- Guilty Secrets:Deceit, Denial, and the Discovery of Kenya’s ‘Migrated Archive’
Oxford reeks of the empire, and among the elderly residents of its elegant Boars Hill suburb it is the pungency of camphor that keeps the mothballed memories alive. Gathered there at a summer garden party to celebrate the royal wedding of 2011 are a collection of the empire’s children: a few former colonial officials, several businessmen who plied their trade in the Commonwealth, and some ex-settlers from Britain’s African and south-east Asian territories. Among them are Mr and Mrs Pettigrew-Squires – at least that is what we shall call them for now. He is angry that recent revelations in a High Court case about British torture of African ‘suspects’ have ruined the ‘reputations’ of his former colleagues in Kenya’s colonial service. She is embarrassed at her husband’s bluster, and splutters on about the marvels of life in late colonial ‘Keeenyaaa’ (always the elongated vowels of English ‘received pronunciation’): the parties, the spacious colonial homes, the bougainvillea, the sunshine. She then tells a story, disarmingly frank in her innocent portrayal of something that she seems not to be aware is sinister. She tells of spending her last weeks in employment during 1963 as a clerk at Nairobi’s Government House, taking bundles of documents onto the governor’s lawn and stuffing them into a burning brazier. The fires never ended, she exclaims with a laugh – as the British busily destroyed the archive of their colonial misadventure in Kenya.
The bonfire on the governor’s lawn signifies an effort to edit, to sanitize and to censor history. Like Mr Pettigrew-Squires, the British late-colonial state was deeply concerned with reputations. And in Kenya British colonial officials had good reasons to fear that their reputation might be sullied. A violent insurrection, the Mau Mau rebellion, had been put down during the 1950s by an oppressive and heavy-handed counter-insurgency. Britain’s colonial administration in central Kenya had been militarized in this conflict, imprisoning more than 80,000 people without trial, hanging over 1,000 convicted ‘terrorists’, and subjecting the local people to surveillance and interrogation on a massive scale in the manner of a police state. It was a ‘dirty war’ with many excesses on both sides, in which Britain had been widely accused of breaking the rule of law in its treatment of the rebels.1
The burning of documents was an act of intentional destruction designed to prevent the records of the counter-insurgency falling into the hands of the [End Page 142] nationalist government, who would come to power in Kenya in December 1963. But destruction was not the only method adopted to edit, sanitize and censor the archival record. There was also a process through which selected documents were retained in British possession and returned, secretly, to the United Kingdom. This covert act effectively denied Kenyans access to critical materials relating to their own history, ensuring that the post-colonial state would not be able to assemble a full record of the actions of its predecessor, and that the British would guiltily guard their own secrets of this past.
None of this was known to the British public until the spring of 2011, when a High Court case, brought by veterans of the Mau Mau rebellion seeking compensation from the British government for their injuries, made the headlines.2 As part of the prosecution’s investigation, the documents secretly ‘retained’ by the British were located and scrutinized for the first time since 1963, their contents revealing and proving beyond doubt British practices of abuse and torture.3 These were the revelations that so inflamed Mr Pettigrew-Squires, bringing disrepute to the memory of his halcyon days on Kenya’s empire field. Worse still, the realization also emerged that Britain had ‘retained’ archives from all over its colonial empire, and not just from Kenya.4 This sparked a wider debate that placed the empire itself on trial: had the British sought to manipulate history on their own behalf by censoring the archive not only in Kenya but in all their former colonial territories? What else might...