People sometimes criticise imperialists but they forget that running an empire places great burdens on the shoulders of those so doing. There’s the training of administrators and enforcers in expensive schools like Eton and Sandhurst; there’s the loneliness of imperial wives, finding themselves sometimes thousands of miles away from a good handbag shop; and finally there’s the messy business of withdrawal, after you’ve shown the locals how civilized people behave.
The point is exemplified in today’s Guardian newspaper. It reports how Eric Griffiths-Jones, the attorney general of the British administration in Kenya, wrote in 1957 to the governor, detailing how they planned to subtly alter the regime at the colony’s detention camps. “Vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys” and the people administering the violence “should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate”. And very, very quiet. “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”.
These and other documents from former British colonies were hidden and their existence denied until last year, despite the fact that put together, the files would create a tower 200 metres in height.
But this is what I mean – it’s not easy either to run a colony or to cover your tracks, and the people who do so are not given the credit they deserve. Look at the work they had to do. Some files were shredded, some dumped at sea, many burnt – and then there were those hidden ones whose existence had to be denied time after time. It’s not easy telling lies for more than half a century, you know.
I remember the 1950s. We got out of school to see a documentary film about the queen’s visit to Kenya. There were lots of shots of the royal person and a dramatic reconstruction of the ghastly Mau Maus, who made people eat chopped worms and such. Which meant there wasn’t room in that documentary or others for a report on claims of a massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by the Scots Guards in 1948. No room either for a re-enactment of scenes from a secret torture centre in British Guiana, but that’s understandable: the British authorities didn’t get that up and running until the 1960s. And do you know, we left the cinema way back then not having heard a thing about the systematic torture, castration and killing of Mau Mau suspects by the British authorities in Kenya.
What am I saying? I’m saying you just pause and think about all those documents, all that work, all those interrogations and “eliminations” to be got through, for so little thanks, and the missus as often as not without a decent handbag to her name. Truly, it was an unjust world. Or do I mean is?