Secrets, lies and brutality: Britain’s colonial record

In April, the Foreign Office finally released thousands of files relating to British colonial rule, having previously claimed they were ‘lost’. These documents, which were secretly shipped out of colonies such as Kenya, Aden and Malaya prior to independence, have only come to light as a result of a legal challenge a year ago made by lawyers for four former Mau Mau members brutally tortured by British officials during the struggle for Kenyan independence in the 1950s. About a sixth of the archive has now been published. In all, files relating to the military and police activities of British colonial administrations in 37 territories, including Cyprus, Guyana, Botswana and Lesotho, will eventually be published.

What is starkly revealed is that, then as now, Conservative and Labour governments alike were prepared to sanction the most savage, racist brutality to suppress national liberation struggles and defend Britain’s imperialist interests – and then stop at nothing to cover up their crimes.

For this vast cache – rather coyly referred to as ‘the migrated archive’ – represents only a tiny fraction of the original records. The British colonialists were, like the Nazis, meticulous record-keepers. But as the prospect of national liberation and independence loomed, British officials stripped out records of murder, torture and abuse to be destroyed, usually burned ‘and the ashes broken up and dispersed’. The volume of destruction can be guessed at from the instruction to officials in Kenya that if necessary, they could stuff documents into weighted crates and dump them at sea.

Other files were stamped with a ‘W’ (these could only be viewed by ‘a British subject of European descent’, ie a white official), replaced with dummy files if necessary so that no future independence government should learn of the purge and shipped off to be illegally stashed away lest they ‘embarrass the UK government, other governments, the police, military forces or public servants’. Repeated attempts by the Kenyan government to gain access to information in these files during the 1960s were simply ignored.

Many of the documents relate to purely administrative matters; it is clear that the most incriminating documents were culled. Monthly reports by the director of intelligence in British-controlled Malaya during the 1950s detail the ‘elimination of ranking terrorists’, and record the strip-searching and abuse of women in ‘New Villages’ set up to contain the nationalist population, but there is little relating to the 1946-48 period, when – with a Labour government in power – death squads operated, whole communities were displaced and workers were frequently gunned down by soldiers, including the massacre of 24 unarmed rubber plantation workers by soldiers of the Scots Guard in Batang Kali in 1948. In Aden, where a British-run torture centre is known to have existed in the 1960s and ill-treatment was rife, most of the files released relate to fisheries.

But on Kenya – despite the apparent destruction of 3.5 tons of material – the files confirm the use of collective punishment against the Mau Mau national liberation movement in the 1950s, including the large-scale confiscation of livestock, fines, forced labour and the burning of entire villages, as well as the case of a man said to have been roasted alive. Most importantly, they confirm that the Conservative government at the time knew about the atrocities being committed to defend British rule and sanctioned what was happening. As a government official said at the time, ‘If we are going to sin, let us sin quietly’. In opposition, Labour offered the Conservative government ‘our fullest support for any steps that are required to suppress Mau Mau’.

The files are also revealing about the lies told by Britain to facilitate the forced removal of the Chagos Islanders from their home in the Indian Ocean so that the US could build a massive military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Driven by the need to go ahead without ‘political hindrance or agitation’, in 1970 the Foreign Office told officials that the islanders were ‘contract labourers’, just there to work on the plantations. A year later 1,500 islanders – referred to by Foreign Office diplomat Sir Dennis Greenhill as ‘some few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure’ – were forcibly removed. They have still not won the right to return. In the meantime, Diego Garcia has been used by the US for refuelling on illegal rendition flights and is thought also to have been used as a secret torture centre. In April 2010 the British government established a marine reserve around the Chagos Islands specifically, as Wikileaks revealed, ‘to put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents’. Rather shamefully, they have managed to dupe the environmental organisation Greenpeace into supporting the islands’ ‘protected’ status.

This is the modus operandi of British imperialism. Half a century after its repression of liberation movements fighting colonial rule, it is still brutally defending its interests around the globe and particularly in north Africa and the Middle East with war, invasion, massacres and torture and covering up the evidence of its crimes. The Labour government fought tooth and nail in an attempt to prevent evidence of its collusion in illegal rendition and torture being revealed; the current Coalition government wants to enshrine secret courts for terrorism suspects to ensure the truth about the role played by state security services can never be known. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to employ revisionist historian Niall Ferguson, an apologist for the British empire, to rewrite the history curriculum for our children. The revelations of this archive, however limited, are ammunition for denouncing British imperialism as a system of entrenched brutality, racism and oppression – then and now.

Cat Alison

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012