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The guilty secrets of the British Empire exposed in newly released documents

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The government has been forced to release secret colonial documents it claimed were lost. Ken Olende examines the evidence of Britain’s imperial crimes
Issue 2300
Some of the released documents

Some of the released documents

The British establishment promotes a strange myth about the British Empire.

Though it was the biggest empire the world has ever known, built on slavery and gunboats, our rulers argue that it was somehow a gentler, nicer colonialism.

The release of an archive of “lost” colonial documents last week undercuts this nonsense.

They show that in the early 1940s the British government seriously considered testing chemical weapons in Bechuanaland, now Botswana.

In the 1950s it practised brutal collective punishment on any Kenyans who were suspected of supporting the Mau Mau independence movement.

And it “eliminated” the colonial authority’s enemies in Malaya.

There are also new details on Britain’s 1960s plot to remove the inhabitants of the Chagos islands so that the US could build an airbase on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

These documents are only being revealed now because a group of Mau Mau veterans took the British government to court over torture they suffered.

Kenya’s colonial attorney general at the time, Eric Griffiths-Jones, wrote in a letter in 1957, “If, therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”

The main substance of the letter was about how to beat up detainees.

From now on, it was important that “those who administer violence… should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate”, he wrote.

The “sins” included “the burning alive of detainees”.

The government denies responsibility. It says it handed over all liability to the new government at independence in 1963. So any war crimes would now be the responsibility of the people they were committed against.


Gitu wa Kahengeri, chair of the Mau Mau War Veterans’ Association, told Socialist Worker last year, “The new documents strengthen our case.

“How can they say that the Kenyan government is responsible for compensation when they didn’t even hand over the files?”

The veterans’ expert witness historian David Anderson was one of several historians who had noticed unexplained gaps in the Kenyan national archive. Whole sections of documents had gone “missing” at the time of independence.

Anderson requested that the documents be produced as evidence in the High Court.

The government would have found itself in a very awkward position if it had stated in court that the files were all destroyed and it later emerged that they hadn’t.

So suddenly in January last year the Foreign Office came across an archive. And it was not only documents from Kenya. It admitted to having 8,800 files from 37 ex-colonies.

A colonial office memo from the early 1960s said their contents “might embarrass HMG [the government], might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others.”

The government has now agreed to make the majority of them public in batches from April 2012 to November 2013.

This is not a great favour to the public.

Legally they should have been released at some point in the 1980s.

And it doesn’t clear up the issue of 13 boxes of top secret files that are still missing.

One thing that is known is that many controversial files across the empire were simply burned rather than letting them ever risk falling into the “wrong hands”.


This first batch of documents is revealing, but has nothing from Palestine or Rhodesia.

And the files that are there often do not cover the most controversial years.

Historian Caroline Elkins, who has worked as an expert witness in the Mau Mau case, says the papers are “a meagre subset of the files released” to the legal team.

Still, what has been released can give us some insight into the truth about the brutality of the British Empire.

The government may hope that the media will lose interest in the horrors of Britain’s imperial past as it slowly releases documents.

But we have a duty to the victims of empire not to forget.

Carving up the world and exploiting its people

The British Empire was not founded to benefit the people it conquered—no matter how much the people who ran it tried to pretend otherwise.

It was established in the interests of Britain’s rulers to strip resources from around the world and to provide markets for British products.

Imperialism was, and still is, about dividing the world for capitalism.

People didn’t happily submit—they were overcome by gunboats and machine guns.

The colonial powers were shaken by the Second World War. But at its end they had regained control of their empires.

Liberation movements in Asia had forced them to rethink the amount of territory they could control. But in Africa they thought they could return to business as usual—exploiting people.

A British cabinet committee stated that “it must be a matter of many generations before they are ready for anything like full self-government”.

After Indian independence in 1947, the colonial office was blunter. It said, “Africa is now the core of our colonial position; the only continental space from which we can draw reserves of economic and military strength.”

But within 20 years all this had disappeared as people across the Empire refused to go on accepting British rule. Britain fought savage anti-independence wars in Kenya, Malaya and many others—though it preferred to call them “Emergencies”, not wars.

Today, the colonial empires may have gone, but the imperial system that created them remains. World conflict is still driven by imperialist powers—and Britain, alongside the US, is still one of them.

Malaya: ‘A small but important success… the whole branch was eliminated’

The documents are full of euphemisms that mask the horror of empire.

Monthly intelligence reports from the war to try to prevent independence for Malaya include many references to the “elimination” of members of the Malayan Communist Party.

Intelligence director GC Madoc writes, “The last month of 1956 brought a total of 41 eliminations of terrorists, which is average for the year. During the year, 287 terrorists were killed, 52 were captured and 134 surrendered.”

In January 1957, he wrote, “In Selangor a small but important success was achieved when the whole of the Ampang branch, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, was eliminated.”

During the anti-communist “Emergency”, officials combined a bureaucratic desire to “normalise” the situation with a reliance on emergency legislation.

One, JA Cradock, wrote in a secret memo, “There is need for a Public Security Ordinance but, if we seek to introduce one, we may be pressed to do away with, or make substantial changes in, the emergency regulations… and I am not sure that we are yet ready for this.”

He continues, in euphemistic language that could be used by the police or army today, “The difficulty is that if the police intervene vigorously from the start they are likely to bring down on their own head the wrath of the local politicians.”

Another official adds, “The word ‘colonial’ has acquired a stigma and should be dropped. We should not have a Colonial Office, a secretary of state for colonial affairs, a colonial service and so on. Why not ‘Commonwealth protected territories’ or some such phrase?”

Malaya: Forced to walk naked

The colonial authorities in Malaya held an inquiry into accusations that British troops regularly strip-searched and abused women in Semenyih.

The women said the soldiers would force them to remove their clothes, then search them. The soldiers then threw the clothes far enough away that the women would have to walk naked in front of the other troops to retrieve them.

The page with the result of the inquiry is not included in the documents.

Kenya: ‘Withdraw passports’

For months in 1958, colonial governments across Africa became obsessed with stopping Africans attending “subversive” conferences.

The governor of Kenya wrote to the governor of Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), saying, “In the case of withdrawal of passports to prevent attendance at conferences other than those which are communist inspired it is considered that the decision whether or not to disclose the reasons for the action taken must depend on the particular circumstances.”

Passports certainly were removed from people who hoped to travel to Nasser’s Egypt.

However open attempts to stop people going to newly independent Ghana, a member of the Commonwealth and supposedly a staunch ally, were deemed “politically inexpedient (from a larger Imperial point of view).”

But a memo reminds colonial regimes, “It is the usual practice in this territory, when issuing a passport to an African, to restrict its validity to the country of ultimate destination and those countries through which the holder must pass to reach his destination.” So they could only go to Ghana and no further.

Of course this is precisely the sort of “iron curtain” behaviour that the British government would have condemned from any “Communist” regime.

Kenya: ‘Native stock was seized’

The documents include extensive evidence of collective punishment during the Mau Mau war.

For instance, four people in Naivasha province were accused of having “harboured and fed” a 40-strong Mau Mau unit for a fortnight.

An official wrote, “Owing to the fact that the Kikuyu labour was totally uncooperative and showed no signs of assisting security forces, native stock was seized.”

The British confiscated 30 sheep.

These extensive records of theft of land and property will be closely watched in Kenya, where there has been extreme bitterness at the fact no justice was ever offered for items seized during the war.

Diego Garcia: ‘There will be no native population except seagulls’

The US wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean on an unpopulated island so that it would not be hindered by “political agitation”.

The British offered Diego Garcia in the Chagos islands. Unfortunately 1,500 indigenous Ilois people inhabited these—500 on Diego Garcia itself.

Britain removed them.

The Foreign Office instructed diplomats at the United Nations to describe the islanders as “contract labourers” on coconut plantations.

Its memo explains, “The merit of this line is that it does not give away the existence of the Ilois but is at the same time strictly factual.”

The Ilois were deported to Maurtius. One diplomat wrote in 1966, “There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.”

His colleague Sir Dennis Greenhill replied, “Unfortunately, along with the birds go some few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”

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