UK burned, ‘embarrassing’ colonial papers

LONDON – British officials burned and dumped at sea documents from colonies that were about to become independent in a systematic effort to hide their “dirty” secrets, newly released files showed yesterday. Under “Operation Legacy”, officials in Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia, Tanzania, Jamaica and other former British colonial territories were briefed on how to dispose of documents that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”.

The newly declassified Foreign Office files reveal how the “splendid incinerator” at the Royal Navy base in Singapore was used to destroy lorry loads of files from the region.

Other officials wrote of documents being dumped “in deep and current-free water at the maximum practicable distance from shore”, according to the documents in the National Archives.

One dispatch from Kenya in 1961 mentions the formation of a committee dealing with “’dirty’ aspects of protective security” which would “clean” Kenyan intelligence files, according to The Times newspaper.

The British government agreed earlier this year to pay US$23 million in compensation to more than 5 200 elderly Kenyans who were tortured and abused during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule.

David Anderson, professor of African history at the University of Warwick, said the documents proved the falsity of earlier British claims that the destruction of files was routine preparation for the end of colonial rule.

“They cannot pretend any longer that this was a normal legal procedure because they gave instructions to their own staff to deny its existence and to dissemble about it,” he told AFP.

A Colonial Office telegram of May 3, 1961 stated the general guidance for keeping papers out of the hands of newly elected independent governments.

Items should be disposed of if they “might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers; might compromise sources of intelligence” – or might be used “unethically” by incoming ministers.

The files are the final batch of a collection whose existence was only revealed by the Foreign Office in January 2011, as part of the Mau Mau legal case.

Anderson said the government had shown courage in releasing the documents, which although embarrassing helped provide a more complete picture of British colonial policy.

But he warned there were more skeletons in the closet – the Foreign Office has another 1.2 million documents which it is now under pressure to publish. – AFP.

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