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BHM: The records of Empire

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BHM: The records of Empire

Archives can represent a rich seam of evidence and information on the behaviour of colonial administrations. Perhaps this is why Britain is dragging its feet in returning files taken away when its colonies became independent. Dr Mandy Banton provides an analysis of the current situation, with additional reporting by Dr Susan Williams.

On 5 April 2011, The Times reported that British attempts “to cover up one of the darkest episodes in British colonial history have been revealed by the discovery of a vast cache of documents relating to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya”.

The British government claimed that these documents belong to the UK, although many people disagree. However, the government also claimed that liability for atrocities committed by the British in Kenya was not its responsibility. That had been transferred to the Kenyan government at independence.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was among those who reacted angrily to this extraordinary stance. He said: “ … the British government’s attempt to pin liability on Kenya for British colonial torture represents an intolerable abdication of responsibility. Britain’s insistence that governments around the world ‘should respect international human rights standards’ will sound increasingly hollow if the door is shut in the face of these known victims …”

Media reports speculated on the possible existence of comparable collections of official documentation removed from other former British colonies, fuelling assertions, rumours and half-truths long in existence.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) subsequently admitted that it held 8,800 such files and volumes. All of them were kept in a high-security building at Hanslope Park, 50 miles north of London. They came not only from Kenya, but from a total of 37 colonial territories. There were, in fact, almost 20,000 files and volumes.

These documents, sent to London at independence or shortly afterwards, are now in the UK National Archives. They are known as “migrated archives” – documents removed secretly from the countries in which they were created, and quite distinct from the internal records of British government departments.

They include collections from Botswana (Bechuanaland), Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana (Gold Coast), Kenya, Lesotho [Basutoland], Malawi (Nyasaland), Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania (with separate collections for Tanganyika and Zanzibar), Uganda, and Zambia (Northern Rhodesia).

A report was commissioned by the British foreign secretary, William Hague, in 2011 to examine “What went wrong and what lessons should we draw?” It emphasised bureaucratic incompetence and loss of corporate memory, rather than any deliberate intention to conceal the existence of these migrated archives.

But the suggestion that they were simply forgotten, or perhaps considered of no interest or importance, does not ring true. We know that there were sporadic discussions about them, and what to do with them, over many years.

Why were these papers not left to form a part of the public records of the newly independent states – housed in the national archives of those states?  Why are they now opened to the public in London, rather than being returned?

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