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"Open secrets? Where to look for the history of colonial violence" by Erik Linstrum, author of "Age of Emergency: Living with Violence at the End of the British Empire" published by OUP

Open secrets? Where to look for the history of colonial violence

It has now been more than a decade since the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was forced to reveal the existence of a secret archive at the Hanslope Park intelligence facility in Buckinghamshire. As decolonization accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of files were wrenched free from archival procedures that would have made them accessible to officials of the new states that emerged from the empire or to members of the public in Britain. A 1961 Colonial Office directive made clear that this special handling was specifically intended for materials that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government.” Roughly 20,000 such files ended up at Hanslope Park while many more were destroyed on the spot.

Since 2011, this collection has gradually been transferred to the National Archives of the United Kingdom and opened to the public. The consensus among historians is that revelations from the files so far have been incremental rather than revolutionary. But unsettling questions about the politics of historical writing continue to linger. If it had not been for a lawsuit brought by survivors of the brutal British counterinsurgency in 1950s Kenya, the Hanslope Park archive would likely never have come to light at all. How can the history of British imperialism—and above all the “embarrassment” of its violence against British subjects—be salvaged from archives painstakingly crafted and sanitized by imperial rulers? Of course, all historians must construct their narratives from fragments of the past; they must likewise read against the grain of potentially misleading documents. But with seventy-five linear feet of colonial files apparently “lost” by the Foreign Office and another 600,000 “non-standard” files yet to be released, one has to ask whether a source base already overwhelmingly biased toward literate, Anglophone men can tell us much beyond the aspirational self-image of the ruling elite. The conspicuous black holes of official suppression threaten to make at least some aspects of imperial history one of those subjects, like the royal family or the Kennedy assassination, where constraints on scholarship have left a flourishing field to speculation and lore.

“The seductive drama of secrecy and revelation… [is] an active impediment to understanding Britain’s relationship with colonial violence.”

How to write a worthwhile history of empire after Hanslope Park was something I wrestled with when starting work on the book that would become Age of Emergency. I soon realized that the seductive drama of secrecy and revelation was not just a distraction but an active impediment to understanding Britain’s relationship with colonial violence. Too many observers had drawn the wrong conclusion from the archive scandal: that the brutality of imperial rule had long been “suppressed and buried,” as critic Paul Gilroy put it, and that the horrifying truth was only now emerging into the light of day. Besides overstating the importance of the Hanslope files themselves—and perhaps falling prey to what has been called the “fetishism” of secret files—these kinds of responses painted a highly questionable picture of the British past. My thoughts turned first to the 1950s: a period marked not only by intensely violent counterinsurgencies in colonies such as Kenya, Malaya, and Cyprus, but by record-high newspaper circulation, the advent of television, the conscription of ordinary men as soldiers, and fresh memories of the Second World War as a “good war.” Against this backdrop, was it really possible that British forces could torture suspects, carry out summary executions, and commit other atrocities in the colonies without people at home taking notice?  

I am not the first historian to argue that the violence of decolonization was more open than secret. But this is usually asserted rather than demonstrated, leaving open the question of how contemporaries came to know about violence and what those ways of knowing meant for action—or the absence of action—to stop it. Rather than seeing the Hanslope Park scandal as confirmation that the state exercised a tight grip on information from the colonies, I took it as an invitation to look beyond the self-serving records of the imperial bureaucracy altogether. As it turns out, one of the clearest signs of widespread knowledge about colonial violence is the sheer range of institutions and individuals whose archives still contain traces of it.

“One of the clearest signs of widespread knowledge about colonial violence is the sheer range of institutions and individuals whose archives still contain traces of it.”

Letters from soldiers in the field to relatives and friends in Britain acknowledged brutality in a few different registers: sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes ashamed and disgusted, sometimes vengeful and excited. Missionaries and aid workers came face-to-face with violence in the detention camps where they did their jobs, then drew correspondents at home into discussions about the atrocities they witnessed and the dangers of complicity. Debates unfolded, too, between journalists and editors who questioned whether common knowledge in the colonies met professional standards for publication or broadcast. From the British Army and the Church of England to the British Red Cross and the BBC, the confrontation with extreme violence moved in parallel through bureaucratic chains of command.         

Private confidences and public statements reinforced each other rather than defining radically different domains of knowledge. Fantasies of racial violence were pronounced in the memoirs and novels about colonial war that rolled off presses in the 1950s, many of them written by veterans, giving rise to a surprisingly explicit genre I call “counterinsurgency pulp.” Though muted and hedged in significant ways, reporting on colonial war in newspapers, newsreels, radio, and television delivered a steady drumbeat of disclosures and occasionally shocking revelations. Even stage plays and television dramas meditated on the grim fatalism of crossing moral boundaries for the sake of an empire that seemed to be slipping away.

To show that colonial violence was experienced as British violence, moving beyond state archives proved vital, not only because governments selectively disclose information but because an unsettling sense of involvement in brutality reached across classes and cultures. It became part of everyday life. And it was no secret.

Recent Comments

  1. Iftekhar Sayeed

    I have been watching moves on the Mau Mau from the ’50s – Safari and Simba – and wondering how partisan these were. Thanks for the book!

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