Revisiting Britain’s imperial past

A brief compilation provides a trip down memory lane. Only it is of memories “forgotten” or suppressed – the realities of the British Empire.

Catherine Bennett looks at hereditary peers in the House of Lords and their slave-trade connected ancestors and remarks that : “Slave fortunes, legacies and compensation that furthered historic prominence are still, effectively, being used to extract unearned status, stipends and political influence.”

In a short video George Monbiot scratches the surface of “the dark side of British history you weren’t taught in schools”.

And Ian Cobain, Owen Bowcott and Richard Norton-Taylor, in an article from 2012, report on the systematic destruction of British colonial records in the final years of Empire. They knew what they had done, and didn’t want it to come out…


British soldiers assisting police searching for Mau Mau soldiers in Kenya in 1954

As statues of slave traders are torn down, their heirs sit untouched in the Lords

Spare a thought for the hereditary peers still barely aware of how their family fortunes were acquired

Following the overdue evictions of Edward Colston and Robert Milligan, the list of statues whose associations with slavery make them candidates for retirement grows longer by the day.

Labour-run councils have agreed to consider “the appropriateness of local monuments on public land and property”. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has also ordered a review: “Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era.”

Would they mind extending their surveys to a group of living statues active – give or take – within the House of Lords? Specifically, its generous hereditary contingent, both the current, 92 members, and the names on an official register of interested peers (thereby eligible each time death creates a vacancy).

Not unlike the slavers’ statues as they merged into town landscapes, centuries of familiarity have offered this tarnished and fundamentally ugly institution, and its hereditary inmates, a measure of protection. “You’d never invent it now,” its ghastlier members like to say when reform is suggested, “but somehow it works.”

You’d never actually suggest that, to pick a name at random, a person such as Francis Baring, 6th Baron Northbrook, had any right to a seat in the legislature, since the public didn’t elect him, but there he is. Somehow, scores of old (usually), conservative (predominantly), white (always) men (exclusively), who are equally bereft of electoral legitimacy, enjoy their gentleman’s club to this day. But what if, amid the surge of concern about visible memorials to the British slave trade, it became more widely known that the current Francis Baring (an opponent of Lords reform) is descended from Francis Baring the anti-abolitionist and banker, who profited from slave-derived commodities? Baring Road in Lewisham, southeast London – nb Sadiq Khan – is also named after him. He dismissed as exaggerated the “physical sufferings of the Negro”.

How many sitting or registered hereditaries from slave-trade connected families would it take for this already anachronistic section of the legislature to be recognised, no less than offensive street names and statues, as terminally indefensible?

Thanks to the trouble taken by hereditary peers to declare their ancestry, since this represents their entire claim to special status, and to the brilliant University College London database of slave ownership, some names quickly raise questions.

Pick, for instance, out of a host of candidates, the Conservative peer and celebrated moat-dredger Douglas Hogg, Viscount Hailsham. He descends from Charles McGarel, a merchant compensated £129,464 (which has been estimated at over £100m today) for 2,489 slaves. Another Tory peer, Lord Carrington, in the Lords since 2018, leads us to an earlier Baron Carrington who received £4,908 in compensation for the loss of 268 slaves. Consider also the 14th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, a Conservative peer, whose slave-trading ancestor, the 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, owner of vast plantations in Virginia, reportedly enjoyed what he called “bedding down with a negro wench”. Or, as we would now think of it, rape.

Seaford of Sussex, on the House of Lords register, is descended from slave owner George Ellis, compensated for more than 1,000 slaves. His co-aspirant, the 9th Baron Temple of Stowe, shares at least one name with Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, an opponent of abolition: “The moment this bill was passed, the death warrant of every white man in the West Indies would be sealed.”

Viscount Combermere, a potential candidate, recalls the first Viscount Combermere, compensated with a fortune for slaves in Nevis and St Kitts. His statue is – still – in Chester. The anti-abolition ancestors of Lord Onslow (on the register), built Clandon Park with the proceeds, celebrated in its decorations, of slavery. Having accidentally let Clandon burn down, its current owner, the National Trust, intends a tasteful refurb.

Slave fortunes, legacies and compensation that furthered historic prominence are still, effectively, being used to extract unearned status, stipends and political influence. If Colston’s statue deserved its disgrace, why, to pick yet another example, is Simon Douglas-Pennant, 7th Baron Penrhyn, entitled to ornament the upper house? Any of the baron’s personal achievements, and no doubt there are many, are irrelevant to that ambition. Rather it can only advertise to anyone interested, the scale of his debt to earlier Douglas-Pennants, whose exploitation of 1,000 slaves funded, among other things, the Penrhyn estate in north Wales. After abolition, the family won the then vast sum of £14,683 17s 2d in compensation.

The National Trust, proprietors of the family’s hideous 19th-century new-build, offers some glimpses of his forebears. Richard Pennant, a dedicated anti-abolitionist, instructed staff to take care of his assets: “I do not wish the cattle nor the negroes to be overworked.”

On the bright side, the National Trust says of Penrhyn Castle: “You can’t help but be taken aback by the vast luxurious rooms, Gothic stairways and fine art on display. Hear tales of star-crossed lovers, sugar and slate fortunes and delve ‘below stairs’ into the Victorian kitchens.” If the National Trust now opens up, occasionally, about slave connections in its properties, it has yet to lose the habit of romanticising local servitude. It will be another valuable consequence of the current mass learning and re-evaluating, if the owners, charitable and private, of historic houses, abandon coy allusions to plantations, sugar trade and domestic routines, in exchange for honesty about the abject exploitation upon which they depended.

As for the hereditaries, it’s possible similar euphemisms left some of them not aware, or only dimly so, of the slave trade’s role in their family fortunes. Lord Gage of Firle Place, who has joined the register of genetically qualified, has said he was shocked to find, following UCL’s revelations, that his ancestor John Gage received £1,759 8s 11d compensation for 108 slaves. But since he hasn’t withdrawn his name, perhaps not quite as shocked as you’d expect.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

The Dark Side of British History You Weren’t Taught in School

Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes

Review finds thousands of papers detailing shameful acts were culled, while others were kept secret illegally

Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded.

Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.

The archive came to light last year when a group of Kenyans detained and allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion won the right to sue the British government. The Foreign Office promised to release the 8,800 files from 37 former colonies held at the highly-secure government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire.

The historian appointed to oversee the review and transfer, Tony Badger, master of Clare College, Cambridge, says the discovery of the archive put the Foreign Office in an “embarrassing, scandalous” position. “These documents should have been in the public archives in the 1980s,” he said. “It’s long overdue.” The first of them are made available to the public on Wednesday at the National Archive at Kew, Surrey.

The papers at Hanslope Park include monthly intelligence reports on the “elimination” of the colonial authority’s enemies in 1950s Malaya; records showing ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, including a case of aman said to have been “roasted alive”; and papers detailing the lengths to which the UK went to forcibly remove islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

However, among the documents are a handful which show that many of the most sensitive papers from Britain’s late colonial era were not hidden away, but simply destroyed. These papers give the instructions for systematic destruction issued in 1961 after Iain Macleod, secretary of state for the colonies, directed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”, that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers”, that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government”.

Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.

The documents that were not destroyed appear to have been kept secret not only to protect the UK’s reputation, but to shield the government from litigation. If the small group of Mau Mau detainees are successful in their legal action, thousands more veterans are expected to follow.

It is a case that is being closely watched by former Eoka guerillas who were detained by the British in 1950s Cyprus, and possibly by many others who were imprisoned and interrogated between 1946 and 1967, as Britain fought a series of rearguard actions across its rapidly dimishing empire.

The documents show that colonial officials were instructed to separate those papers to be left in place after independence – usually known as “Legacy files” – from those that were to be selected for destruction or removal to the UK. In many colonies, these were described as watch files, and stamped with a red letter W.

The papers at Kew depict a period of mounting anxiety amid fears that some of the incriminating watch files might be leaked. Officials were warned that they would be prosecuted if they took any any paperwork home – and some were. As independence grew closer, large caches of files were removed from colonial ministries to governors’ offices, where new safes were installed.

In Uganda, the process was codenamed Operation Legacy. In Kenya, a vetting process, described as “a thorough purge”, was overseen by colonial Special Branch officers.

Photo : National Archives

Clear instructions were issued that no Africans were to be involved: only an individual who was “a servant of the Kenya government who is a British subject of European descent” could participate in the purge.


Photo : National Archives

Painstaking measures were taken to prevent post-independence governments from learning that the watch files had ever existed. One instruction states: “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.”

When a single watch file was to be removed from a group of legacy files, a “twin file” – or dummy – was to be created to insert in its place. If this was not practicable, the documents were to be removed en masse. There was concern that Macleod’s directions should not be divulged – “there is of course the risk of embarrassment should the circular be compromised” – and officials taking part in the purge were even warned to keep their W stamps in a safe place.

Many of the watch files ended up at Hanslope Park. They came from 37 different former colonies, and filled 200 metres of shelving. But it is becoming clear that much of the most damning material was probably destroyed. Officials in some colonies, such as Kenya, were told that there should be a presumption in favour of disposal of documents rather than removal to the UK – “emphasis is placed upon destruction” – and that no trace of either the documents or their incineration should remain. When documents were burned, “the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up”.

Some idea of the scale of the operation and the amount of documents that were erased from history can be gleaned from a handful of instruction documents that survived the purge. In certain circumstances, colonial officials in Kenya were informed, “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”.

Photo : National Archives


Documents that survive from Malaya suggest a far more haphazard destruction process, with relatively junior officials being permitted to decide what should be burned and what should be sent to London.

Dr Ed Hampshire, diplomatic and colonial record specialist at the National Archive, said the 1,200 files so far transferred from Hanslope Park represented “gold dust” for historians, with the occasional nugget, rather than a haul that calls for instant reinterpretation of history. However, only one sixth of the secret archive has so far been transferred. The remainder are expected to be at Kew by the end of 2013.

Comments (13)

  • Anti-fascist says:

    The claims that youngsters were not taught about the slave trade and the British role in it is disingenuous nonsense.

    I taught from 1970 until 1984 in a comprehensive school in north-west England and my teaching covered both Joint Matriculation Board O Level and North West England CSE history courses.

    Both most definitely included the history of the Slave Trade, the standard textbook being “Machines, Money and Men” which had a relatively progressive chapter on the slave trade.

    There is much that is problematic about our education, especially since it has drifted out of public control, but we do not have to lie to expose its failings.

  • RC says:

    I find it tiresome that even such ‘progressives’ as the Marquis de Monbiot (they refugeed to the nearest reliably reactionary place – GB – in the 1790s) use racist phrases like Mau Mau for the Land Freedom Army (see a book by Rotberg et al published by Praeger when the US war against the British Empire still had some progressive aspects); they and their descendants are still penalized in land allocation and other discriminatory benefits. The British ‘divide and rule’ policy, applied with a heavy hand, worked well on Kikuyu people in particular. I remember reading the Daily Express in the mid 1950s; the language now reminds me of Nazi propaganda. The “Mau Mau” took oaths of loyalty to each other and their leadership!!!! – how unlike the Brits! and btw like the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were sentenced under the new Whig government for precisely that offence.

    Yes no wonder reactionaries and centrists are bleating that we mustn’t “destroy ‘our’ history”. Let us expose the criminals like Iain MacLeod and his accomplices to the best of our ability and those sections in the state bureaucracies who assisted in the cover-up. Burning records is irreparable, but I’m sure the files consigned in the Indian Ocean might be discovered. When the torture centres at the Hola concentration camp in Kenya came to public attention, it was Enoch Powell and Barbara Castle who denounced them in the HoC. The PLP hated her or this: {“the LP has always been an anti-racist party”? You must be joking. Overwhelmingly mperialist to a man and woman until the Movement for Colonial Freedom emerged ca 1950. See Newsinger’s long article, available on this website.}

    The SS made a point of destroying evidence of their crimes, too.

    What has this to do with JVL? You’ll hardly be surprised that the Israeli has a policy of reclassifying embarrassing documents which even a rabid advocate of ethnic cleansing like Benny Morris used and quoted to paint his picture (an apologetic one) of the Nakba.

  • Anne says:

    Nothing’s changed. That’s British Values for you. For example, subsidised by the unwitting majority of the population, UKplc sells more weaponry to whomsoever will pay the price than any nation except, guess who? The good ole US of A. Look at the violence on our screens, obsessive. We should stop telling our children about the horrors of the Past, thereby dragging the horrors into the equally appalling Now. We need a clean sweep, a fresh page. Whatever happened to ‘civilisation’? It hasn’t happened yet. One might plausibly assume that, having experienced the unspeakable, one would avoid inflicting similar. But no, violence breeds violence and it’s mainly a man thing. Social conditioning through the ages. Look at the clothes little boys are expected to wear: army camouflage and superhero biffbamwallop.

  • Stephen Williams says:

    I agree with Anti-fascist. I worked at Tulse Hill School in the 1970s; Black Studies was taught in the 6th form, and Black History (including Jamaican history) in the early years as part of our Humanities course. I taught James Baldwin and Caribbean poetry in my English lessons.
    In 1973, a group of us spent our summer holiday in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies leaning about Caribbean culture and history at first hand.
    Most of our pupils were the descendants of the Windrush generation and beyond and lived in Brixton.
    We had guest speakers from South Africa and, the West Indies. Mohammed Ali made a famous visit which received wide publicity. Paul Stephenson-of Bristol fame- was a governor for a short period and managed to persuade Mohammed Ali to visit, an event which received national attention.

    I’m not the only ex-teacher who is disappointed by the lack of respect shown to our contribution, small though it was. I suspect that our pupils were better informed than those of today.

  • David Stretton says:

    Thank you Anti-Fascist for exposing that lie about what was and what was not taught in schools…as a grammar school boy of the 1970s I remember learning about the slave trade…I was also taught Soviet/US history…those left teachers training up the next generation of KGB agents…

  • Philip Ward says:

    A brief reply to “anti-fascist”: George Monbiot’s contribution here covers colonial domination as well as slavery. I was taught nothing of this: in fact, living in Kenya as a child immediately after the Mau-Mau in knew very little of the colonial history. I could also add that how slavery and imperialism are covered is very important. It may be the case that there is some coverage in text books, but the message also depends on how teachers approach it. Although it is not in a school setting, I was struck recently by watching the Frederick Wiseman documentary on the National gallery where one of the guides said to a mainly black group of school children “of course we have to acknowledge that this collection was found on the proceeds of slavery” – full stop. Not really adequate.

    Reading about Francis Baring took me down a little rabbit hole. I remembered from my past in Kenya that we ate “Baring biscuits”, so – as you do – I looked for a connection. It turns out that Evelyn Baring – from another branch of the dynasty – was Governor of Kenya, overseeing all the torture and murder during the Mau-Mau uprising (I hadn’t clocked this: a sign of my lack of education on the matter). In a sense, he symbolises the link between all three items on this page, as he oversaw the destruction in Kenya of records of torture and murder referred to in the third article here.

    Evelyn Baring’s grand-daughter? One Mary Elizabeth Lalage Wakefield of Barnard Castle fame. Of course, she can’t help what her grandfather did. I don’t know if she’s ever publicly acknowledged or criticised it.

  • diane datson says:

    the truth of the matter that despite learning about the appalling atrocities that took place – or not learning about it – the majority of people are unaware and do not understand quite how awful it was. we need to learn more and move forward

    [People might start with Bernard Porter’s review article about Kenya How did they get away with it? in the LRB back in 2005 – JVL web]

  • M. Pirani says:

    As a 15 Yr old I witnessed British soldiers bulldozing hundreds of huts. Turned my politics

  • Philip Ward says:

    Thanks to RC for pointing out the issue with the term “Mau Mau”, which I and George Monbiot should not have used without qualifying its origins and the proper name: Land and Freedom Army.

    This is what my copy of “Mau Mau from Within” by Donald L Barnett and Karari Njama says, after an inconclusive discussion of how the term may have come to be used by the colonisers and what it means: “regardless of the origin or meaning of ‘Mau Mau’, and despite the fact that members of the Movement knew very well that the Government and the European press were referring to their association when they invoked this term, it was simply never accepted by Africans involved in the Movement as being anything other than the white man’s name for their association”. I’m not sure why the term is used as the title of the book – other than who it might be trying to reach.

    Oginga Odinga writes in “Not Yet Uhuru”: “those who participated in the struggle never called themselves ‘Mau Mau’ [and] … this became a term of abuse against every Kikuyu who did not volunteer for the government’s security forces and give proof of his [sic] loyalty to the government.”

  • Billie Dale Wakefield says:

    No history was taught in Bristol schools after 1914 when I was there, however, the curriculum did cover Bristol’s connection to the slave trade, and colonialism. During teaching practice in the late 70’s I was required to teach about the slave trade, my time in schools was very limited, so I have no idea whether colonialism was covered or not.

  • RC says:

    Much has been written here about the need to move on and put the unpleasant past behind us. Does this not remind you of the pleas of the Right of the Labour Party to forget the British (and American and the ‘coalition of the willing’) unprovoked aggression against Iraq of March 2003? In passing, and in reference to the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi mechanic who started the destruction – Kadhim al Jubouri – afterwards regretted not only the destruction of the statue but the wanton destruction of the Iraqi economy and society by the British and American invaders – and argued, as many Iraqis have, that Iraq would have been a better place had the AngloAmerican aggressors respected international law and refrained from their aggression. (These views were of course further validated by the Chilcott report.)

    Undeterred by the already appalling consequences of their crimes in Iraq (and indeed in Serbia), the British parliament (again including a majority of the PLP) voted to destroy the state and society of Libya.

    How can we deal with this pattern of recidivism not only on the part of the British state but also of the PLP and much of the LP membership – other than by a thorough analysis of the class nature of the British state and of the LP – and their place within the structure of world imperialism – and its reaction against Jeremy Corbyn and his noble, albeit moralistic, support for those subjected to perhaps the longest-lasting, most thoroughly calculated, and most technologically advanced imperialist oppression – the Palestinian people?

    It is folly to rely upon the amnesia proposed by the well-meaning contributors to this thread, and by the unrepentant apologists for British aggression, to understand these important aspects of British society, which go back to the days of Edward Colston – the early days of English capitalist imperialism.

    A tiny example is found in the controversy in this thread about the teaching British imperial history – not qua insult to our worthy history teachers, but in the almost Orwellian – and certainly Goveian – drive to moralise British history and emphasise that the British empire (ho-hum) was (and almost always has been ) on the right side – as ‘proven’ by the immense evil of the Third Reich. This in itself is taken by many to prove the goodness of the British empire – much more so than the British history of slavery (even including the consigning, as Palmerstone put it, of the oldest, slowest and leakiest tubs in the Royal Navy, to ‘moralise’ the British world naval supremacy and reinvigorate the imperialist excuse (found as far back as Roman propaganda against the Carthaginians and the Ancient Britons) of imposing ‘morality’ on the lower races by aggression. Of course, it took working class threats against MPs to vote for the 1807 abolition of slavery Act – suspending nooses outside their front doors – the MPs and the British state do not deserve the credit they have been given.. (though see Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery, 1944 for another angle on why British capitalism comes out of this history with no credit). Not to mention the fat sums paid to the slaveholders in compensation for their losses(!).

    To conclude on how easily history is falsified, just look at this astounding snippet found when I googled ‘Hola massacre Kenya 1959″:

    29 Sep 2017 – A British Labor MP by the name of Enoch Powell decided to bring the actions of the Kenya colonial government (and by extension the inaction of …}}google it yourself
    spotted the mistake? In hope so….

  • TM says:

    I truly respect the contributions to education noted above. I just wish I’d had such teachers myself. Engraved on my memory is a teacher who one day stood bolt upright in front of the class and declaimed ” gentlemen, I want you to know I am an Empire Loyalist”.
    This was the sixties. But I also later recall the wonderful work of Chris Searle. I’d like to know more as to the extent of genuinely fine teaching during the sixties and seventies.

  • Maureen Ho says:

    The history of British atrocities committed against the citizens of The Boer Republics, concentration camps and burning the veld etc, has been expunged from history.
    Imperialism was a crime against humanity and predicated on the 3 Gs ie Gold, God and Glory

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