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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Imperial Civilising Mission Ended with Censorship

The article below belies the claim that British de-colonisation was a peaceful process by a civilised British empire, in contrast to other empires, especially the French.

The article by Harvard historian Caroline Elkins shows that British-imperial myth-construction was integral not only to empire's functioning but its formal end as well. 

The reasons for censorship are clear enough at the very end of empire. Imperial servants would not want, in the wake of victory over racist Nazi torturers and muderers, any of their own brutalities to 'muddy' the waters.

What's more interesting is the continuing reticence to release all the official papers from the colonial period. This is more puzzling, at first sight. However, a clue may lie in the resurgence of imperial thinking over the past twenty years or so. It's summed up in the phrase Tony Blair wanted to use but was advised against at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, in 1997, just a few miles up the road: "I'm proud of the British Empire". 

The Empire was, as he and many other British and American leaders noted around that time, and especially after 9-11,  an 'empire of liberty' so not really an empire at all, more like one big happy family of nations enjoying the protections and privileges of imperial rule. As a key foreign policy advisor of Blair's, Robert Cooper, noted around 1998, within the empire, peace and civilisation and order; beyond it, savagery and the laws of the jungle. At least that was the mythology being re-constructed to rationalise and justify a doctrine of post-Cold War global interventionism. Cooper urged the Anglo-Americans to lie and deceive in dealings with what he arrogantly called "pre-modern" states - i.e., those which defied the West - because they lived by the laws of the jungle. The corrollary of lying abroad, however, was deception on a mass scale at home, as Bush and Blair mis-sold the war on Iraq on the basis of an imminent military threat.

All those anti-colonial revolts, all those brutalities and counter-insurgency wars, therefore, needed to "go away", disappear. The new "empire of liberty" being constructed by the lone superpower and its chief help-mate could do without untimely and inconvenient reminders of the true character of imperial rule: in the end, empires are based less on consent than co-optation of collaborationist minorities, and principally on force for anyone who dared seriously challenge the empire.

British transparency is a cultivated myth

Professor of history Caroline Elkins, who has worked on historic Kenya files released by the British government, analyses its record of scrubbing and concealing embarrassing information.
For decades, the British government has crafted and affirmed its own fictions of colonial benevolence. Its officials — both at home and in far-flung colonies — intensely managed a system of document culling, destruction, and removal in the waning days of imperial rule. Anything that might “embarrass” HMG was largely scrubbed, or sequestered, from the record. A colonial archive eventually made its way to Kew in south-west London. Devoid of countless incriminating documents, it offers a particular reality about Britain's past, a past that was carefully tended long before the sun set on Britain's empire.
Today there is hope for some degree of transparency. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has just released more than 1,200 records from 12 former colonial territories. These documents are but a portion of the some 10,000 files that Britain removed from 37 of its colonies on the eve of decolonisation and recently “discovered” in Hanslope Park, the government communications centre. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has declared that the government will speedily make all of the files accessible to the public.
Some members of the media have heralded this as a watershed moment.
The Mau Mau veterans
For certain we will learn much from these new documents. However, to celebrate their release as a historic moment is to miss the underside of the story. Recent events, placed in their historical context, suggest the FCO is hardly forthcoming.
These documents came to light in the context of an ongoing legal case. In the High Court in London, five elderly claimants are suing the British government. The FCO is the state's defendant. These Mau Mau veterans seek to prove that state violence in the detention camps of late colonial Kenya was systematic, calculated and approved at the highest levels of government. This case is the first of its kind. If successful, it could open the door to multiple other claims from colonised populations.
In the Mau Mau case, two years of countless document requests were met with FCO stonewalling. It was only through legal means that the FCO finally yielded in early 2011. The result was more than 1,500 files — all removed from Kenya at the time of decolonisation, and some of which the FCO has incrementally released to the Mau Mau claimants and their experts. A few months later, the FCO confessed that it had likewise found more than 8,800 files removed from another 36 former territories on the eve of colonial retreat. Thirteen boxes of “top secret” Kenya files are still missing.
Nine month review
As expert witness, I have had privileged access to the Kenya files. Together with a research team at Harvard, I have spent nine months reviewing the contents. This process has been anything but straightforward. Despite the legal context, the FCO has culled files, requiring multiple requests for full disclosure, and still files have not been forthcoming. At least two of our findings have particular importance for today's “migrated archive” release. First, there is extensive evidence chronicling the process of document destruction and removal in Kenya. The Colonial Office orchestrated a highly bureaucratised effort that required massive administrative manpower on the ground. In total, officials in Kenya estimated that some 3/ tons of documents were marked for destruction. Incineration times were calculated in case “emergency destruction” was needed. Thousands more documents were to be transferred to Britain. Second, the files released in the Mau Mau case tell us a great deal more about previously documented events and individuals in Kenya.
The current release excludes territories such as Palestine and Rhodesia. The Cyprus files exclude the period of the emergency. The Malaya files cover very little of the contested emergency years. The Kenya documents are a meagre subset of the files released (though culled) in the context of the Mau Mau case. Warning bells should be going off. The government went to extraordinary lengths to fashion its colonial archive. The first release of the “migrated archives” is, at first glance, lacking in substantive files, particularly for former colonies like Cyprus and Malaya where future lawsuits potentially loom.
Until the FCO offers a full and unredacted release of all files found at Hanslope Park, a healthy dose of scepticism is crucial. If not, we run the risk of overly applauding today's document release and reinforcing the FCO's myth of new-found transparency. (Caroline Elkins is professor of history at Harvard University and Pulitzer-prizewinning author of Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.)

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