Colonial sunset
April 21, 2012 8:39 AM   Subscribe

The Foreign Office’s “guilty secret” revealed Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments. Those papers that survived were flown back to Britain and hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain. The Guardian details some of those papers released earlier this week.

The name of Barack Obama, the father of the American president, is on the top of a list of names revealed in a hitherto secret British colonial file of Kenyans studying in the US.

In June 1957, Eric Griffiths-Jones, the attorney general of the British administration in Kenya, wrote to the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, detailing the way the regime of abuse at the colony's detention camps was being subtly altered.

The "elimination of ranking terrorists" was a repeated theme in secret monthly reports on casualty figures circulated by the director of intelligence in British-controlled Malaya during the 1950s.

The extent to which successive British governments set out to hoodwink parliament and the public over the decision to give the US a military base in Diego Garcia and force out the islanders is now laid bare.

Britain planned to test a very virulent type of poison gas in what is now Botswana, the colonial archives reveal.
posted by infini (34 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Compelling and disgusting at once. We knew most of this already, but the die-hard image of the Brits as a benificent and generous colonial power has been impervious to several generations of exposure of the countless archives of British atrocities, by post-colonial scholars and activists especially.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by spitbull at 9:16 AM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This isn't just the Foreign Office's guilty secret. It's the whole of the UK. We don't talk that much about the end of empire, and we don't teach about it beyond Gandhi. The Mau Mau Uprising, the Malayan and Aden "Emergencies", the Chagos Islands genocide, the botched partition of India, and so on, just don't figure in our national history. I hope that we can use these documents to force some reassessment of the issue, but I'm not sure it will happen. It's sad, I suppose, but it is hard to accept that some of the same people who were the "good guys" against the Nazis then turned about and perpetrated crimes against others.

We can't ignore what these papers are telling us.
posted by Jehan at 9:17 AM on April 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


We can't ignore what these papers are telling us.

We shall see about that.
posted by absalom at 9:23 AM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


the die-hard image of the Brits as a benificent and generous colonial power has been impervious to several generations of exposure of the countless archives of British atrocities, by post-colonial scholars and activists especially.

If their reputation for benevolence and sophistication could survive the Indian Mutiny it could survive absolutely anything. They set aside days for pillaging whenever they captured an Indian city. They gleefully published lurid reports of their own atrocities in their newspapers. It was never a secret.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:38 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's not at all surprising that this kind of thing would be suppressed. And I'm not sure we have the full story, even now. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office got stung with their release of the Mau Mau insurgency material under the Freedom of Information Act in the early '00s. It's my understanding that they now employ a team of records reviewers who go through documents line-by-line and redact an awful amount of material before releasing it to the National Archives (as they are able to do under UK FOI law, as long as they can satisfy the Act's grounds for maintaining secrecy). I don't know how reliable this is, but one researcher over at Crooked Timber reports having gone through some of the just-released files at TNA, and finding them to be thoroughly redacted and, indeed, something of a damp squib.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:44 AM on April 21, 2012


We can't ignore what these papers are telling us.

Yes, but what are they telling us? At present it's hard to tell exactly what they contain (though that hasn't stopped the Guardian jumping to conclusions). One of the historians who has seen the files, Prof Richard Drayton, is rather disappointed by what he's found so far:

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.

However, Drayton points out that we don't have a full list of the papers, and -- crucially -- we don't know what was destroyed, or when:

The problem here is that the FCO has refused to give historians a full and complete inventory of the materials held at Hanslope Park at the time of ‘discovery’, insisting that requests be made on a case by case “fishing” basis using the Freedom of Information protocol. What is also missing from the public domain are the detailed lists of files which were destroyed: even if original documents do not exist, what the Colonial Office would have been created and held were inventories of materials destroyed. It would be of particular value to see the dates on which material was destroyed.

Another historian, Prof David Anderson, has been looking at the Kenyan files and has 'serious concerns' about the way the documents have been released. He argues that the sheer quantity of material makes it impossible, at present, to know what's there:

The documents listed in the initial disclosure amount to more than 1,500 files. At a fair estimate, to judge by the titles of the files recorded in the FCO's listings, perhaps 500 to 600 of these files have a potential bearing on this case. These files vary in size, the smallest being only a few pages in size, the largest containing dozens of individual documents and amounting to more than 400 folios. Having now examined more than 300 of these files, I would conservatively estimate the average size of files to be approximately 100 folios. This means that more than 50,000 folios need to be examined (thus some 17,000 pages need to be read) in order to adequately review the materials of relevance to the case that have been disclosed.

But even in the files that he's reviewed so far, Anderson has found some fairly damning material:

Many of the documents provide copious detail on the administration of torture and substantive allegations of abuse. Indeed, these are so commonplace that we have struggled to list them all. Disclosed File E 16/3/8A, for example, contains a telegram from Governor Baring to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, dated 17 January 1955, detailing 'brutal allegations' against 8 British District Officers regarding the murder of detainees under 'screening' (i.e. interrogation). This included the burning alive of detainees. We have only included a relatively small sample of such material among the documents listed, and I must emphasize that we have only selected cases that were not previously widely reported or acknowledged.

No doubt there will be further revelations in the weeks and months ahead. Richard Drayton thinks this new material will ultimately 'force us to rewrite the story of decolonisation'. But at the moment we just don't have the full picture.
posted by verstegan at 9:50 AM on April 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


We shall see about that.

Well, it's an ought, not an is.

I used to wonder when I was a child what the word "unreconstructed" really meant, such as "unreconstructed Stalinist" or "unreconstructed conservative". Unreconstructed colonialism is something I know, and you can read it in the papers, such as when Prime Minister sought to apologize for the mess we made of Kashmir. Or even: The case of the Mau Mau four fits all too neatly into self-hating Britain. That's right, if you're British and speak out against the war crimes we committed, you're "self-hating".
posted by Jehan at 10:03 AM on April 21, 2012


There was a long Sunday New York Times Magazine article a few years ago which I cannot find which claimed that the British Empire on net was a great benefit even in places where there was a violent and ugly decline phase. As I recall the author analyzed phases of exploitation and whatnot and his analysis was that 99% of the colonial barbarity was in the endgame when everybody knew it was all but over and they were in a sort of panic pillage mode; and also that as long as everybody thought there was a good "honest" future in the empire the rulers' behavior was generally benevolent. I would be interested in reading more if anybody has book recommendations.

Where I live the Empire was a great net benefit to me but not so much for the Karawanka who used to live here but are now extinct.
posted by bukvich at 10:05 AM on April 21, 2012


...exposing the lurid underbelly of colonizations?

What part of colonization is good?

Maybe it was where they established missions to educate all those wogs, and bring them civilization and enlightenment, for example, in the form of machine guns, bayonets, and the ever loving trading companies.

Yes, yes, I know. But it's either snark or else type in caps littered with interrobangs and exclamation points.
posted by mule98J at 10:19 AM on April 21, 2012


I'm sure the birthers are busy connecting dots that don't exist because Obama's dad is mentioned as a concern to the US.
posted by birdherder at 10:19 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


the die-hard image of the Brits as a benificent and generous colonial power

This confuses me. As an Englishman, I'd never experienced this fluffy sheen on the colonial era being presented or claimed beyond the usual rose tinted film rubbish where the worst thing that happened was a slight slap in the face for the servants etc. It's kind of an open secret that bad things 'needed' to be done that don't stand up to any scrutiny now. The ends 'justified' the means only at the time because the presiding parameter was 'if it benefits the Empire'.

I thought everyone was aware that the Empire did some good things but had to do many many bad things to achieve those things. A lot of which didn't necessarily balance out in anyone's favour but Britain's. That horrible things happened during the Empire (or any forced occupation) really isn't news, is it? I mean, it still happens now in Iraq, Afghanistan... everywhere. Making people do things that you want is rarely a gentle process.
posted by Brockles at 10:24 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


But at the moment we just don't have the full picture.

But my grandmother never forgot.
posted by infini at 10:26 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you think this is bad, just wait for the last days of the American Empire.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


for the Karawanka who used to live here but are now extinct.

Yeah, as someone who works with (not quite extinct yet) indigenous people, that's the perspective I'm channeling. I remember swearing at the NY Times magazine article at the time.
posted by spitbull at 11:36 AM on April 21, 2012


just wait for the last days of the American Empire.

Wait?
posted by spitbull at 11:36 AM on April 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


@Brockles

" I thought everyone was aware that the Empire did some good things but had to do many many bad things to achieve those things. "

Brockles, the following statement just kind of reinforces the whole disconnect a lot British (and to be fair other Europeans) have concerning their colonial past. The sad thing is I still hear apologist talking about the civilizing effect of colonialism as a justification or at least a benefit for the numerous forms of exploitation that occured.

Also don't forget the British constituted the other half of the slave trade that occured with the U.S., amoung many other atrocities, how was that civilizing or beneficial?


At least hardly anyone in the United States conflates the robbery, rape, exploitation, and destruction of culture that occured with the native americans / africans to "civilizing".
posted by Alexander Brotschi at 11:37 AM on April 21, 2012


“What do I think of Western civilisation? I think it would be a very good idea.” ~ MK Gandhi
posted by infini at 12:02 PM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


"It's sad, I suppose, but it is hard to accept that some of the same people who were the "good guys" against the Nazis then turned about and perpetrated crimes against others."

It's utterly unsurprising in a pre-1945 Europe that was extremely racist and nationalistic. I mean, if we're dealing with WWII icons:

Winston S. Churchill: departmental minute (Churchill papers: 16/16) 12 May 1919 War Office

"I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected."

from Companion Volume 4, Part 1 of the official biography, WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, by Martin Gilbert (London: Heinemann, 1976)
posted by jaduncan at 12:21 PM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


"It's sad, I suppose, but it is hard to accept that some of the same people who were the "good guys" against the Nazis then turned about and perpetrated crimes against others."

Eh, in fact I'm just going to say one word: Stalin.
posted by jaduncan at 12:26 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The sad thing is I still hear apologist talking about the civilizing effect of colonialism as a justification or at least a benefit for the numerous forms of exploitation that occured.

And, just to be clear, you are aware that was the opposite of what I was saying?
posted by Brockles at 2:25 PM on April 21, 2012


What part of colonization is good?

Well, they brought the aqueducts...
posted by psycho-alchemy at 2:43 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's particularly astonishing that the myth of beneficent British colonialism survives the proximity of Ireland. You don't have to go to bally wogland or speak some frightful foreign jabber to find a history of systemic (in the sense of not atypical or outlying) abuse, misrule and downright genocidal conduct, you just have to paddle a strait or even walk across a border.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:45 PM on April 21, 2012


I never cease to be amazed at the amount of otherwise informed people from Britain (primarily England) I meet who seem to have no idea Northern Ireland is even part of the UK, not to mind possessing even the most cursory knowledge of the history of the situation. They pair nicely with the nearly as large group who think that the republic is still part of the UK. Sigh…
posted by nfg at 2:52 PM on April 21, 2012


What part of colonization is good?

Man, that's harsh on Sid Meier right there.
posted by jaduncan at 4:28 PM on April 21, 2012


I thought everyone was aware that the Empire did some good things but had to do many many bad things to achieve those things. A lot of which didn't necessarily balance out in anyone's favour but Britain's.

On the contrary, Brockles, someone even wrote a book about how great it was.
posted by smoke at 5:11 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


That book mentions an awful lot of the bad things that go with the Empire, according to the reviews, though. It doesn't exactly say 'all these awesome things came at no price'. Some of these articles and the tone of earlier posters is that there is a lot of whitewashing and rose tinted glasses and it isn't general knowledge that the Empire building included horrific nasty deeds.

I'm not sure where this external perception that the nasty side of the Empire has been suppressed and no-one knew about it comes from. I didn't even take history past age 13 at school and I am fully aware of the shitty things that happened in building the EMpire. It isn't glossed over, necessarily.

It's sad, I suppose, but it is hard to accept that some of the same people who were the "good guys" against the Nazis then turned about and perpetrated crimes against others.

That sentence is a bit odd, considering where the major portion of building the Empire sat in the dateline compared to WW2. Besides, being 'better than Nazis' leaves a fair chunk of nasty available behaviour on the table before it shakes the WW2 moral position, doesn't it?
posted by Brockles at 5:32 PM on April 21, 2012


What a coincidence that I read about this the day after I was reading about the anti-Greek riots in Istanbul in 1955, which the British had indirectly helped cause by encouraging the Turkish government to tangle with Greece so that the rest of the world would pay less attention to Greece's call for self-determination of the (then British colony of) Cyprus.
posted by dhens at 6:16 PM on April 21, 2012


Brockles: I am fully aware of the shitty things that happened in building the EMpire

I think though the point is that it isn't a discussion of shitty things happening. To be simple about it, the "empire" was shitty in and of itself: as an idea, as a practicality, in its very essence, they all were. There aren't shitty things that happened, the entire process, beginning middle and end was predicated on racism and belittlement, these things still live and infect our societies subtly but definitely. I'm not for a minute accusing you of saying otherwise but you can see how this seemingly fine distinction can stick in people's craw.

Also Niall Ferguson getting told by Pankaj Mishra [Mefi].
posted by nfg at 6:44 PM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are many in my parents' generation (Indians and Pakistanis) who think the subcontinent was better off pre-Partition, that the only systems running in the subcontinent are those that were set up by the British, and that no institutions of value have been set up since they left.

That this ignores the institutions they demolished, the economic development that they actively hampered, the communalism that they deliberately fanned, etc., seems to be besides the point to them. It perplexes me.
posted by bardophile at 12:36 AM on April 22, 2012


Compelling and disgusting at once. We knew most of this already, but the die-hard image of the Brits as a benificent and generous colonial power has been impervious to several generations of exposure of the countless archives of British atrocities...

Yes, but at least they weren't the French
posted by the noob at 1:04 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's difficult to defend the British Empire once you realise that its three most enduring legacies are the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, that between Israelis and Palestinians, and that between India and Pakistan...
posted by Skeptic at 10:16 AM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


mule98J: "What part of colonization is good?"

WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS EVER DONE FOR US?
posted by falameufilho at 5:55 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


George Monbiot: There is one thing you can say for the Holocaust deniers: at least they know what they are denying. In order to sustain the lies they tell, they must engage in strenuous falsification. To dismiss Britain's colonial atrocities, no such effort is required. Most people appear to be unaware that anything needs to be denied
posted by dng at 6:52 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I never cease to be amazed at the amount of otherwise informed people from Britain (primarily England) I meet who seem to have no idea Northern Ireland is even part of the UK, not to mind possessing even the most cursory knowledge of the history of the situation. They pair nicely with the nearly as large group who think that the republic is still part of the UK. Sigh…

I've never met any of the former. I've met many of the latter, sadly.
posted by dng at 6:53 PM on April 23, 2012


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