Silencing Kenyan History: Operation Legacy and the “Migrated Archives”

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This is a story about human rights abuses, the lengths to which colonial governments went to cover them up, and the damaging impact this has had on our understanding of Empire.

In the 1950s, in the dying days of colonial rule, thousands of Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the British administration during what was known as the Emergency. Detainees were subjected to arbitrary killings, severe physical assaults, and egregious inhumane and degrading treatment.

In 2009, five courageous elderly Kenyans who had been detained and tortured by the British colonial administration, issued a claim for compensation at the British High Court against the British Government. In response, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), as the named defendant for the British government, sought to strike out the case. However, the judge ruled in favour of the claimants and the British government was embarrassed into settling the case, offering a statement of regret, £19.9 m in compensation, and the construction of a memorial in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.

The Mau Mau case and controversy led to the discovery of thousands of secret files formerly owned by the Colonial Office and held by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in its archives at Hanslope Park. This was partly due to the expert testimony of revisionist historians – such as David Anderson, Caroline Elkins and Huw Bennett – who found evidence that “the British administration in Kenya took steps before December 1963 to remove the UK records relating to the administration of the Mau Mau Emergency, so that these would not be among the records handed over to the incoming independent Kenyan government.”

These documents – which are now stored under a file known as FCO 141 at The National Archives in London – reveal the full scale of abuse against detainees, and the paper trail goes all the way up to the colonial secretary (Anderson, 2011). The systemic programme of migrating and concealing these documents was known as “Operation Legacy”, the history of which demonstrates the scale of efforts to sanitise empire and rewrite the repressive and abusive history of colonial rule. 

Operation Legacy

Operation Legacy referred to the meticulous and detailed planning and the specific instructions that went into migrating and destroying documents from Kenya prior to independence. The colonial secretary ordered that the independent Kenyan government should not inherit papers that:

  • “might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government or other governments;
  • might embarrass members of the Police, military forces, public servants or others (such as Police agents or informers);
  • might compromise sources of intelligence; and,
  • might be used unethically by Ministers in the successor government” (FCO 141/6957).

The Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defense in Nairobi then sent out a memo titled “The Designation ‘Watch’,” in which he ordered the division of government records into “Watch” and “Legacy” material.  Papers designated as “Watch” material would only be seen by “authorised” officers and would have either to be destroyed or to be removed to the United Kingdom. These “authorised” officers were strictly government officials who were “a British subject of European descent ” (FCO 141/6969).

Further orders detailed “Method(s) of Destroying Classified Documents” described how each department should have set policies on “routine destruction” and “emergency destruction” including burning documents using incinerators, acid and bonfires. The colonial secretary even went to the lengths of suggesting other creative ways of destroying these documents noting that “it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast” (FCO 141/6971).

Kenya’s requests for the migrated archive

Since the 1960’s, the Government of Kenya has made numerous attempts to request for the return of these documents, first through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then through the Kenya National Archives. Additionally, various other international bodies have been involved in this quest including the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement and the African Union. In each of these instances, the British government, through the Public and Records Office and the British High Commission in Nairobi, were involved in a systemization of silence.

In doing so, they fell back on arguments such as the notion that returning the archives would “set an unfortunate precedent” and that there was the “danger that returned documents would provide clues to destroyed documents” (FCO 141/19934). For example, the UK Policy on migrated archives in 1983 read, in part:

“Policy line in Kenya was therefore: to admit that the records were migrated or destroyed prior to independence; that the records migrated or destroyed concerned the development of UK policy; or that they related to a third country made it necessary to withhold them; that the removal of these documents was in relation with the usual policy by which the secret documents of one government were not left to its successors and that frankly HMG is unable to return these documents and cannot negotiate on this. This policy line has not changed.” (FCO 141/19934)

Has the UK policy on Migrated Archives from 1983 fundamentally changed?

There is considerable evidence that despite the revelations of the last decade, this policy has still not really changed. According to the Director of the Kenya National Archives:

“our search for our migrated archives started in about 1969 when the then-permanent secretary of foreign affairs and our foreign mission office started following about the records that had been taken away. From 1969 up to today, we have not been able to retrieve all those records. We have retrieved quite a bit, some … a fraction of them in digital copies or microfilms. But we have never brought any single hard copy file here. Because the British say that they are, um, the records of the queen … and they are public records governed by the public records act … of the UK. So we weren’t able to get them. Although … we have tried bilaterally to get those records, but up to now it has not become possible to get those records. Of course they have been giving us access to go … Photocopy them, micro film them, and bring some of them, but we have never got the entire collection. But we have …  a lot” (Interview with Francis G. Mwangi, Director KNA August,15th 2022).

Further evidence that UK has not fundamentally revised its approach is that since the Hanslope disclosure in 2015, no efforts have been made to return the documents in FCO 141 to their respective countries. This is because the British government still appears to believe that these are “essentially UK documents and records” (FCO 141/19934).

In summer 2022, The National Archive in the UK abruptly withdrew FCO 141 from public access without prior notification, claiming that they had been contaminated by pesticides. As a visiting scholar at the archive at the time, I found it curious that The National Archive had chosen to withdraw these files at the end of the COVID-19 travel restrictions and the height of the summer period when overseas researchers would be visiting the archive.

Upon further inquiry, I was not convinced by the reasons that were provided – that the files had been withdrawn for conservation and later that they were under inspection for insecticides. Interestingly, archival records show that all former colonial records were treated for insecticides upon their arrival in London.

Other scholars such as Mandy Banton made similar observations and noted that coincidentally or not the withdrawal of FCO 141 had followed requests to film part of the records which had been turned down. Noting my experience, Mandy Banton wrote that:

“A Kenyan student at a US university was one frustrated user when she travelled to the UK having put in an advance order only to be denied access. She was brave enough – or maybe just angry enough – to demand a meeting with a manager. This outlined the conservation concerns, but did not improve the situation for her” (Banton, 2022).

Following Freedom of Information requests made to The National Archive, however, the files were reinstated and the film was released by Channel 4.

Return Kenya’s migrated archives

In conclusion, it is evident that silence has been systemized and weaponized to conceal and deny colonial history. These acts began before Kenyan independence, through Operation Legacy, and continue today in the barriers created by The National Archive to limit access and block the return of the files.

This is despite the fact that Kenya has made several attempts to request for the return of these archives since 1967, through various channels including the Foreign Affairs ministry, the Kenya National Archives and even personal requests to the Secretary of State. Recent bilateral talks have also proved unsuccessful because the UK maintains a claim on the archives.

In doing so, the UK government is effectively arguing that its rights as a colonial power trump the rights of Kenyan people – the people who the files are actually about. This is an outdated form of racialized and colonial claims-making that demonstrates the extent to which historical inequalities in power and knowledge continue to shape the world. Former colonies such as Kenya must make a counterclaim, and challenge the continuation of Western suprematist attitudes and policies.

As with other appropriated resources such as the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles, the return of these archives would signify liberation, epistemic justice, and a reclamation of historical and cultural memory.

Joy Nyokabi Karinge is a Kenyan researcher and writer. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Pan African Studies at Syracuse University, New York, USA.



This research has been made possible by the support of the African American Studies department at Syracuse University, the Mark & Peale Clements Award and the Goekjian endowment.

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