrass members of the police, 
military forces, public servants (such as police agents or 
informers)" or"might compromise sources of intelligence", or could be 
put to 'wrong' use by incoming national authorities.

'Operation Legacy' also called for the destruction or removal of "all 
papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by 
malice, as indicating racial prejudice or bias".

The newly declassified files revealed that the Royal Navy base in 
Singapore was turned into the Asian region's primary document 
destruction center. A special facility called a "splendid 
incinerator" was used to burn "lorry loads of files", Agence 
France-Presse reported.

The "central incinerator" in Singapore was necessary to avoid a 
situation similar to that in India in 1947, when a "pall of smoke" 
from British officials burning their papers in Delhi, ahead of India 
proclaiming independence, filled the local press with critical 
reports. That diplomatic oversight was taken into account, as 
'Operation Legacy' operatives were strictly instructed not to burn 
documents openly.

But not all the doomed archives could be shipped to Singapore. In 
some cases documents were eliminated on site, sometimes being dumped 
in the sea "at the maximum practicable distance from shore" and in 
deep, current-free areas, the National Archives publication claims.

The newly published collection of documents reveals that the British 
cleared out Kenyan intelligence files that contained information 
about abuse and torture of Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising 
against British colonial rule in the 1950s. A special committee 
formed in 1961 coordinated document elimination in Kenya. Yet some 
files were spared simply when an estimated 307 boxes of documents 
were evacuated to Britain, just months ahead of the country gaining 
independence in December 1963.

The existence of some remaining Mau Mau legal case documents was 
revealed in January 2011.

Even after eliminating important evidence half a century ago, earlier 
in 2013 the British government was forced to pay 23 million dollars 
in compensation to over 5,200 elderly Kenyans, who had suffered from 
Britain's punitive measures during the Mau Mau uprising.

In another documented occasion, in April 1957, five lorries delivered 
tons of documents from the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur to 
the Royal Navy base in Singapore. Files were incinerated there; these 
contained details about British rule in Malaya, such as a massacre of 
24 rubber plantation workers at the Malayan village of Batang Kali in 
1948, who had allegedly been murdered by British soldiers.

Despite the mass document elimination, Britain's Foreign Office still 
has some 1.2 million unpublished documents on British colonial 
policy, David Anderson, professor of African history at the 
University of Warwick, told AFP.

So Her Majesty's government might still publish more valuable 
material that can shed more light on how one of the biggest empires 
in human history used to be governed. Overall, Britain had total 
control over 50 colonies including Canada, India, Australia, Nigeria, 
and Jamaica. Currently, there are 14 British Overseas Territories 
that remain under British rule, though most of them are 
self-governing and all have leaderships of their own.

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list