This Article is From Aug 05, 2015

Forget Reparations, Britain, Release The Files

So much has been said and written about the speech that Shashi Tharoor delivered at the Oxford Union in May that we may wonder whether there can be anything left to add to the discussion. But one point that does not seem to have been made, or not made loudly enough, in relation to what is a complicated subject has less to do with reparations and more with the preservation and study of the colonial record. Everyone knows that wrongs were committed in the name of British colonialism, but we are still far from having an adequate, richly-textured or nuanced account of the British Empire. In order to arrive at a deeper sense of British colonialism, and indeed of colonialism in general, we would need to be able to read the "official record", that is, the many files, documents, petitions, and policy papers that were part of the everyday transactions of empire.  

Vast holdings of these files exist, in the UK and other countries, but it's not easy to pry them away from the clutches of zealous functionaries and politicians. Governments refuse to grant access to papers from the colonial era on the grounds of national security even when the events mentioned in the files date to the nineteenth century and earlier. Our knowledge of the colonial period is drastically impaired by the embargo placed on important files and will not improve substantially until these files are placed in the public domain.  

I said the point has not been made loudly in the media, but William Roger Louis, who is an historian of the British Empire and who also spoke at the debate in Oxford, did, in fact, insist on the need for the British government to show "complete transparency of what happened" in its colonies and dependencies. As he said, "the full record has never been revealed" by the UK, and "the disclosure of secret records...would not only preserve facts for posterity but would be a way of acknowledging for the public record the darker side of empire".  

Such a disclosure, he remarked, "would be the acknowledgement of a moral obligation".  In 2013, a similar view was expressed in the Guardian by Richard Drayton, the Guyanese-born scholar of empire who teaches in London: "The older a document, the less it belongs to those who make it or keep it, and the more it is the property of humanity in general. These 'special collections' belong neither to the FCO (i.e. the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) nor even to the British people. They record how the modern world was made, and people around the world deserve access to them and to the truth."

Louis and Drayton are right to put pressure on the British government in this matter, given the government's inconsistent attitude to the release of files. The government refused to release files on the Mau Mau uprising until 2011, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office conceded that it possessed some 1,500 files relating to Kenya at Hanslope Park, a country estate in the borough of Milton Keynes. Many of these documents were part of the legal proceedings brought against the UK government by Kenyan victims of torture, and it was the law case that prompted the government to move forward with its release of the papers.  

A couple of years later, in 2013, the FCO disclosed that it held 1.2 million files at Hanslope Park, many of these going back to the nineteenth century. The figure was subsequently adjusted to 600,000, but at this point one, is inclined not to trust official counts of files relating to the Empire and, in any case, the retention of the papers appears to have occurred in contravention of the Public Records Act. Some of the files have now been moved over to the UK's National Archives (and contain revealing particulars about the slave trade), but it's safe to say that most have not. 

On 21 January 2015, David Lidington, then as now a minister of state in the Foreign Office, issued a written statement in which he said that an "internal management audit" had thrown up the existence of another 170,000 files. He added that while a "significant proportion of these files contain copies of original records or routine management, finance, personnel and consular records", some of the files were "likely to require permanent preservation"- in other words, were unlikely ever to be made public. The Foreign Office has since published online an inventory with broad headings, and it is clear that many of the documents will be of immense significance to historians of the colonial era.  

A quick search, for example, indicates that the files pertain to sedition in India, Partition, the last viceroyalty, the Indian Civil Service (1908-1911), India Office papers, and so forth. The files relate to all sorts of topics, important not just for colonial modernity but for the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of the papers are not going to reshape our knowledge of anything, but many will deepen our understanding of the imperial bureaucracy and policy-making, and some of the documents may even lead us radically to revise our interpretation and analysis of crucial historical events. Until the files are made public and deposited in the national archives, we cannot know.

The issue here is not just poor cataloguing or preservation, but the will of functionaries and politicians to open up records to scrutiny and judgement. The UK government is not being asked to release documents that concern "national security", or that will offend the sensitivities of innocent people. Drayton said in 2013 that "no British person alive should feel pride or guilt about events that happened before they were born". What the British government can offer is the release of thousands of files that colonizers and colonized alike have a justifiable and legitimate reason to consult. The government is doubtless wary of lawsuits and compensatory payments, but the lessons to be drawn from the study of history are priceless.

As for reparations, the right to compensation is easy to discern in some cases (e.g. the Mau Mau) but harder to determine in others: it is unfortunate that commentators on the question draw on statistics of a dubious nature and participate in a discourse that is overheated by nationalism. I think that Shashi Tharoor grasped the complexity of the problem when he asked, with brilliant simplicity, for no more than one pound per year for the next two hundred years. It is precisely because colonialism is charged and difficult, its wounds still raw and open, that we need to take care to understand its history and arrive at an informed analysis.

Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of 'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013)

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