The British Empire’s Hidden Records: Uncovering the Untold Stories

In 2009, five Kenyan people took a petition to the British Prime Minister’s office. They claimed they endured human rights abuses in the 1950s, while Kenya was under British colonial rule and demanded reparations. They had vivid accounts and physical scars from their experiences— but their testimonies were undermined. They had no documentary evidence that Britain sanctioned systems of torture against Kenyans— at least, not yet.

Thousands of secret files were waiting to be discovered. In 2010, a historian joined the trial as an expert witness and attested to having seen references to missing documents. They noted that Kenya had repeatedly requested the return of stolen papers, which the British government had refused. In fact, many historians suspected there were gaps in the archives. As a result, the court ordered the release of any relevant documents. And, days later, British officials acknowledged that 1,500 pertinent files were being held in a high-security archive. It soon became clear that these were just a small sample of documents Britain hid between the 1950s and 70s, while former colonies declared independence, as part of a widespread colonial British policy called Operation Legacy.

The policy was for British colonial officers to destroy or remove documentation that might incriminate Britain and be of strategic value to the new governments. They were instructed to destroy, alter, or secretly transport these papers to the UK. Documents slated for destruction were to be burnt to ashes or sunk in weighted crates far from shore. During the trial, between 2010 and 2013, an independent historian revealed they had located more than 20,000 previously hidden Operation Legacy files from 37 former colonies. Finally, an estimated 1.2 million colonial files, sprawling kilometers in the archive’s so-called “Special Collections,” were also exposed. And these were only the documents that British forces kept.

How many were destroyed— and what information they contained— remains unknown. About 3.5 tons of colonial documents were slated for incineration in Kenya. Ultimately, Operation Legacy’s objective was to obscure critical aspects of the truth. In the words of Britain’s attorney-general in Kenya, “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.” So, what really happened in Kenya? Beginning in 1895, the British administration forcibly removed people from their traditional lands, giving the most fertile areas to European settlers to establish large-scale farms. They mandated forced labor systems, implemented reservations for Indigenous African peoples, and restricted their movement. Kenyan people resisted these incursions from the start and grew increasingly organized over time. One movement, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, aimed to forcibly remove white settlers and overthrow the colonial government. When the British declared a state of emergency in 1952, they were giving themselves permission to take otherwise illegal special measures to regain control. The newly revealed Operation Legacy documents confirmed that people suspected of participating in the resistance were subjected to horrible abuses.

Between 1952 and 1959, the British imprisoned over 80,000 people without trial, sentenced over 1,000 people convicted as terrorists to death, and imposed extreme surveillance and interrogation tactics. Some people were beaten to death. Others were raped or castrated. Many were shackled at the wrist for years. Children were killed. One person was burnt alive. Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua testified to being castrated while handcuffed and blindfolded. Wambugu Wa Nyingi said he was suspended upside-down, beaten, and had water thrown on his face until he could barely breathe. Jane Muthoni Mara said she was sexually violated with a hot bottle, and imprisoned for years without cause. In response to the new evidence, the British government issued a formal apology, and made an out-of-court financial settlement with the 5,228 Kenyan claimants ultimately involved in the case. The original five claimants had made history— and paved the way for it to be rightfully rewritten. The uncovered files challenge fundamental myths about British colonialism as a benevolent institution that brought freedom and democracy to its subjects, then graciously gave them independence. Instead, the newly exposed evidence confirms what many people knew to be true, because they lived it— and survived to rescue history from the ashes.

Audra A. Diptée

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