Archives’ sorry tales

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An unhappy catalogue of lost (or concealed) archives….

Jamie Doward in the Observer, 29 October 2017

In 2014 David Cameron ordered a review after the accidental release of secret documents revealed that a British SAS officer had been drafted in to advise the Indian authorities on removing armed Sikh militants from the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. The documents said the plan, known as Operation Blue Star, was carried out with the full knowledge of the Thatcher government. A report, Sacrificing Sikhs, published by the Sikh Federation UK, described Cameron’s review, conducted by Sir Jeremy Heywood, as a “whitewash”. It claims that attempts to expose the full facts have been thwarted by government secrecy rules and conflicts of interest. More than half of the Foreign Office’s files on India from 1984 have been censored in whole or in part . . . A week before the Golden Temple assault, Bruce Cleghorn, a diplomat, wrote that “it would be dangerous” for the UK government “to be identified” with “any attempt to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar”. He was also named in correspondence discussing possible SAS assistance to India immediately after the massacre. In 2015, Cleghorn became a Foreign Office “sensitivity reviewer” whose job involved censoring documents about the Amritsar massacre before they were released to the National Archives. . .” click here.

Steve Kerensky in a letter to the Guardian, 19 April 2017

It is hard to see why Tariq Ali (Top 10 books about the Russian revolution, 12 April) still celebrates the epic scale of Lenin’s programme of rape, torture and murder. Just as hard to understand is that those who have excused the gulag don’t understand the damage it did to the worldwide cause of social justice and good government. Without Stalin attracting the gaze of the German middle classes, it is unlikely that Hitler would have come to power. People like Tariq Ali have landed the kindly and lethargic Russian people, whose heroes are Dostoevsky and Oblomov, with an unjustified reputation for obscene cruelty that they still cannot shake off.

Sadder even than that, Lenin’s orgy of pain was only possible because Lloyd George feared a Russian invasion of India which led him to back a counter-revolution by Kornilov. This which was, if anything , just as damaging as Lenin’s unfeasible policies and the way his ambiguous claim about peace, land and bread justified his seizure of power. The British cabinet papers are still immune to freedom of information requests, although they aren’t the only source. Many other facts, buried by those Tariq Ali thinks were historians of the revolution, have yet to be brought to light. What a triumph.

Ian Jack in The Guardian, ‘. . . When Britain quit India in 1947, a colonial official noted that “the press greatly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi with the mass destruction of documents”. By the time of Malayan independence in 1957, the authorities were learning discretion. British soldiers drove cratefuls of papers in a civilian truck from the colony’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, to what an administrator referred to as “the Navy’s splendid incinerator” in Singapore. This 220‑mile journey to a secret burning exemplified the “considerable pains” taken by the colony “to avoid exacerbating relationships between the British government and those Malayans who might not have been so understanding”. Four years later, in 1961, the colonial secretary Iain Macleod laid down some groundrules for British territories preparing for independence. No documents should be handed over to the successor regime that might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government or its police, military and public servants; or that might compromise its sources of intelligence or be used “unethically” by the country’s new government.

Bonfires alone were too blunt a method of concealment. A newly liberated country might wonder why it inherited so few archives, while Britain might need to retain, for sentimental or other reasons, documents that in the wrong hands could damage its interests. The Colonial Office devised a system known as “Operation Legacy” that worked on the principle of parallel registries. Reliable civil servants, which in the government’s eyes meant only those who were “British subjects of European descent”, were given charge of identifying and collecting all “sensitive” documents and passing them up the bureaucratic chain. This meant that when the moment of independence came, if not before, they could either be destroyed on site or removed (“migrated” became the official term) to the UK. As to the so-called “Legacy” files that the colony’s new government would inherit, it was important that they gave an impression of completeness, either by creating false documents to replace those that had been weeded out or by making sure there was no reference to them in the files that remained.

This purging of the record happened across the world, in British Guiana, Aden, Malta, North Borneo, Belize, the West Indies, Kenya, Uganda – wherever Britain ruled. In the words of Ian Cobain, it was a subversion of the Public Record Acts on an industrial scale, involving hundreds if not thousands of colonial officials, as well as MI5 and Special Branch officers and men and women from army, navy and air force. All of them, whether they knew it or not, were breaking a legal obligation to preserve important official papers for the historical record, in the expectation that most would eventually be declassified. The British government took extraordinary measures to make sure that the fate of these papers remained a secret, whether they had been “migrated” to the UK or destroyed abroad.

According to official instruction, the waste left by bonfires “should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”. If burning was thought to be too difficult or unsuitable, then the sea offered an alternative. Officials in Kenya were told that documents could be “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free waters at maximum practicable distance from the coast”.

Most of the files that survived – the concealed “migrated archive” – found their way to Hanslope Park, a country estate just off the M1 near Milton Keynes, where the Foreign Office maintained an enormous cache of documents under the title “Special Collections”. By Cobain’s reckoning, 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving was packed with files that dated from the 17th century to the cold war and the Troubles in Northern Ireland – files so numerous that their catalogue entries measured the metres of shelf space they occupied. Officially, none of these documents existed.’ click here.

Marc Parry on the Mau Mau investigations by Caroline Elkins, ‘. . . Many documents relating to the detention camps were either absent or still classified as confidential 50 years after the war. She discovered that the British had torched documents before their 1963 withdrawal from Kenya. The scale of the cleansing had been enormous. For example, three departments had maintained files for each of the reported 80,000 detainees. At a minimum, there should have been 240,000 files in the archives. She found a few hundred.

. . . The story exposed to the public an archival mystery that had long intrigued historians. The British destroyed documents in Kenya – scholars knew that. But for years clues had existed that Britain had also expatriated colonial records that were considered too sensitive to be left in the hands of successor governments. Kenyan officials had sniffed this trail soon after the country gained its independence. In 1967, they wrote to Britain’s Foreign Office asking for the return of the “stolen papers”. The response? Blatant dishonesty, writes David M Anderson, a University of Warwick historian and author of Histories of the Hanged, a highly regarded book about the Mau Mau war.’ click here.

Nicole Longpré writing in the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas,

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful. click here



Shaheed Fatima writes, ‘On August 28, 2015 the British Library publicly stated that it would not acquire or give access to the digital archive of materials collected by the Taliban Sources Project (TSP). This decision, coming from “one of the world’s greatest research libraries” and “a place of knowledge and inspiration, encouragement and engagement” has been criticized by academics/researchers as “madness” and “completely, completely ridiculous.” But, from a legal perspective, the British Library’s self-censorship is a predictable consequence of the UK’s broad terrorism laws and so if that self-censorship is to be criticized then it is important not to lose sight of the root cause of such decisions — the underlying law. It is only then that progress is likely: the effectiveness of the law can be practically assessed, its content re-appraised and, who knows, lessons may even be learned and applied to future counter-terrorism proposals engaging academic freedom’. click here, 14 September 2015.


The Royal Household’s closed files:

A still frame that captures the princess in a gesture that strikes us now as abhorrent still resonates, even if in 1933 it was commonplace in the often anti-Jewish upper classes to make light of Hitler’s antisemitism. No wonder the royal archivists at Windsor guard the papers of father, uncle and grandfather with such care. Nonetheless, it is an unacceptable anomaly that the gatekeepers of documents relating to affairs of state should apparently be mainly concerned with concealing them from the public gaze. A glance at the papers of almost any national figure in the 20th century reveals how deeply the activities of the monarchy infused public life before the Queen came to the throne in 1952 … The acknowledgments in countless histories of the 20th century betray the frustration of academics at the ruthless exploitation by royal archivists of their control over access. click here.


More on the lost FCO files from the VICE News website :

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has located a new cache of colonial-era government documents …The documents, some with “Top Secret” classifications and tantalizing subject titles, originate in the Colonial Office — the long-ago-disbanded government department that oversaw the colonies of the British Empire. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed to VICE News that the files were located last year, during an audit of government offices that revealed a staggering 170,000 historic files which had never been made public. Some are long overdue for release, and have been held unlawfully, in violation of the UK Public Records Act. The discovery of the colonial-era documents is likely to arouse unease among historians — some of whom have accused the government in recent years of purposefully suppressingdamning material from Britain’s Imperial days. click here.

Records relating to the British Army’s help in Operation Bluestar (Amritsar 1984) destroyed!

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)

Given the distress that is felt by the Sikh community and its desire for clarity on the events at Sri Harmandir Sahib, it is obviously very regrettable that a key file was destroyed in 2009. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House at what level oversight would have been exercised or permission given for the destruction of that file? Do we need to review the procedures to ensure that such sensitive and important material is not destroyed in future? Hansard 4 February 2014


“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has hoarded 1.2m files – some of them dating back to the 1840s – in breach of the 30-year rule of the Public Records Act, which should have seen them transferred to the National Archive…The FCO is not the only government department that has been unlawfully hoarding public records. Earlier this year the Guardian disclosed that the Ministry of Defence was holding 66,000 files at an archive in the Midlands, in breach of the Public Records Act.”

“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’….Officials in Aden were told to start burning in 1966, a full 12 months before the eventual British withdrawal…In British Guiana, a shortage of ‘British officers of European ‘ 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….” From Ian Cobain’s article in the Guardian (29 November 2013)  ‘Revealed: the bonfire of papers at the end of Empire’


According to historian Mattia Toaldo, papers on Gaddafi deputy Abdesalam Jalloud now no longer to be found in Italian state archives!


In the old horse stable of the Lahore Civil Secretariat, in dark, moldy, dingy conditions, lies this amazing collection, all official record let me clarify, of over 70,000 rare books and under one million rare manuscripts and documents, piles upon piles, on the floor, on old broken desks, in cupboards without glass panes. The stink and humidity overwhelms the senses. Only in the British Museum Library of London is there a better collection, all kept in mint condition. They respect our rich history. In terms of our own history, we are the wretched of the earth.

For a digital archive collection including magazines produced by Muslims in Britain click here