OPERATION LEGACY: what the British did as they left ‘their’ colonies

February 28, 2021

The end of the British Empire in the mid-twentieth century was accompanied by a large-scale rearrangement of sensitive colonial records worldwide.

The Widespread Destruction of Colonial Records

A great number of these records were destroyed and a sizeable portion sent to Britain to be kept secret. Code-named ‘Operation Legacy’, the policy was not planned in the Colonial Office in London and delivered to the colonies in a hierarchical fashion, but, rather, significant elements of the policy were developed in the colonial governments overseas in response to each local context.

The general idea was to save Britain’s honour and to protect its collaborators.

However, the limitations in terms of time and manpower often prevented the officers from putting sufficient thought into the actual screening of the documents. At the same time, some officers demonstrated a level of historical awareness regarding their actions. The episode reminds us that the official mind as it relates to decolonisation is to be understood not only by reference to the highest levels of strategic planning but also in terms of how it worked at the lower levels, in the colonial administrations on the ground.

The full extent of the destruction of Britain’s colonial government records during the retreat from empire will never be known but the declassification of a small part of the Foreign Office’s vast secret archive may shed some light.

Fifty-year-old documents that have finally been transferred to the National Archive show that bonfires were built behind diplomatic missions across the globe as the purge accompanied the handover of each colony.

The declassified documents include copies of an instruction issued in 1961 by Iain Macleod, colonial secretary, that post-independence governments should not be handed any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s [the] government”, that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers”, that might betray intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government”.

In Northern Rhodesia, colonial officials were issued with further orders to destroy “all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias on the part of Her Majesty’s government”.

Detailed instructions were issued over methods of destruction, in order to erase all evidence of the purge. When documents were burned, “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”, while any that were being dumped at sea must be “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast”.

Also among the documents declassified on Friday are “destruction certificates” sent to London by colonial officials as proof that they were performing their duties, and letters and memoranda that showed that some were struggling to complete their huge task before the colonies gained their independence. Officials in more than one colony warned London that they feared they would be “celebrating Independence Day with smoke”.

The Classification of Records

An elaborate and at times confusing classification system was introduced, in addition to the secret/top secret classifications, to protect papers that were to be destroyed or shipped to the UK. Officials were often granted or refused security clearance on the grounds of ethnicity.

Documents marked “Guard”, for example, could be disclosed to non-British officials as long as if they were from the “Old Commonwealth” – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada.

Those classified as “Watch”, and stamped with a red letter W, were to be removed from the country or destroyed. Steps were taken to ensure post-colonial governments would not learn that such files had ever existed, with one instruction stating: “The legacy files must leave no reference to watch material. Indeed, the very existence of the watch series, though it may be guessed at, should never be revealed.” Officials were warned to keep their W stamps locked away.

The marking “DG” was said to be an abbreviation of deputy governor, but in fact was a protective code word to indicate that papers so marked were for sight by “British officers of European descent only”.

As colonies passed into a transitional phase before full independence, with British civil servants working for local government ministers, an entire parallel series of documents marked Personal were created. “Personal” files could be seen only by British governors and their British aides, a system that appears to have been employed in every territory from which the British withdrew after 1961. “The existence of the ‘Personal’ series of correspondence must of course be scrupulously protected and no documents in this series should be transferred to ministers,” colonial officials were warned.

While thousands of files were returned to London during the process of decolonisation, it is now clear that countless numbers of documents were destroyed. “Emphasis is placed upon destruction,” colonial officials in Kenya were told.

Officials in Aden were told to start burning in 1966, a full 12 months before the eventual British withdrawal. “It may seem a bit early to start talking about the disposal of documents prior to independence, but the sifting of documents is a considerable task and you may like to start thinking about it now.”

As in many colonies, a three-man committee – comprising two senior administrators and one police special branch officer – decided what would be destroyed and what would be removed to London. The paucity of Aden documentation so far declassified may suggest that the committee decided that most files should be destroyed.

In Belize, colonial administrators officials told London in October 1962 that a visiting MI5 officer had decided that all sensitive files should be destroyed by fire: “In this he was assisted by the Royal Navy and several gallons of petrol.”

In British Guiana, a shortage of “British officers of European descent” resulted in the “hot and heavy” task falling to two secretaries, using a fire in an oil drum in the grounds of Government House. Eventually the army agreed to lend a hand.

The declassified papers show colonial officials asking for further advice about what should and should not be destroyed.

In 1963, for example, an official in Malta asked London for advice about which files should be “spirited away out of the country”, and warned that while some documents could be handed over to the new government: “There may again be others which could be given to them if they were doctored first; and there may be files which cannot be given to them under any circumstances.”

In June 1966, Max Webber, the high commissioner in Brunei, asked Bernard Cheeseman, chief librarian at the Commonwealth Relations Office, for advice about 60 boxes of files. “My Dear Cheese,” he wrote, “can I, off my own bat, destroy some of these papers, or should the whole lot be sent home for weeding or retention in your records?”

Not all sensitive documents were destroyed. Large amounts were transferred to London, and held in Foreign Office archives. Colonial officials were told that crates of documents sent back to the UK by sea could be entrusted only to the “care of a British ship’s master on a British ship”.

For example, Robert Turner, the chief secretary of the British protectorate of North Borneo, wrote to the Colonial Office library in August 1963, a few weeks before independence, saying his subordinate’s monthly reports – “which would be unsuitable for the eyes of local ministers” – would be saved and sent to London, rather than destroyed. “I … have been prevailed upon to do so on the grounds that some at least of their contents may come in handy when some future Gibbon is doing research work for his ‘Decline and Fall of the British Empire’.”

Hanslope Park & National Archives, Kew

Those papers that were returned to London were not open to historians, however. The declassified documents made available Friday at the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, are from a cache of 8,800 of colonial-era files that the Foreign Office held for decades, in breach of the 30-years rule of the Public Records Acts and in effect beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. They were stored behind barbed-wire fences at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire, a government communications research centrenorth of London, a facility that it operates along with MI6 and MI5.

The Foreign Office was forced eventually to admit to the existence of the hidden files during high court proceedings brought by a group of elderly Kenyans who were suing the government over the mistreatment they suffered while imprisoned during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency.

Even then, however, the Foreign Office failed to acknowledge that the 8,800 colonial files were just a small part of a secret archive of 1.2m files that it called the Special Collections, and which it had held unlawfully at Hanslope Park.

The Foreign Office is understood to have presented a plan to the National Archive for the belated transfer of the Special Collections into the public domain but it has declined to disclose details of that plan.

The declassified documents show that the practice of destroying papers rather than allowing them to fall into the hands of post-independence governments pre-dated Macleod’s 1961 instructions.

A British colonial official in Malaya reported that in August 1957, for example, “five lorry loads of papers … were driven down to the naval base at Singapore, and destroyed in the Navy’s splendid incinerator there. The Army supplied the lorries (civilian type) and laid on Field Security Personnel to move the files. Considerable pains were nevertheless taken to carry out the operations discreetly, partly to avoid exacerbating relationships between the British government and those Malayans who might not have been so understanding … and partly to avoid comment by the press (who I understand greatly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi during the mass destruction of documents in 1947).”

A few years later, colonial officials in Kenya were urged not to follow the Malayan example: “It is better for too much, rather than too little, to be sent home – the wholesale destruction, as in Malaya, should not be repeated.”

Britain tries to maintain the myth that it was more benign than other imperial powers. It managed this largely by hiding the evidence of what it did.

It could claim that there had been no “elimination” of political enemies by British forces in Malaya or torture at concentration camps in Kenya because there were no records.

The project to fillet the records as British forces known as Operation Legacy meant that in most colonies a three person committee was set up to oversee the process.

What was not clear until the latest release of documents was the degree to which documents were burned rather than hidden in secret archives. 

In the period running up to independence files marked DG—officially for the deputy governor—were only to be viewed by white colonial staff.


Staff were told to remove “all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or bias.”

Given the racism the empire was built on, the surprising thing is that so many files survived.

In Malaya the colonial administration had overseen the brutal suppression of an independence movement. It used the naval incinerator in Singapore to destroy five lorry loads of documents in 1957. The scale of this destruction became embarrassing. 

So by the time of the next retreat from a country with a great deal to hide—Kenya in 1963—the colonial office directed, “It is better for too much to be sent home—the wholesale destruction, as in Malaya, should not be repeated.”

As far as possible the burnings were to be done in secret. Authorities hoped to avoid the embarrassment of India when a “pall of smoke” hung over Delhi for days showing that documents were being burned.

In Kenya the colonial office came up with a practical suggestion to avoid smoke.

They said, “It is permissible, as an alternative to fire,  for documents to be packed into weighted crates  and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast.”

Mau Mau legal fight unearthed 15 mile secret stash of documents

The 8,000 or so documents that are now in the public archive at Kew—in a slightly censored form—have been kept at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire. 

The site is run jointly by the Foreign Office and MI6. The government had previously denied its existence. It only admitted to it during a recent court case by veterans of Kenya’s Mau Mau independence war.

Historian David Anderson researched his book Histories of the Hanged, Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire in the Kenyan national archive and knew boxes of documents were missing. 

He questioned the Foreign Office about what happened to these documents in 2011, as an expert witness in the Mau Mau veterans’ case. These would include important evidence for the veterans’ cases.

The British authorities then appeared to be uncomfortable about repeating their earlier denials in the high court that they knew where the documents were. 

So they have finally admitted the existence of this archive of documents removed from 37 former colonies.

The documents were released in eight batches, so the Foreign Office was able to vet them first. It was the last batch that came out on Friday of last week. 

It will be some time before historians discover all that they reveal. However the British government has already had to pay compensation to Kenyans who were tortured by its forces. Now the case of 24 rubber plantation workers murdered in the Malay village of Batang Kali in 1948 has returned to the court of appeal.

The initial ruling on the case brought by relatives of the dead was that the British government cannot be held responsible for the massacre. 

But in the light of recent revelations this looks less secure. Earlier this year the government confessed that the archive at Hanslope Park is actually 150 times bigger, containing documents going back to the 19th century. 

The documents take up about 15 miles of floor to ceiling shelving. The Ministry of Defence has a separate archive with 66,000 files in it. Legally all such documents should have been put on record and made public after 30 years—unless granted special dispensation.

Kenya: cash for white settlers

Many of the last batch of documents are about land transfer and how white settlers were bought out after Kenyan independence. 

This remains a sensitive issue as the poor who had been driven off the land by white settlers were never allowed to return.

Survivors who found the truth

The documents now released came to light because of a test case brought by five Kenyan veterans of the Mau Mau war for independence. The five could prove they had been tortured. Ndiku Mutua and Paulo Muoka Nzili were both castrated.

Jane Muthoni Mara was sexually assaulted with bottles of boiling water and Wambugu Wa Nyingi had survived a massacre. Susan Ciong’ombe Ngondi—like thousands of Kenyan veterans who could not prove torture—died before the case came to court. 

Foreign Office won’t say sorry

The government has not apologised for torture carried out by the colonial authorities. The Foreign Office only expressed regret earlier this year.

This is despite a high court judge declaring in 2011 that, “There was systematic torture and the UK government is liable.” 

Source: socialist worker.co.uk; theguardian.com; newyorker.com; museumofbritishcolonialism.org; tandfonline.com

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