Friday, 29 November 2013

Destroying the Evidence

Britain's colonial empire was remarkable in two respects. Not only in the extent of territory controlled around the world, but also in the degree to which the British colonial governments documented their activities. Millions of files were kept on everything from petty administrative details to lists of spies and informers, to methods of exploitation and oppression, to the latest communications with the Foreign and Colonial Office.

This caused a problem when the Brits retreated from different countries, starting with India. What to do with the files? The political sensitivity of each file was indicated by a code that determined which officials could read it, for example, to exclude those of 'non-European descent'. However, this sometimes meant that there were not enough white Brits available to sift through the documents. What could be left behind for the post-colonial administration? What should be put on the bonfire, and what should be sent back to London? The key thing was to destroy anything that could embarrass Her Majesty's Government if it fell into the wrong hands.

While this story of getting rid of the evidence is not new - see, for example, Britain's Gulag, on the end of British colonial rule in Kenya, by Caroline Elkins,  - an article in the Guardian gives fascinating details of the extent of the cover up. The Foreign Office retains a huge cache of undisclosed files from the colonial period.

Tony Norfield, 29 November 2013