The full extent of the destruction of Britain’s colonial government records during the retreat from empire was disclosed on Thursday with the declassification of a small part of the Foreign Office’s vast secret archive.
50-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 – codenamed Operation Legacy – 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 e.g. 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.”
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.
Files returned to London
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.