A couple of years ago, while in Kenya, I read Imperial Reckoning, a history of the British war on the Mau Mau rebellion. It turned my stomach. I had thought of the British as pretty enlightened colonialists, repressive in a patriarchal way, but leaving a good legacy of schools and laws. I had to do a serious reevaluation when I learned how brutal, bloody and violent the colonial administration was, systematically abusing and executing many thousands without any real due process, and locking up hundreds of thousands in what amounted to concentration camps.
Caroline Elkins, the Harvard historian who wrote Imperial Reckoning, had to cobble together the story through oral interviews and a few stray documents that had survived in the archives. That’s because a vast share of the colonial documents from that period had disappeared. Their disappearance was as damning a fact as any, I thought—as British officials are good at keeping records, to my knowledge.
But now, amazingly, the documents have been discovered—boxes and boxes of them, in the British government’s archives. They had been there all along, “lost” despite multiple legal requests for documents relating to the Mau Mau rebellion. It was a “guilty secret,” as a government report put it.
As historians now have access to these documents, it will be extremely interesting (to me, anyway) what new facts come out. We still don’t know whether how complete the records are.
I do know this: government secrets are too often for the benefit of the government—and especially when they have something to be guilty about. Since 9/11 we’ve gone backwards in terms of open access to information. In some cases that may be necessary, but I’m willing to bet that in more cases it’s just a cover up. (I’m influenced in this by extensive reading in Civil Rights history, learning how vicious and anti-American the FBI was all those years of my youth when it was lauded for protecting America from dangerous elements.)