by Chris Moffat, ICWS Early Career Researcher in Commonwealth Studies
The Hidden History of Decolonization: What do the ‘migrated archives’ reveal about British withdrawal from Empire?
Last Friday, 20 February 2015, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies convened an afternoon conference on the ‘Hidden Histories of Decolonization’, the latest in its Decolonization Workshop series. Organised in conjunction with King’s College London, the event focused on the question of ‘migrated archives’ (FCO 141) – the collection of British colonial administrative documents released in 2012-13 by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – and the implications these new sources might have for our understanding of the end of the British Empire.
A primary concern throughout the day was, concordantly, the nature and form of the archive itself. The opening session brought together ICWS Senior Research Fellow Dr Mandy Banton and VICE News journalist Katie Engelhart to discuss their shared interest in the various trails of misinformation and ‘sleights of hand’ that have kept this collection from the public eye for so many decades. Dr Banton traced the British government’s evolving policy toward migrated archives, noting the obstacles scholars face in establishing for certain the ‘complete’ contents of a collection – that is, the difficulty in ruling out the possibility that some files remain hidden, that some have been destroyed, or that the process of naming and archiving has functioned to obfuscate certain materials. Engelhart, meanwhile, suggested that the case of FCO 141 is provocative for the questions it raises about government transparency in the public record system. She also suggested that, in addition to possible historical value, the new documents have potential legal value – referring to the ongoing attempt by some 41,000 Kenyan claimants to sue the British government for mistreatment during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion.
A lively discussion as to whether the delayed release of colonial archives amounted to a ‘conspiracy’ or a ‘cock-up’ followed, moderated by session chair and ICWS Director Professor Philip Murphy. Professor Murphy raised the question of institutional memory in the Foreign Office, asking if it could possibly be so poor as to explain entire ‘lost’ collections. Contributions from the audience explored the long-term campaigns led by former colonial territories like Kenya to demand the return of documents concerning their national histories, based on both a political and economic prerogatives. Comparisons were also drawn with the example of French archives and the uncertain fate of colonial collections from West and coastal Africa.
The next two sessions interrogated the specific content of the migrated archives, asking whether or not these documents really provided the ‘revelations’ or ‘game-changing’ material suggested by sustained media interest in their release. The consensus was – overwhelmingly – that no, the release of FCO 141 has not provided the occasion to rewrite the narrative of Britain’s withdrawal from Empire; indeed, if anything, it has simply affirmed what historians already knew. Dr Karl Hack of the Open University went so far as to suggest, in the final session, that the spectacle of FCO 141’s release has threatened to steal momentum from the general move away from colonial archives in the historiography of former British territories, distracting from robust efforts to privilege foreign and vernacular archives alongside grounded oral histories collected in the field. This point contrasted with a more general optimism expressed by the remaining panellists regarding the potential of FCO 141 to provide enhanced contextual detail – if not historical ‘revelation’ – and also to prompt scholars to ask new questions about the decolonization process.
The second session brought together Professor Dan Branch (University of Warwick), Professor John Lonsdale (University of Cambridge) and Dr Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh) to discuss the migrated archives in the context of East Africa. Professor Branch emphasised the value of FCO 141 in underlining the global processes of decolonization, especially as they relate to the Cold War. Documents in the migrated archives, he noted, trace with great detail the ‘political traffic’ of young Kenyan students to Eastern Europe during the late colonial period. They dwell particularly on the experience of racism in this context for its utility to British anti-Soviet propaganda, but also provide a valuable pre-history for Kenyan trade-unionism and opposition politics in the post-colonial state. Professor Lonsdale outlined the standard historical narrative around decolonization in Kenya before conceding that FCO 141 does not necessitate any revision to this well-established story. The potential of the migrated archives rests, he argued, in the insight it provides to high-level thinking around British counter-insurgency efforts and the influence of racism in managing imperial exit from East Africa. The release is provocative, moreover, for illuminating the difficulty the British public continues to have in coming to terms with this dark episode of its history and the manner in which events around the Mau Mau rebellion clash with the country’s post-imperial national image. Dr Hunter, in contrast, suggested that the worth of FCO 141 lies in the local or ground-level detail it provides the African historian willing to explore archival documents in idiosyncratic ways. Referring to her own work on decolonization in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, Dr Hunter demonstrated how vernacular newspapers and anti-colonial pamphlets – amassed by colonial intelligence due to concerns about their seditious nature – provide rare insight into the East African colony’s public sphere and efforts to shape political debate. During the Q&A period, Professor Branch agreed that the contents of FCO 141 may, perhaps, be more promising for the work of the Africanist in particular rather than historians of Empire more generally.
The third and final session included contributions from Professor David French (UCL), Professor Philip Murphy (ICWS) and Dr Karl Hack (Open University), and was concerned with the implications of FCO 141 for the histories of Cyprus, Singapore and Malaysia. Professor French affirmed that his forthcoming book on British counter-insurgency campaigns in Cyprus during the 1950s would have made the same argument with or without the migrated archives, but that it would have been less detailed – unable to outline in such depth, for instance, the brutality of British forces and the Greek Cypriot group EOKA, nor equipped to map the high-level thinking among British officials about the mistreatment of convicts or EOKA’s persecution of the civilian population. Professor Murphy’s presentation emphasised the potential for FCO 141 to ground new, connected histories of counter-insurgency in the British empire and beyond, focusing on the mention of the Cyprus ‘Special Investigation Group’ (SIG) in a 1959 Colonial Office document circulated to Kenya, Uganda, Northern Rhodesia and other African colonial territories. The SIG, which had been established in Cyprus less to enquire into allegations of abuse by British authorities than to ‘manage’ such allegations – working to provide the ‘first narrative’ around a violent or contentious event – was recommended as a useful precedent for ‘campaigns of representation’ in the African context, leading Professor Murphy to ask what implications initiatives like SIG may have had for the British security forces at large. Dr Hack concluded the session by discussing the ‘public life’ of newly-released documents in Malaysia and Singapore, noting that – while the documents have not provided anything new for historians of British Malaya – the release of personal files and Special Branch documents has sparked interest in revealing those Malays who collaborated with the British during the Second World War and also those Singapore residents who were falsely persecuted as ‘communists’ during the late colonial period.
The afternoon’s discussions concluded with the observation that the ‘smoking gun’ connecting violence and brutality to the history of British decolonization had already been located in documents available since the 1980s. If the migrated archives remain useful for historians, it is in the rich, contextual detail their contents provide, as well as the encouragement they may give to scholars asking new questions about – in Dr Hunter’s words – the ‘messy and entangled’ global history of decolonization, especially as it falls under the shadow of the Cold War. Beyond the academic discipline of history, the case of the migrated archives remains of general interest for the questions in raises about government transparency, the relationship of colonial archives to the politics of post-colonial states, and the still-unfolding legacies of relationships forged by Empire.