For students of imperial history, the revelation that the British government illegally concealed and destroyed thousands of papers documenting the end of the colonial period should come as no surprise.
Records of shameful acts of brutality and suppression against colonized peoples were either burnt in a series of purge operations, or were secretly stored at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s high-security Hanslope Park premises in Buckinghamshire. The operation was conducted to prevent successive governments, historians and members of the public from accessing intelligence reports detailing Britain’s imperial crimes. As these records reveal, the British government was intent on concealing any material that ‘might embarrass Her Majesty’s government’ or ‘embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others’. In line with the thirty year rule, the documents should have been made available in the 1980s, but the so-called ‘Legacy Files’ which survived the purge, are only now being made available. From what we have seen of the papers so far, we anticipate that the reports will reveal a wide range of torture and targeted killing cases, from the ordered killing of a Kenyan Mau Mau insurgent who was ‘roasted alive’ to the massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in the colony of Malaya.
The lengths to which the British government went to destroy and hide these files is a much-needed reminder of the sinister forces that drive empire. Public figures like Niall Ferguson and Jeremy Paxman are seen extolling the virtues of empire, praising the export of infrastructure, parliamentary democracy and modern medicine to the uncivilised world. One only needs to tune in to a BBC or Channel 4 documentary on empire to see that globalisation and free market principles are hailed as beneficial products of the imperial age.
Such views, however, must be challenged. Whilst these developments are presented as legacies of empire, the immense cost at which they came often ignored. Let us not forget that empires were ventures of economic exploitation, founded upon racist and supremacist ideologies that justified the domination of non-white peoples. They were not importers of modernity; rather, they were systems that legitimised the looting of other countries, crippling the colonies and violating the rights of the indigenous communities inhabiting them. The case of India is a fitting example that reveals the nature of Britain’s empire. Hailed as the ‘jewel in Britain’s crown’, the Indian colony provided unprecedented levels of natural resources and ‘trading opportunities’ (a euphemism, of course) for the British. However, it must be remembered that the East India Company was only able to secure rights of administration in 1765 as a consequence of its treacherous trading deals with various rulers in the Princely States. The British Raj only formally came into existence after the brutal suppression of the First War of Independence in 1857, while the violence of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, where General Dyer ordered the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians, still elicits anger amongst many Indians today. And, of course, let us not forget how Britain abandoned its imperial responsibilities during Partition in 1947, where the largest mass-migration of human history resulted in the killing of up to three million people and the upheaval of up to 15 million.
Thus, when the history of Britain’s empire is filled with betrayal, for what reason should we have expected the post-imperial government to act scrupulously when maintaining its imperial records? News of the destruction of these files has certainly caused embarrassment to the present government, but fortunately the remaining Legacy Files present new opportunities for historians to document the injustices of empire thoroughly. Perhaps we can now expect a new trend in historiography, where the Fergusons and Paxmans of the historical world will be replaced by those who expose, rather than applaud, Britain’s shameful imperial past.