Britain releases previously secret files on empire

Long-forgotten files carrying secret documents from the waning days of the British Empire were opened to the public Wednesday, the first of several releases that promise new insights to a world power that stretched from Antigua to Yemen.

The files — whose very existence wasn't known until recently — are the first tranche of material taken from the so-called "Migrated Archives," the name given to the 8,800-odd colonial records that were considered too sensitive to leave behind as the empire began to splinter.

Academics, lawyers and journalists are poised to comb through the archive hunting for evidence of British misdeeds — particularly in Kenya, where colonial enforcers executed, tortured and maimed thousands of people during the 1950s crackdown on Mau Mau rebels. Among the tens of thousands of people detained, often in appalling conditions, was President Barack Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama.

National Archives records specialist Edward Hampshire said there is good reason to suspect the existence of "juicy material" but cautioned that some of it will be quite routine.

"What this material probably will do is provide a lot of local color, additional depth," he said. "It will have to wait for the historians to wade their way through it and see what's new and what isn't."

Summaries supplied by the archives described the documents in general terms. Much did appear to be trivia: personnel files, registry information, and census data. But filed with them were a wealth of intelligence reports on local conditions, files on anti-colonial leaders, and discussions of rumored plots.

In Anguilla, a tiny U.K. dependency in the Caribbean, administrators worried about kidnapping and assassination attempts as the island revolted against domination by neighboring St. Kitts and Nevis. Among the files are military planning documents, intelligence reports on the Caribbean's Black Power movement, and a 1970 document entitled "Educational films for psychological operations."

Documents from Malaya (now part of Malaysia) could help illuminate the 1950s fight against communist guerrillas. There are "subversive activity reports," propaganda documents and details of U.S. support for the British counterinsurgency effort.

Many of the documents detail the fight against Kenya's Mau Mau rebels, including details of collective punishments, livestock seizures, resettlement, and lists of people who may need to be put under "control" if they entered the country. The intelligence files on Kenyan rebels include intercepted correspondence relating to Jomo Kenyatta, who would go on to become the country's first president.

One of the documents deals with American officials' opinion of Kenyan students who, like Barack Obama's father, were given scholarships to study in the United States.

The British files show that some took a dim view of the students, with one noting that U.S. officials believed that they had a bad reputation "for falling into the wrong hands and for becoming both anti-American and anti-white."

There's no suggestion that the description applied to Obama's father.

The material has long been out of reach.

In the 1960s, the U.K. refused to hand the files to its former colonies, arguing that they were the property of the British government. Years later, the U.K. declined to make them public, explaining that they were the records of the former colonial governments.

In reality, the government hadn't come to any decision as to the files' status, and as late as 1995 civil servants were still weighing whether to hand them over, keep them under wraps, or destroy them.

One unidentified bureaucrat, clearly frustrated, pressed for openness.

"We have 2,000 boxes of files gathering dust, some of the contents of great interest, but which cannot be seen by researchers etc. in case the cat is let out of the bag," he wrote in a 1995 memo made public in a report published only last year.

But years passed and the files were left in limbo, with the archives eventually thought of as "unimportant and unsearchable."

Eventually a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mau Mau veterans allegedly tortured by the British prompted a judge to order the government to locate the files.

Historian Piers Brendon — who hasn't seen the documents — said that while much is known about Britain's actions in Kenya and elsewhere in the empire's waning days, the documents could still contain damning new revelations about oppression, torture or abuse.

"They did a terrific whitewash job," he said, referring to senior colonial administrators in Kenya. "I'm not sure that all the whitewash has been stripped away."