Not the picnic Gordon thought it was ...

Against all expectation, the Guardian today reports that the British government destroyed records of its colonial atrocities.The government destroyed many documents detailing its worst excesses, and hid those documents it didn’t destroy. These latter documents were kept in a secret location and should have been released in the 1980s, but were kept secret in breach of the government’s own disclosure laws. The atrocities they detail aren’t very pretty, either:

The papers at Hanslope Park include monthly intelligence reports on the “elimination” of the colonial authority’s enemies in 1950s Malaya; records showing ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, including a case of aman said to have been “roasted alive”; and papers detailing the lengths to which the UK went to forcibly remove islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.

These are not the kind of low-level violence we see depicted in your average Passage to India type story, they are serious, systematic and government sanctioned human rights abuses that under the laws of war would see their perpetrators imprisoned for a very long time – and many of them happened after the establishment of the Geneva conventions and the modern settlement of the laws of war. It’s also clear that the destruction of the documents was directed from the very top, with an attention to detail that would make Orwell proud:

Painstaking measures were taken to prevent post-independence governments from learning that the watch files had ever existed. One instruction states: “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.”

When a single watch file was to be removed from a group of legacy files, a “twin file” – or dummy – was to be created to insert in its place. If this was not practicable, the documents were to be removed en masse.

This is not news because of a sudden revelation that the UK did bad things in its colonies – this has long been known – but it is important because it shows that the historical narrative (and particularly the public debate) about British colonialism has been biased in the UK’s favour. There is a strong belief in the UK that British colonialism was “benign,” both objectively and when compared to the French or the Dutch, and that the British presence in these countries civilized and advanced them – this belief is tackled directly by Orwell in Burmese Days, and is still present in the public understanding of colonialism in the UK. For example, many British still believe that India is where it is today because of, and not despite, the British presence there, and much of British debate about “the state of Africa” ignores the possibility that colonialism might have played a role in influencing the political and economic character of the post-independence states.

Now we can see part of the reason for this blithe ignorance of the systematic and cruel nature of British oppression in the colonies: the government carefully hid it, both from the post-independence governments and from its own people. It destroyed the worst evidence and hid the rest, well past the time when it should have been revealed, thus ensuring that the true character of the colonial era was never publicly documented or allowed to be sourced authoritatively. This makes it much easier to pass off post-colonial states’ claims of abuse as sour grapes or political posturing, since there is no “credible” evidence that anything happened. It also enabled the government to present the violence of the anti-colonial political movements as unjustified, and this in turn played into its depiction of the remaining post-colonial movements, like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as using violence that was excessive for their cause – after all, if British rule had been relatively benign in Asia, why would it be worth killing people to achieve independence in Ireland? Had these documents been released in the 1980s when they were supposed to be, the IRA’s claims that a peaceful settlement was impossible would look somewhat more credible, and their behavior after Bloody Sunday (1967) would look more like a rational response to systematic state violence than the commonly-characterised “over-reaction to an isolated incident.”

And this is the key role that the systematic destruction of evidence plays in fabricating the history of British colonialism: in the public narrative, British violence in the colonies was just isolated incidents by a few colonial soldiers or the odd governor, not a coherent system of repression coordinated and directed from the centre. Nationalist violence was an over-reaction and everyone should have just done what Gandhi did. Britain left with its head held high, having civilized these far-flung realms and then handed them back with only the occasional moment of unfortunate retributive violence. The real narrative, it appears, is very different, and the release of these documents enables us to look back on the events of the time and especially the political and military decisions of the anti-colonialists with a very different perspective. They weren’t fighting for an unrealistic ideal of third world sovereignty, but were trying to overthrow a repressive invader that protected its power through the systematic use of state-sanctioned torture and murder.

This also colours our understanding of previous eras. If the UK government of the 50s and 60s was willing to engage in this system of deception, what were previous governments doing and how does our understanding of previous colonial events change? For example, A.N Wilson’s The Victorians dwells extensively on the behaviour of Britain in India and the British public’s attitude towards India, and describes in detail the Indian uprisings in the 19th century and the British military response. But did Wilson have access to all the facts, or was he working from a highly biased and selective British account of those events? Wilson depicts the British response as largely restrained, excessive only in some instances and not given any strong centralized repressive impetus. Is this true, and can any scholarship on the colonial era before 1950 claim to be able to make claims to truth about British behaviour?

I believe Britain hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past, and part of the reason for this is its biased public narrative. Now we can see what role the government played in constructing that bias, and begin to question the common conception of British colonialism as misguided but largely benevolent. In fact, it was cruel and evil, and the government is finally beginning to admit it. In 2005 the Prime Minister declared that Britain did not need to apologize for its colonial past, and asked ex-colonies to focus instead on British ideals of “liberty and tolerance.” Perhaps they can enlighten themselves as to exactly how those ideals operated through a review of the documents at Hanslope Park? And perhapsthe British should be asking whether they really do need to apologize for colonialism, just as Australia has for child abduction, and the USA for slavery?