The History Thieves by Ian Cobain review – how Britain covered up its imperial crimesThis engrossing study identifies secrecy as a ‘very British disease’, exploring how, as the empire came to an end, government officials burned the records of imperial rule
Thursday 6 October 2016 15.00 BST
Britain’s retreat from empire is remembered in a popular iconography that contains only a little violence. Gandhi goes on hunger strikes and performs acts of passive resistance; the Suez debacle calls time on our pretensions as a world power; Macmillan heralds the wind of change in Africa. All is done and dusted in the space of 15 years. For a postwar generation like mine, too young for national service and a troopship to the colonies, most of it happened inside the local Regal or Odeon. Movietone footage would show Princess X or Prince Y standing on a podium to witness a ceremony of national independence, smiling at the native dancers as fireworks explode overhead. This book supplies a more troubling image: as the sun sets on the greatest empire the world has ever seen, long columns of smoke fill the tropical skies. In a thousand bonfires, Britain is burning the historical evidence.
At first, the process was rather carefree. 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...
Full article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/06/the-history-of-thieves-by-ian-cobain-review