This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In 2013, the Guardian revealed that Britain's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) had illegally withheld 1.2 million (later revised to 600,000) historic documents from the public, in flagrant breach of the UK Public Records Act. The documents — which include the desk diary of Soviet spy Donald Maclean; case files from Nazi persecution compensation claims; and masses of material removed from Hong Kong — were being held at Hanslope Park, a secretive, high-security compound in Buckinghamshire that the FCO shares with intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6.
The whole document saga began in 2009, when a group of elderly Kenyans brought a historic lawsuit against the FCO, claiming damages for abuse they suffered under British colonial authorities (which, in the case of these particular plaintiffs, included rape and castration). At the time, FCO officials denied having any relevant documents that might shed light on the crimes. Only two years later, in 2011, did the FCO admit it was unlawfully holding 1,500 Kenya files at Hanslope Park.
Later, it confessed to possessing 20,000 undisclosed files from 37 former British colonies. The documents include incriminating evidence of murder and torture by British colonial authorities. (An embarrassed British government began releasing the so-called "Migrated Archives" to Britain's National Archives in 2012.)
In May, for the first time ever, the FCO invited a small handful of reporters (including myself) to see the archives of Hanslope Park. We were shown shelves and shelves of numbered boxes, but not allowed to peek inside. Curious, I decided to seek out someone with an understanding of British Empire paperwork.
Dr. Mandy Banton worked for 25 years at Britain's National Archives as a specialist in Colonial Office records, and agreed to be interviewed for the first time in August. Banton, now a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, spoke to me about Britain, its Empire and FCO efforts to hush up imperial crimes.
VICE: Last October the Guardian revealed that 1.2 million files had been unlawfully retained by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) at Hanslope Park. Were you surprised by that news?
Dr. Mandy Banton: I was appalled. Shocked. Staggered. But I'm most concerned with the files secretly brought to the UK from the former colonies. The question is: Why did the Foreign and Commonwealth Office not do anything with them over all these years? Why did it just leave them sitting there?
A government-commissioned report on the matter admits that, early on, some Hanslope Park staff members knew the files contained "potentially sensitive/interesting material", but that most people were in the dark. Effectively, the report blames bureaucratic incompetence. Do you believe that?
No, I don't. I think there was an element of that… but really, I think it was deliberate concealment. And who knows what secrets may still remain. The Kenya files that were released, for example, spelled out how badly the British had been behaving in Kenya. But there is still a little batch of Kenya files that have never been found. Of course, whether that's genuine — whether they really have never been found, or whether they are secreted away somewhere — I have absolutely no idea.
Going back several decades, to the end of the British Empire, we now know that British colonial governments destroyed a lot of documentation when they left the colonies. Why?
I have an extract from a circular, sent out to East Africa in 1961, which says that colonial governors were asked to ensure that they did not pass along, to successor governments, documents which "might embarrass Her Majesty's government or other governments", or which "might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others".
Colonial governments were told not to pass the files on, but not what to do with them. There were stories that came out of India — when India achieved independence in 1947 — claiming that a great pall of smoke had hung over New Delhi for weeks because they had burnt the documents! That obviously stirred up local interest.
In Malaya, officials wanted to avoid this. There was one suitable incinerator in the country, but it was at the railway depot, which was staffed by Malays. They couldn't incinerate the documents there without people finding out. An alternative — one that the Colonial Office always suggested — was to package documents in weighted crates and dump them at sea. But they couldn't do that in Malaya either, because the customs staff would have found out.
So, in the end, they borrowed five army trucks. Can you imagine five army trucks filled with documents? Documents were selected and packed by European expatriate staff. They were then loaded into civilian lorries by Chinese laborers. And then, I assume, transferred into the army trucks and driven to Singapore to be incinerated at the British naval base there.
Were documents destroyed in Britain, too?
Other papers — internal Colonial Office records — were destroyed later, in Britain. For instance, records related to the Batang Kali massacre [in which British troops killed 24 unarmed villagers in 1948, at the height of the so-called "Malayan Emergency"] were destroyed in 1966. Two years ago, there was a case before London's High Court about the massacre, and the High Court of Justice wrote on its website that "files on law and order during the Malay Emergency had been destroyed in 1966, as the files were not considered worthy of public preservation".
But we're talking about a massacre carried out by British soldiers.
I know! It's extraordinary, isn't it?
What's the latest date at which Britain was destroying colonial files?
I found a very interesting file: FCO 141/19933. It includes a redacted copy of an internal FCO email, dated 18 April 2012. The email references a list from the 1980s, which records Kenya boxes 668-678 as destroyed. The box numbers indicate to me that the files were originally held in London, and so were destroyed in London around 1980-81.
Do we know what was in the boxes?
In a recent academic presentation, you mentioned an FCO minute dating back to 1999, which instructs FCO officials not to reveal the existence of the Migrated Archives. What's that about?
I found this document in a file that was recently made public. It refers to the BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territories] commissioner's office in the Seychelles, and says: "Do not disclose existence of the migrated records without express permission of senior RHS staff." [RHS refers to "Records and Historical Services", a unit of the FCO.]
The "not" in "do not disclose" is underlined three times.
So as late as 1999 someone at the FCO knew about the Migrated Archives and consciously made the decision not to disclose that.
Is there any effort, within former British colonies, to get these kinds of files back?
The Kenyans have wanted them back forever. But elsewhere, I'm not sure that there is a great deal of interest. I find that surprising, and in a way disappointing, because I don't believe that these are UK public records. I don't believe that for a second. They belong to the former colonies.
This is probably an unusual position for a former National Archives archivist who specializes in colonial files to be taking.
[Laughs] I think you should look back at the 1958 Public Records Act. It was not intended to cover colonial governments, which were treated as separate. In fact, in 2011, the FCO asked for a formal legal opinion on whether colonial files belong to the UK [as opposed to the former colonies themselves]. Lawyers judged that they are, in fact, UK public records. I put in a Freedom of Information request asking for the wording of that legal opinion, but my request was refused.
You must be either very disappointed or very relieved that you're now retired and not working through those 20,000 migrated colonial papers?
Oh, I'm relieved! When this all came to light, I was so angry. I was absolutely furious.
When you were working at TNA, did you ever suspect that the FCO might be holding documents back?
I had no idea.
Do you feel like you were misled?
I was misled. I was definitely misled. The reason I'm so angry about it is because, in concealing it from me, the FCO forced me to mislead my readers. The file that I referred to earlier — the one from April 2012 — contains correspondence between the FCO and The National Archives, which shows me that some of the people I worked with at TNA knew about the Migrated Archives.
And there was me, the expert on the Colonial Office, and I didn't know about it! In my opinion, that has to be a deliberate concealment.
Thanks, Dr. Banton.
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart