It was always naïve to assume colonial legacies, no matter how prim and proper they may appear, had controlled the lands of others without brutality, human rights abuses and so on. Despite being familiar with Britain’s colonial history, I still would not instinctively draw parallels with the sort of crimes or “quiet sins” the colonizers committed, such as those described by Eric Griffiths-Jones, attorney general of the British administration in Kenya, during Britain’s 1957 conquests.
Griffiths-Jones had been writing to the governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, detailing how the regime’s abuse of Mau Mau suspects at the colony’s detention camps was being altered, in order for them to stay legal.
He wrote that suspects must be beaten mainly on their upper body but “vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys,” according to one of the colonial papers released from a secret British archive last week.
If you’re wondering where my “prim and proper” musing would fit in this particular affair, well here it is, displayed quite courteously too.
Griffiths-Jones then wrote it was important that “those who administer violence … should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate,” adding “if we are going to sin … we must sin quietly,” reminding the governor to keep things confidential.
Stumbling across a column by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent, I found a very apt description of the type of attitude I am trying to allude to here. She describes “those other characteristics one associates with England – twitchiness, arrogance, snobbery and supremacy.” Although she was discussing what St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday (which fall on the same day) both symbolize and how they rebut those harsh British typecasts, the description was spot on here. It fell in line with a strictly run-of-the-mill imperialistic brashness you’d expect from the colonist.
With that in mind, the attitude displayed within the files showed that being stuck up is one thing and afflicting a vicious purge on indigenous colonial “enemies” was not entirely another. In fact, both went hand in hand to create Britain’s colonial “legacy” of crimes.
The 8,000 files from 37 former colonies released by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office told a series of sad stories.
They not only document the brutal torture of Kenyans who participated in the Mau Mau uprising, but also a purge of “enemies” in colonial Malaya, and the forced relocation of indigenous people from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, followed by a cover up that included lies to the United Nations.
The missing link
What is most worrying were revelations that the released files were but a portion of the some 10,000 files detailing crimes in Africa and elsewhere. The remainder were culled or kept secret illegally, leading some to believe that FCO’s transparency has been “a carefully cultivated myth,” as history professor Caroline Elkins, who has analyzed the files, writes.
Others have speculated what was contained in these culled documents.
In the destroyed files is believed to have been “instructions for systematic destruction issued in 1961 after Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies, directed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government,” that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg; police informers,” that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government,” says Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-British blogger.
Also believed to be included in the destroyed or hidden files is:
• 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 center for several years in the 1960s.
• Every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive U.S. governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.
(Source: The Guardian)
On the surface, the FCO appeared to be pushing towards a “bare all” instance; a watershed moment for British governmental transparency. But while Elkins’ says the FCO failed in doing this, because it neglected to share a “full and candid” release of the archives, I’d argue that transparency was never the aim of the FCO in the first place. Simply because the government body was essentially forced to release the files after a group of Kenyans detained and allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion won the right to sue the British government.
If they would have sued, the embarrassment would have been far worse as the whole saga would have honed in on Britain’s refusal to make the archives partly public. While this may have saved Britain from being asked “what are you hiding?” it also carries the risk of prompting thousands more veterans taking legal action, following in footsteps of the group of Mau Mau detainees.
Historians have heralded the release as a moment to re-interpret parts of Britain’s history, but for the average Joe, it places Britain in a sticky position. The colonial “legacy” which has placed Britain where it is today has left bitterness in the minds of many. Depicting a period filled with crime and corruption, hush-hushed with a patronizing benevolence with the aim to evade embarrassment, the release of the files has irrefutably shamed Britain. Transparency should not be hailed here.
(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: email@example.com.)