Numerous files documenting Britain’s ‘dirty’ colonial past are missing from the British national archives after being ‘loaned’ to government departments, according to a report. More than 1,000 documents covering topics such as troubles in Ireland, British colonial administration in Palestine, tests of polio vaccines and territorial disputes between UK and Argentina have ‘vanished’ with no trace.
Meanwhile, Labour MP Jon Trickett has warned that the loss “will only fuel accusations of a cover-up”. The Amnesty International has urged British Prime Minister Theresa May to order an urgent government-wide effort to trace the documents.
According to Siobhan Fenton, a freelance journalist:
“Even if the files that have now been reported missing vanished as a result of sloppiness or incompetence rather than malice, that is in a way no less damning. Britain has long failed to acknowledge the horrors that its colonialism and imperialism have wrought on the world.”
This is not the first time the British government has been accused of ‘purging’ the archive of documents crucial in exposing the brutal British colonialism. The British government had earlier withheld a 1977 letter exposing the human rights violation in Ireland from European Court of Human Rights. The letter by the then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, to the prime minister, James Callaghan, claimed that ministers had given permission for torture to be used in Northern Ireland during the uprising against British occupation.
In 2011, the government admitted of illegally holding many documents related to country’s colonial past. The truth came out after a protracted legal battle with a group of Kenyan elders-who claimed they have been tortured during 1950’s Mau Mau rebellion by the British forces. The documents were held in a secretive high-security government compound in Buckinghamshire that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) shares with intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, and where government scientists reportedly develop counter-espionage techniques.
In 2014, Britain was accused of covering up the documents regarding the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The government claimed that files had suffered ‘water damage’.
Caroline Elkins, professor of history at Harvard University, notes:
“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.”
The deliberate destruction of colonial archives has been documented in many cases in the past. In one instance, the records related to the Batang Kali Massacre — in which British troops killed 24 unarmed villagers in 1948, at the peak of the so-called "Malayan Emergency" were destroyed in 1966. According to reports, after India achieved its independence in 1947, a great pall of smoke had hung over New Delhi for weeks as the colonial administration had burnt the documents.