Mark Collins – The British Empire Went Up in Flames

Not with a bang but with a lot of smoke:

Revealed: the bonfire of papers at the end of Empire

DG was a code word to indicate papers were for British officers of European descent only

The full extent of the destruction of Britain’s colonial government records during the retreat from empire was disclosedon Thursday [Nov. 28] with the declassification of a small part of the Foreign Office’s vast secret archive.

Fifty-year-old documents that have finally been transferred to the National Archive show that bonfires were built behind diplomatic missions across the globe as the purge – codenamed Operation Legacy – accompanied the handover of each colony…

Also among the documents declassified on Friday are “destruction certificates” sent to London by colonial officials as proof that they were performing their duties, and letters and memoranda that showed that some were struggling to complete their huge task before the colonies gained their independence. Officials in more than one colony warned London that they feared they would be “celebrating Independence Day with smoke”.

An elaborate and at times confusing classification system was introduced, in addition to the secret/top secret classifications, to protect papers that were to be destroyed or shipped to the UK. Officials were often granted or refused security clearance on the grounds of ethnicity.

Documents marked “Guard”, for example, could be disclosed to non-British officials as long as if they were from the “Old Commonwealth” – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada. [Tangentially relevant: ‘SECRET AND GUARD: “Previously Secret Documents Show That Canadian Intelligence Discovered That Israel Purchased Yellowcake from Argentines during 1963-1964″‘.]

Those classified as “Watch”, and stamped with a red letter W, were to be removed from the country or destroyed. Steps were taken to ensure post-colonial governments would not learn that such files had ever existed, with one instruction stating: “The legacy files must leave no reference to watch material. Indeed, the very existence of the watch series, though it may be guessed at, should never be revealed.” Officials were warned to keep their W stamps locked away.

The marking “DG” was said to be an abbreviation of deputy governor, but in fact was a protective code word to indicate that papers so marked were for sight by “British officers of European descent only”…

Those papers that were returned to London were not open to historians, however. The declassified documents made availableFriday at the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, are from a cache of 8,800 of colonial-era files that the Foreign Office held for decades, in breach of the 30-years rule of the Public Records Acts and in effect beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. They were stored behind barbed-wire fences at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire, a governmentcommunications research centre north of London, a facility that it operates along with MI6 and MI5.

… the Foreign Office failed to acknowledge that the 8,800 colonial files were just a small part of a secret archive of 1.2m files that it called the Special Collections, and which it had held unlawfully at Hanslope Park.

The Foreign Office is understood to have presented a plan to the National Archive earlier this month for the belated transfer of theSpecial Collections into the public domain. On Thursday it declined to disclose details of that plan…

Via the indispensable Spotlight on Military News and International Affairs.  One wonders about possible plans for documents in Scotland.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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