‘Operation Legacy’ and the British Colonial Drawdown

by monksaki

I want to highlight a couple of recent articles about the British Empire, the first about ‘Operation Legacy,’ and the draw-down of the colonies, the second about the British historical treatment of empire – what is included, what is not included, and why.

The first article details ‘Operation Legacy’, the methodical destruction of colonial documents as the British withdrew from their holdings in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  As a side note, the forced declassification of the documents is an interesting bit of fallout from the legal proceedings stemming from British use of torture during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. It’s a glimpse at Empire-as-criminal-enterprise, images of British colonial officials holding document-fed bonfires, incinerating evidence that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” or reveal racial prejudice on their part. More interesting, in my opinion, is that British officials in the homeland created an ad hoc classification system for the documents, restricting access based on ethnicity – certain documents available only to members of the ‘Old Commonwealth’ (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada), other (presumably more sensitive) documents restricted to “British officers of European descent only”.  Documents were divided into several categories: those to be destroyed immediately, those to be handed over to the new authorities, and those to be transported back to the homeland. Others were to be “packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast”. That last sentence, drawn from the documents, feels exceptionally weighted to me, as if it’s a glimpse at some often hidden action of a collective psyche – a glimpse at how a state as a whole turns away from committed atrocities. Anyway, thanks to Ian Cobain and the Guardian for the piece.

The second article, ‘Britain’s Noxious History of Imperial Warfare’ by John Newsinger, deals with British historiography surrounding the empire. As the author notes, the more popular histories of empire – likely directed toward a mass market or of the type you may see on bestseller lists – give short or no treatment to the common use of torture by colonial officials, as well as the Bengal Famine of 1943, an event in which 3.5 – 5 million people died. During the latter, the British continued to export food from the area – had they stopped, “perhaps 2 million lives could have been saved.” It’s a great article, and reminds me again hidden actions I refer to above. On another note, (and perhaps I’m being too broad), but I would argue that this is one of several different mechanisms we in the West use to interpret current events, a “benign interpretation” to borrow from the article. Viewing the current state of affairs – globalization, the lowering of trade barriers, the pervasive free market – as a positive requires no small measure of revisionism. The idea that a free market, rather than reinforcing existing inequality, provides an opportunity for any actor (individual or state) to compete on a level field, passes over the fact that any post-colonial power must overcome the barriers of a global economy built by and for Western powers and overcome histories of plunder and social reorganization at odds with individual stability. I’m not stating anything new here, but it’s worth noting. I’m also hung over so my writing is a bit rubbish.