British Government Destroyed Records of Colonial Crimes

The Guardian recently published a story alleging that members of the British government destroyed large numbers of documents “detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire” were destroyed to prevent newly emerging independent governments from taking ownership of the records.

According to the article, the directive to destroy the colonial documents that should have been made available to dozens of newly independent countries came down from the ministerial level:

However, among the documents are a handful which show that many of the most sensitive papers from Britain’s late colonial era were not hidden away, but simply destroyed. These papers give the 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”.

Destruction of public records in the shadow of regime change is nothing new. Many governments, when they are about to fall either to revolution or invasion, systematically destroy records to prevent their enemies from learning their secrets. But what is shocking is to learn that the United Kingdom’s former colonial administration took action to deprive newly independent nations of vital records about their own history and the abuses they suffered. The United Kingdom is supposed to be one of the “good guys” among enlightened nations.

The British government kept watch on many people in these emerging nations, no doubt a standard practice among governments facing unrest among their subjects. These files were the subject of particular concern by the colonial administration. They did not want newly independent governments to even know that such files had existed.

Historians will not have full access to the surviving files until the end of 2013. Meanwhile, the public discussion of where and when governments are allowed to destroy records — and for what reasons — proceeds quietly in an age where open information is considered to be the norm.