During the last years of the British Empire, wars in places like Malaysia and Kenya involved documented abuses and crimes.
Last year, a group of Kenyans detained and allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion won the right to sue the British government. From that legal case, it has emerged that British authorities systematically either burnt or secretly hid thousands of documents which showed their excesses.
These included intelligence reports on the “elimination” of enemies in 1950s Malaya and those showing how London was well aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya. One details a case of a man said to have been “roasted alive.”
Others cover how Britain forcibly removed islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (now a major U.S. air base), a secret torture center in Aden (now Yemen) in the 1960s and documents covering British Guiana (now Guyana), whose post-independence leader, Cheddi Jagan, was toppled in a coup in 1966 orchestrated by the CIA.
Included in the reports are those covering the Batang Kali massacre in Malaya on December 12, 1948 during British military operations against insurgents in the ‘Malayan Emergency.’ British soldiers surrounded a rubber estate and shot 24 unarmed villagers before setting fire to their village. The successful repression of that uprising later inspired similar American tactics in Vietnam.
They also include an intelligence report on Barack Obama Senior, saying that he was just the type of Kenyan scholarship student to “fall into the wrong hands” in America and emerge “anti-American and anti-white.” Obama Senior was detained and may have been tortured during the Mau Mau uprising.
Files show how Ministers 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.”
In the period between 1946 and 1967, Britain fought many ‘rear guard actions’ defending their colonies, but at the same time colonial authorities were instructed to round up all ‘legacy files’ for either destruction or removal to the UK. With destruction, “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up” or “as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast.” Extensive efforts were made so the post-colonial independent governments were completely unaware of the existence of the files.
Some of this was done specifically to avoid subsequent legal action. The Mau-Mau case currently before UK courts is being watched by those from other former colonies on the feasibility of pursuing legal actions.
Of the hidden files, only one sixth have so far been made public with the remainder to be transferred by the end of next year.
Picture of wounded terrorist being held at gunpoint after his capture, in Malaya, courtesy the Imperial War Museum's collections.