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How British Empire's dirty secrets went up in smoke in the colonies

Revealed: The bonfire of paper at the end of colonial empire

Standard Media - Kenya

The full extent of the destruction of Britain's colonial government records during the retreat from empire was disclosed in 2013 with the declassification of a small part of the Foreign Office's vast secret archive.

50-year-old documents that have finally been transferred to the National Archive show that bonfires were built behind diplomatic missions across the globe as the purge - codenamed Operation Legacy - accompanied the handover of each colony.

The declassified documents include copies of an instruction issued in 1961 by Iain Macleod, colonial secretary, that post-independence governments should not be handed any material that "might embarrass Her Majesty's [the] government", that could "embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others e.g. police informers", that might betray intelligence sources, or that might "be used unethically by ministers in the successor government".

Colonial officials

In Northern Rhodesia, colonial officials were issued with further orders to destroy "all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias on the part of Her Majesty's government".

Detailed instructions were issued over methods of destruction, in order to erase all evidence of the purge. When documents were burned, "the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up", while any that were being dumped at sea must be "packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast."

Also among the documents declassified on Friday are "destruction certificates" sent to London by colonial officials as proof that they were performing their duties, and letters and memoranda that showed that some were struggling to complete their huge task before the colonies gained their independence. Officials in more than one colony warned London that they feared they would be "celebrating Independence Day with smoke."

An elaborate and at times confusing classification system was introduced, in addition to the secret/top secret classifications, to protect papers that were to be destroyed or shipped to the UK. Officials were often granted or refused security clearance on the grounds of ethnicity.

Documents marked "Guard", for example, could be disclosed to non-British officials as long as if they were from the "Old Commonwealth" - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada.

Those classified as "Watch", and stamped with a red letter W, were to be removed from the country or destroyed. Steps were taken to ensure post-colonial governments would not learn that such files had ever existed, with one instruction stating: "The legacy files must leave no reference to watch material. Indeed, the very existence of the watch series, though it may be guessed at, should never be revealed." Officials were warned to keep their 'W' stamps locked away.

Deputy governor

The marking "DG" was said to be an abbreviation of deputy governor, but in fact was a protective code word to indicate that papers so marked were for sight by "British officers of European descent only".

As colonies passed into a transitional phase before full independence, with British civil servants working for local government ministers, an entire parallel series of documents marked 'Personal' were created.

"Personal" files could be seen only by British governors and their British aides, a system that appears to have been employed in every territory from which the British withdrew after 1961. "The existence of the 'Personal' series of correspondence must of course be scrupulously protected and no documents in this series should be transferred to ministers," colonial officials were warned.

Files returned to London

While thousands of files were returned to London during the process of decolonisation, it is now clear that countless numbers of documents were destroyed. "Emphasis is placed upon destruction," colonial officials in Kenya were told.

Officials in Aden were told to start burning in 1966, a full 12 months before the eventual British withdrawal.

"It may seem a bit early to start talking about disposal of documents prior to independence, but the sifting of documents is a considerable task and you may like to start thinking about it now."

As in many colonies, a three-man committee - comprising two senior administrators and one police special branch officer - decided what would be destroyed and what would be removed to London. The paucity of Aden documentation so far declassified may suggest that the committee decided that most files should be destroyed.

In Belize, colonial administrators officials told London in October 1962 that a visiting MI5 officer had decided that all sensitive files should be destroyed by fire: "In this he was assisted by the Royal Navy and several gallons of petrol."

In British Guiana, a shortage of "British officers of European descent" resulted in the "hot and heavy" task falling to two secretaries, using a fire in an oil drum in the grounds of Government House. Eventually the army agreed to lend a hand.

Classified papers

The declassified papers show colonial officials asking for further advice about what should and should not be destroyed.

In 1963, for example, an official in Malta asked London for advice about which files should be "spirited away out of the country", and warned that while some documents could be handed over to the new government: "There may again be others which could be given to them if they were doctored first; and there may be files which cannot be given to them under any circumstances." In June 1966, Max Webber, the high commissioner in Brunei, asked Bernard Cheeseman, chief librarian at the Commonwealth Relations Office, for advice about 60 boxes of files. "My Dear Cheese," he wrote, "can I, off my own bat, destroy some of these papers, or should the whole lot be sent home for weeding or retention in your records?"

Not all sensitive documents were destroyed. Large amounts were transferred to London, and held in Foreign Office archives. Colonial officials were told that crates of documents sent back to the UK by sea could be entrusted only to the "care of a British ship's master on a British ship".

Before independence

For example, Robert Turner, the chief secretary of the British protectorate of North Borneo, wrote to the Colonial Office library in August 1963, a few weeks before independence, saying his subordinate's monthly reports - "which would be unsuitable for the eyes of local ministers" - would be saved and sent to London, rather than destroyed. "I ... have been prevailed upon to do so on the grounds that some at least of their contents may come in handy when some future Gibbon is doing research work for his 'Decline and Fall of the British Empire'."

Those papers that were returned to London were not open to historians, however.

The declassified documents made available on Friday at the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, are from a cache of 8,800 of colonial-era files that the Foreign Office held for decades, in breach of the 30-years rule of the Public Records Acts and in effect beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

Stored behind fences

They were stored behind barbed-wire fences at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire, a government communications research centre north of London, a facility that it operates along with MI6 and MI5. The Foreign Office was forced eventually to admit to the existence of the hidden files during high court proceedings brought by a group of elderly Kenyans who were suing the government over the mistreatment they suffered while imprisoned during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency.

Even then, however, the Foreign Office failed to acknowledge that the 8,800 colonial files were just a small part of a secret archive of 1.2 million files that it called Special Collections, and which it had held unlawfully at Hanslope Park.

The Foreign Office is understood to have presented a plan to the National Archive earlier this month for the belated transfer of the Special Collections into the public domain.

On Thursday it declined to disclose details of that plan. The newly declassified documents show that the practice of destroying papers rather than allowing them to fall into the hands of post-independence governments pre-dated Macleod's 1961 instructions.

Loads of papers

A British colonial official in Malaya reported that in August 1957, for example, "five lorry loads of papers ... were driven down to the naval base at Singapore, and destroyed in the Navy's splendid incinerator there.

The Army supplied the lorries (civilian type) and laid on Field Security Personnel to move the files. Considerable pains were nevertheless taken to carry out the operations discreetly, partly to avoid exacerbating relationships between the British government and those Malayans who might not have been so understanding ... and partly to avoid comment by the press (who I understand greatly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi during the mass destruction of documents in 1947)."

A few years later, colonial officials in Kenya were urged not to follow the Malayan example: "It is better for too much, rather than too little, to be sent home - the wholesale destruction, as in Malaya, should not be repeated."

- The Guardian

Thousands of confidential papers were destroyed as British rule neared its end in many colonies

Cahal Milmo The Independent Friday 29 November 2013

In April 1957, five unmarked lorries left the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur and drove to a Royal Navy base in Singapore with their cargo of files detailing the secrets of Britain's rule in Malaya. Their destination was, in the words of one official, a "splendid incinerator".

This "discreet" mission in the closing days of British rule over what became Malaysia was one of hundreds of similar operations. As the sun finally set on the Empire, diplomats scurried to repatriate or destroy hundreds of thousands "dirty" documents containing evidence that London had decided should never see the light of day. Some 50 years later, the sheer scale of the operation to hide the secrets of British rule overseas - including details of atrocities committed during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya - is revealed in documents released today by the National Archives in Kew, west London.

The so-called "migrated archive" details the extraordinary lengths to which the Colonial Office went to withhold information from its former subjects in at least 23 countries and territories in the 1950s and 1960s.

Among the documents is a memo from London that required all secret documents held abroad to be vetted by a Special Branch or MI5 liaison officer to ensure that any papers which might "embarrass" Britain or show "racial prejudice or religious bias" were destroyed or sent home.

The ramifications of the operation to conceal the resulting archive of 8,800 files - a closely guarded Whitehall secret until the Government recently lost high-profile court cases - are still being felt in compensation claims for victims of atrocities committed under British rule from Kenya to Malaya.

Relatives of 24 Malayan rubber plantation workers allegedly murdered by British soldiers in the Malayan village of Batang Kali in 1948 returned to the Court of Appeal this week to try to overturn a ruling that the British government cannot be held responsible for the massacre.

Most of the records of the original investigation into the killings were destroyed, most likely during the eight-month period that included the sending of the lorries to Singapore.

A memo recording the destruction operation in 1957 notes that the MI5 liaison officer overseeing the operation believed that as a result "the risk of compromise and embarrassment [to Britain] is slight".

John Halford, of the law firm Bindmans, which is representing the Batang Kali relatives and victims, told The Independent:

"British officials through the years have been desperate to consign the Batang Kali atrocity to history, despite those who were there as children still being very much alive and driven to seek justice."

Known in several former colonies as "Operation Legacy", Whitehall set out a list of the types of material it wanted removed, including anything which "might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants (such as police agents or informers)". Once "dirty" documents had been removed the remaining "clean" material was passed to a new strata of administrators overseeing independence processes who were deliberately not told about the sifting process.

It also ordered the destruction or removal of "all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or bias".

Under the rules, all material marked "Top Secret" or "Secret" was either sent back to Britain via the RAF or the navy, or destroyed either by burning or "placed in well-weighted crates and sunk in deep and current free water at the maximum practicable distance from shore".

Among the documents is a note that officials should carefully control any bonfires of secrets and avoid a situation similar to Indian in 1947 when the local press was filled with reports about the "pall of smoke" which fell over Delhi at the end of the Raj as British officials burnt their papers.

The files show that in the months before Kenya gained independence in December 1963, some 307 boxes of material were sent back to Britain.

The evidence remained hidden for five decades until court cases brought on behalf of victims of brutality forced its disclosure last year and a subsequent £20m pay out and apology from the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, this summer.

British empire staff burned sensitive files before new nations' birth
Retreating colonial officials went to great lengths to stop new nations seeing sensitive documents

The Guardian South China Morning Post 30 November, 2013

In Kenya, where colonial officials faced the Mau Mau rebellion (above, far left and left), sleepy Belize and tense Aden, files were destroyed wholesale and others shipped home.

The full extent of the destruction of Britain's colonial government records during the retreat from empire was disclosed yesterday with the declassification of a small part of the Foreign Office's vast secret archive.

Fifty-year-old documents that have been transferred to the UK National Archive show that bonfires were built behind diplomatic missions across the globe as the purge - codenamed Operation Legacy - accompanied the handover of each colony.

The declassified documents include copies of an instruction issued in 1961 by colonial secretary Iain Macleod that postindependence governments should not be handed any material that "might embarrass [the] government ... police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers", that might betray intelligence sources, or that might "be used unethically by ministers in the successor government".

In Northern Rhodesia, officials were also given orders to destroy "all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias".

Evidence of the purge had to be erased. Documents "should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up", while any dumped at sea must be "packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water". Also among the documents declassified yesterday are "destruction certificates" sent to London by officials as proof they were performing their duties, and memoranda that showed some were struggling to complete their huge task.

A confusing classification system was introduced, in addition to secret/top secret, to protect papers that were to be destroyed or shipped to the UK. Officials were often refused security clearance on the grounds of ethnicity. Documents marked "Guard", for example, could be disclosed to non-British officials from the "Old Commonwealth"- Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada.

Those classified as "Watch" were to be removed or destroyed. Steps were taken to ensure post-colonial governments would not learn that such files had ever existed. "DG", said to be an abbreviation of deputy governor, was a code word to indicate that papers were for "British officers of European descent only".

As colonies passed into a transitional phase before full independence, with British civil servants working for local ministers, a parallel series of "Personal" files could be seen only by governors and their British aides, a system that appears to have been employed in every territory from which the UK withdrew after 1961.

While thousands of files were returned to London during decolonisation, it is now clear that countless documents were destroyed. "Emphasis is placed upon destruction," officials in Kenya were told.

Officials in Aden were told to start burning in 1966 - 12 months before British withdrawal. As in many colonies, a three-man committee decided what would be removed to London. The paucity of Aden documentation may suggest that the committee decided that most files should be destroyed.

In Belize, officials told London in 1962 that an MI5 officer had decided that all sensitive files should be destroyed: "In this he was assisted by the Royal Navy and several gallons of petrol."

In British Guiana, a shortage of "British officers of European descent" resulted in the "hot and heavy" task falling to two secretaries, using a fire in an oil drum in the grounds of Government House. Eventually the army agreed to lend a hand.

Not all sensitive documents were destroyed. Large amounts were transferred to Foreign Office archives. Colonial officials were told that crates sent back to the UK by sea could be entrusted only to "a British ship's master on a British ship".

The files show that destroying papers pre-dated Macleod's 1961 instructions. A British official in Malaya reported that in 1957 "five lorry loads of papers ... were driven to the naval base at Singapore, and destroyed ... discreetly".

A few years later, officials in Kenya were told not to follow this example: "It is better for too much, rather than too little, to be sent home - the wholesale destruction, as in Malaya, should not be repeated."

The documents made available yesterday at the National Archives at Kew in London are from a cache of 8,800 colonial-era files that the Foreign Office held for decades, in breach of the 30-year rule set down in the Public Records Act.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Burning embarrassments of empire

Previously published in the Guardian 29 November 2013