LONDON: British officials burned and dumped documents from colonies in the final years of the empire in a systematic effort to hide their “dirty” secrets, according to files declassified on Friday.
Among the newly released files was a note warning authorities to be careful to avoid a situation similar to India in 1947, when the local press was filled with reports about the “pall of smoke” over Delhi at the very end of the British Raj as officials burnt documents before leaving.
Under ” Operation Legacy”, officials in Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia, Tanzania, Jamaica and other former British colonial territories were briefed on how to dispose of documents that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”.
The 50-year-old documents that were finally transferred from the UK Foreign Office to the National Archive in a so-called “migrated archive” show the extraordinary lengths to which the Colonial Office went to withhold information from its former subjects in at least 23 countries and territories in the 1950s and 1960s.
A Colonial Office telegram of 3 May 1961 stated the general guidance for keeping papers out of the hands of newly elected independent governments.
Items should be disposed of if they “might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers; might compromise sources of intelligence” — or might be used “unethically” by incoming ministers.
Among the documents was a memo from London that required all secret documents held abroad to be vetted by a special branch or MI5 liaison officer to ensure that any papers which show “racial prejudice or religious bias” were destroyed or sent home.