The culling of imperial archives led me to turn to oral history. But for many scholars, the official myths of the British Empire persist
‘Africans make up stories.” I heard this refrain over and again while researching imperial history in Kenya. I was scarcely surprised when it came from former settlers and colonial officials living out their days in the country’s bucolic highlands. But I was concerned to find that this position took on intractable proportions among some historians.
At the time of decolonisation, colonial officials destroyed and removed tons of documents from Kenya. To overcome this, I collected hundreds of oral testimonies and integrated them with fragments of remaining archival evidence to challenge entrenched views of British imperialism.
My methods drew sharp criticism. Revising the myths of British imperial benevolence cut to the heart of national identity, challenging decades-old scholarship and professional reputations.
Some historians fetishise documents, and historians of empire are among the most hide-bound. For decades, these scholars have viewed written evidence as sacrosanct. That documents – like all forms of evidence – must be triangulated, and interrogated for veracity using other forms of evidence, including oral testimonies from colonised populations, mattered little.
Instead, many historians rarely questioned the official archive, nor the written, historical record. Instead, they reproduced a carefully tended official narrative with either celebratory accounts of empire, or equally pernicious, by turning their collective heads away from the violence that underwrote Britain’s imperial past and towards more benign lines of inquiry. Either way, their document-centred histories served as excuses for liberal imperial fictions.
In spite of postcolonial criticism, these views have lingered. That such methodological conservatism has persisted is stunning in the face of archival discoveries, and the lack thereof.
During the course of the recent Mau Mau case in London’s high court – where five claimants filed a suit against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for systematic torture in Kenya’s detention camps – the British government made a massive document discovery. Some 300 boxes of previously undisclosed files that had been spirited away from Kenya at the time of decolonisation were found in Hanslope Park. Alongside them were countless boxes of files from 36 other colonies, removed at the time of imperial retreat.
The Hanslope Park files have recently moved to the National Archives. Their contents, however, have been less than satisfying. The FCO has not been fully transparent in the release process. Some 170 boxes of “top secret” files are missing. Moreover the FCO has released information that it holds additional files – thousands of linear feet – in Hanslope Park. These files – some of which are clearly related to potential litigation from Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Malaya and elsewhere – well-exceed the 30-year rule. There is no indication that they will be released anytime soon. Even if they were, it would take over 300 years based upon the pace of release of the “migrated archives” for them to see the light of day. Even then, I would have zero confidence in government transparency.
One thing is certain: official British archives have been culled and withheld. Still, oral history sceptics persist, and some historians cling to documents as the only source of evidence.
There is one caveat, however. Some recent publications that eschew oral histories include multiple citations of oral testimonies from members of the British military and colonial service, held in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. This leaves one to wonder if hiding under the sheep’s clothing of methodological rigour is the abiding wolf of racial paternalism. Are we to believe that Africans make up stories, but European testimonies are reliable sources of evidence? If the Mau Mau case taught us anything, it’s that African oral testimonies are neither meaningless nor fictional. Instead, like all forms of evidence, they must be triangulated and read with other sources to determine their significance to the past and present.
It is not possible to write imperial histories from documents alone. The scale of archival erasure and the withholding of documents is so vast that such a pursuit is irresponsible. Only through a greatly expanded methodological and theoretical toolkit can historians begin to interrogate the history of 20th-century British Empire. Without it, we run the risk of reproducing carefully tended official myths of Britain’s past.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/32b397e4/sc/8/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0C20A130Coct0C210Ckenya0Ebritish0Eempire0Emyths0Ehistorians/story01.htm