UK ordered destruction of embarrassing colonial papers
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
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
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
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
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.
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