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Operation Legacy: When Britain burned the paper trail of its imperial crimes

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Britain burned the paper trail in secret to hide the shame of its brutal empire. Ken Olende looks at Operation Legacy
Issue 2382
British troops in Kenya

British troops in Kenya during the Mau Mau war

Britain tries to maintain the myth that it was more benign than other imperial powers. It managed this largely by hiding the evidence of what it did.

It could claim that there had been no “elimination” of political enemies by British forces in Malaya or torture at concentration camps in Kenya because there were no records.

The project to fillet the records as British forces withdrew was known as Operation Legacy. In most colonies a three person committee was set up to oversee the process.

What was not clear until the latest release of documents was the degree to which documents were burned rather than hidden in secret archives. 

“Emphasis is placed upon destruction,” the London authorities explained to the colonial government in Kenya.

In Aden—where British forces were implicated in war crimes—the British began burning documents 12 months before independence. Very few files remain.  Not only was the true history to be erased, but they also hid that it had been erased. 

In the period running up to independence files marked DG—officially for the deputy governor—were only to be viewed by white colonial staff.


Staff were told to remove “all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or bias.”

Given the racism the empire was built on, the surprising thing is that so many files survived.

Colonial secretary Iain Macleod said in 1961 that all documents that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” should be removed or destroyed. 

Also targeted were those that “might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others (such as police agents or informers)”.

In Malaya the colonial administration had overseen the brutal suppression of an independence movement. It used the naval incinerator in Singapore to destroy five lorry loads of documents in 1957. The scale of this destruction became embarrassing. 

So by the time of the next retreat from a country with a great deal to hide—Kenya in 1963—the colonial office directed, “It is better for too much to be sent home—the wholesale destruction, as in Malaya, should not be repeated.”

As far as possible the burnings were to be done in secret. Authorities hoped to avoid the embarrassment of India when a “pall of smoke” hung over Delhi for days showing that documents were being burned.

In Kenya the colonial office came up with a practical suggestion to avoid smoke.

They said, “It is permissible, as an alternative to fire,  for documents to be packed into weighted crates  and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast.”

Mau Mau legal fight unearthed 15 mile secret stash of documents

The 8,000 or so documents that are now in the public archive at Kew—in a slightly censored form—have been kept at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire. 

The site is run jointly by the Foreign Office and MI6. The government had previously denied its existence. It only admitted to it during a recent court case by veterans of Kenya’s Mau Mau independence war.

Historian David Anderson researched his book Histories of the Hanged, Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire in the Kenyan national archive and knew boxes of documents were missing. 

He questioned the Foreign Office about what happened to these documents in 2011, as an expert witness in the Mau Mau veterans’ case. These would include important evidence for the veterans’ cases.

The British authorities then appeared to be uncomfortable about repeating their earlier denials in the high court that they knew where the documents were. 

So they have finally admitted the existence of this archive of documents removed from 37 former colonies.

The documents were released in eight batches, so the Foreign Office was able to vet them first. It was the last batch that came out on Friday of last week. 

It will be some time before historians discover all that they reveal.

However the British government has already had to pay compensation to Kenyans who were tortured by its forces. 

Now the case of 24 rubber plantation workers murdered in the Malay village of Batang Kali in 1948 has returned to the court of appeal.

The initial ruling on the case brought by relatives of the dead was that the British government cannot be held responsible for the massacre. 

But in the light of recent revelations this looks less secure. Earlier this year the government confessed that the archive at Hanslope Park is actually 150 times bigger, containing documents going back to the 19th century. 

The documents take up about 15 miles of floor to ceiling shelving. The Ministry of Defence has a separate archive with 66,000 files in it.

Legally all such documents should have been put on record and made public after 30 years—unless granted special dispensation.

Kenya: cash for white settlers

Many of the last batch of documents are about land transfer and how white settlers were bought out after Kenyan independence. 

This remains a sensitive issue as the poor who had been driven off the land by white settlers were never allowed to return.

Survivors who found the truth

The documents now released came to light because of a test case brought by five Kenyan veterans of the Mau Mau war for independence.

The five could prove they had been tortured. 

Ndiku Mutua and Paulo Muoka Nzili were both castrated.

Jane Muthoni Mara was sexually assaulted with bottles of boiling water and Wambugu Wa Nyingi had survived a massacre. 

Susan Ciong’ombe Ngondi—like thousands of Kenyan veterans who could not prove torture—died before the case came to court. 

Foreign Office won’t say sorry

The government has not apologised for torture carried out by the colonial authorities. 

The Foreign Office only expressed regret earlier this year.

This is despite a high court judge declaring in 2011 that, “There was systematic torture and the UK government is liable.” 

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