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How the Europeans covered their backs by removing colonial archives

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How the Europeans covered their backs by removing colonial archives

Vincent Hiribarren is a lecturer in World History at King’s College, London. His work has led him to study many colonial-era archives of European countries that had a presence in Africa. Stephen Williams went to meet him.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of New African.

Vincent Hiribarren is not perhaps a typical academic – he is too young and too informal. But it was clear from the outset of our conversation that he is an expert on European archives and also knows a great deal about the archives kept by post-independence African countries.

He has great respect for Senegal which, he says, holds one of the finest historical archives in Africa. He places much of the credit for this on Saliou Mbaye, who was the head of Senegal’s archives until very recently.

“Mbaye understood the relationship between the state and its records, and the importance of archives. It was something he recognised from the start. Now in Africa, Senegal is an example of how to do things,” Hiribarren says, adding:

“The French managed to keep links with former colleagues in Africa, in terms of archival work and the French also provides training for archivists by regularly sending experts to Africa – as well as training archivists from Africa in France.”

So was he suggesting that Senegal has the most progressive attitude towards archives in Africa? “In Francophone Africa, definitely,” Hiribarren says matter-of-factly. “But in Anglophone Africa, the question might be different.

“From the post-independence period onwards, from the 1950s, we had the construction of physical archive centres across
Africa, and you had purpose-built buildings erected just for that purpose, and historians and journalists made use of them straightaway.”

As well as Senegal, Hiribarren also praises the quality of archives that the Cameroonian government has assembled, acknowledging the assistance that France has provided for their upkeep.

“But Nigeria is a situation that is not as good as it used to be,” Hiribarren declares. “Nigeria’s archives used to be much better, in the 1950s and 60s, until the Biafran civil war. After the war, the situation deteriorated quite quickly. But I think Nigeria used to be a good example of how to organise state archives.”


Archived documents often disclose important elements of the history of Africa, providing evidence of the past.


So is the lack of quality contemporary archives in Africa a question of political will, or financial resources, or a combination of different factors? Hiribarrren believes that it is primarily a lack of finance, but adds that this is probably because few realise what an important role archives play. He believes that there is confusion about what archivists do; the public is not sure whether they just collect information, and question whether they create inventories. They have little knowledge of just what they do.

Nevertheless, he concedes that if the choice were between the building of schools or archives, he would find it difficult to argue for budgets going to create archives (although they could be seen as an educational tool). But archives have never figured highly in African national policies – although archived documents often disclose important elements of the history of Africa, providing evidence of the past.

It is this provision of evidence that makes the whole issue of “migrated files” so important. Migrated files are those archives that were removed by colonial authorities and sent back home as former colonies won independence.

As David Anderson argues convincingly, sometimes the reason that incriminating archives were sent back to the colonialists’ home governments was that they were being used by the colonial officers as a type of insurance policy. For example, files were sent back to the UK to act as evidence that colonial officers did not agree, nor take part in, various operations against the colonised.

Hiribarren agrees, but adds that he believes there was an attitude of impunity held by colonial bureaucrats regarding the files they were creating. In short, they could never envisage that they would ever be made public and be used to call them to account for their crimes.

These two views possibly explain why these files were created in the first place, when so many were obviously incriminating – or why they were
not destroyed. In fact, many of the UK’s colonial archives, for example, were destroyed – one expert told Ludo De Witte that only 6% to 14% of the UK’s colonial archives survived, whether migrated or otherwise.

Archives, an insurance policy

I asked Hiribarren whether what the UK authorities seem to have done took place in other European countries? “I think so, definitely,” he answered. “In the Algerian case, for example, for the French it was certainly a kind of insurance policy in the way they dealt with their archives.

“It’s quite striking how they tried to keep hold of these archives, hiding names and other details. These archives contained names of people who tortured people, but also the names of conscripts who refused to follow orders. 

“It was the same more recently in South Africa when the apartheid administration destroyed many records for the obvious reason that they would have disclosed how they used informers, who informed on who, death squads and the names of those involved.”

The 2003 book Unfinished Business – South Africa, Apartheid and Truth, by Terry Bell and Dumisa Buhla Ntsebeza, tells of tons of documents that were destroyed by President F.W. de Klerk’s government before the ANC came to power.

“Then we have the case of Portugal,” Hiribarren says. “In Portuguese colonies there were those who could not agree with the tactics employed by the colonial authorities, and from the 1960s to 1974, they were quickly repatriated to Portugal. It is still quite difficult to access some documents, but it is possible to find their names in the Portuguese archives.”

Hiribarren also talked about the example of Germany and the archives regarding their former colonies of Cameroon and Namibia. The Germans were not in Cameroon for that long, from about 1902 to the end of World War I (about 14 years), so although there are some records, there is not much information about that era.


By looking at the Herero genocide, people thought they could explain the genesis of the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’, the liquidation of European Jews.


But Namibia is a different matter, according to Hiribarren. “The Namibia archives are very interesting. It was a terrible episode in colonial history, but it was over questions regarding that period that people started talking about archives and how the German government should be open about them.

“As you know, there was a massacre of the Herero people in Namibia. It was less a massacre with weapons, it was more about letting them starve behind what was called the ‘red line’. It was genocide. It was called a genocide, and people started to question whether these were the
roots of the Jewish holocaust during World War II. By looking at the Herero genocide, people thought they could explain the genesis of the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’, the liquidation of European Jews.

“This put the whole issue of archives in the public’s eye and led to calls for Germany to open its archives, although they are principally records of the Second World War.

“Germany has its own equivalent of the Freedom of Information legislation. You can request to see documents, and those about Africa are quite easy to access.”

But when it comes to the Italian archives, difficulties arise. In fact, Italian state policy has been quite different to other countries as Italian state archives were privately managed from 1952 until 1984.

For researchers, the problem is that there are quite a number of archives relating to Italy’s colonial role in Africa that are in Italy itself, and many others are in Africa – in Asmara (Eritrea), Mogadishu (Somalia) or Tripoli (Libya). Yet no one has a complete index of the archives
or knows where particular ones are located.

“You need to know what is left, and where to find it, and the records are a mess,” explains Hiribarren. “It is similar to the situation in Northern Nigeria. I have a good idea of what is there, but only an idea.” Hiribarren has made the history of Borno State in north-east Nigeria his area of expertise. 

Fascist regimes more open with archives

Hiribarren believes that the successor governments of the most fascist former regimes, like Nazi Germany, Italy and Portugal, now have the most open archives, while countries like France and Britain, because there is little tangible difference in what they are today and what they were at the beginning of the 20th century, are less open.

“The one exception to this is the Spanish case,” Hiribarren says. “My argument to explain this would be that now, and since the abdication of the former King, the situation illustrates how fragile things still are in Spain, that through various very secret pacts the Franco era was allowed to evolve into a Western democratic system.

“That culture of secrecy started in the 1930s when General Franco invaded Spain from Morocco with an African army. And there are still strong links between Spain and its former African empire.

“Let me give you an example – when Spain’s first post-Franco democratic prime minister, Adolfo Suarez, [who died earlier this year] was sworn in, the only African head of state to attend the ceremony was President Teodoro Obiang, of Equatorial Guinea, who many consider a dictator. That says something about Spain!”

Haribarren, whose family is Basque, explains that as he speaks Spanish and French, he does not have any particular difficulty in also reading the Romantic languages such as Italian and Portuguese, but that he had a lot of problems researching the Portuguese archives.

It seems that Portugal’s policy was to bring all its colonial archives back from Africa, but the collection is poorly managed and not well indexed. There is a huge quantity of archives, but searching for a particular file in many instances is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Our conversation moved on to Belgium’s archives and in particular how one researcher’s work has completely changed the way the state keeps and releases its archives. That researcher is Ludo De Witte whose 1999 book, The Assassination of Lumumba sent shockwaves through Belgium’s political establishment.

De Witte was perhaps too modest to mention this to New African but his book was a groundbreaking event in Belgium, requiring the Belgian public to confront the country’s terrible past in DRCongo – for many, perhaps for the very first time. It was De Witte’s archival research into the assassination of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, that led the Belgian government to launch a full scale enquiry, or Commission; that concluded that what the author had uncovered was indeed indicative of a conspiracy to “eliminate” Lumumba.

French fears

Turning to France again, bearing in mind what Hiribarren had previously pointed out – that the more repressive and fascistic regimes, such as Nazi Germany, usually kept extensive archives that successor governments were inclined to open, even though they were sometimes badly managed and indexed – led us to talk about France’s World War II experience and how this reverberated with subsequent events, such as in Algeria.

“I think it is a story which shows physically what happened to the archives. They were sent by ship to southeast France and a new archive centre was opened there in 1966. They took everything, some archives were even from the Ottoman period.

“Some were opened but after a long process. The Ottoman files were subsequently returned to Algiers, along with records of infrastructure like roads and bridges which were needed for maintenance purposes.

“However, the Algerians say that all archives belong to them and should be returned. It is still a highly sensitive subject in France and a big political debate. It is all linked to World War II and the secrets of that period which may be uncovered by the archives.

“You see, a lot of French soldiers that fought in Algeria were veterans of World War II. Some of them were tortured by the Gestapo (Nazi Germany’s secret police) and in turn became torturers themselves in Algeria.

“The French felt that they had to win the Algerian war – they had initially been defeated and occupied by Germany, with Algeria, as most of France did, choosing the Vichy collaborationist side. France had also lost the Indochina war, and they felt they needed to prove they were a world power again post World War II.

“During World War II, Vichy laws were adopted in Algeria – for example the laws that forbade the employment of Jews in the public sector. The Jews even lost their French nationality. Then the incident of Mers-el-Kebir, just to the west of the French Algerian port of Oran, where the British bombed what remained of the French fleet to stop it from falling into the hands of the Axis powers. Many French people could not accept this, yet North Africa became the centre of Free French Africa.”

The French state was very selective in the ways that it used archives in bringing prosecutions to bear on those that perpetrated torture and murder in the Algerian civil war, as Hiribarren explains in relating the case of Maurice Papon, a French civil servant. In May 1981, an investigation by the French newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé, uncovered archives that indicated that during the Second World War, as a functionary of the Vichy government, Papon had signed deportation documents that resulted in more than 1,600 Jews being interned at the notorious Drancy Camp. Seven years later he was convicted of crimes against humanity.

Yet there is also evidence that Papon had tortured Algerian prisoners during the Algerian civil war and that he was culpable, in 1961 and 1962, of ordering the deaths of hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in the French capital who were demanding independence. He was then serving as the chief of police in Paris. But he was only ever prosecuted for his World War II collaborationist activities. He died in 2007.

It does seem that the Papon case, and the selectivity that was used in his prosecution, is evidence that the French government conspired to keep the controversial role of senior officials in the Algerian war of independence away from public scrutiny, illustrates a common factor when it comes to all colonial archives. The former colonisers are keen to keep their terrible secrets to themselves.

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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London UK. Having worked in publishing for over 40years, he has focused on covering issues that directly affect the majority world. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa region. Currently, Williams works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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