Operation Legacy

Operation Legacy was a British Colonial Office (later Foreign Office) program to destroy or hide files, to prevent them being inherited by its ex-colonies.[1][2] It ran from the 1950s until the 1970s, when the decolonisation of the British Empire was at its height.[3]

As decolonisation progressed, British officials were keen to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment that had been caused by the overt burning of documents that took place in New Delhi in 1947, which had been covered by Indian news sources. On 3 May 1961, Iain Macleod from the UK Colonial Office, wrote a telegram to all British embassies to advise them on the best way to retrieve and dispose of sensitive documents.[4]

All secret documents in the colonial administrations were vetted by MI5 or Special Branch agents to ensure those that might embarrass the British government, e.g. those that showed racial or religious bias, were destroyed or sent to the United Kingdom.[5] Precise instructions were given for methods to be used for destruction, including burning and dumping at sea.[5] Some of the files detailed torture methods used against opponents of the colonial administrations, e.g., during the Mau Mau Uprising.[6]

Academic study of the end of the British Empire has been assisted in recent years by the declassification of the migrated archives in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 141 series. After the UK government admitted in 2011 that it had secret documents related to the Mau Mau Uprising, it began to declassify documents and by November 2013 some 20,000 files had been declassified. These documents can now be accessed at the National Archives in Kew, London.[7]


  1. ^ "Erasing Empire - Jacobin".
  2. ^ Cobain, Ian (1 September 2016). The History Thieves: Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation. Granta Publications. ISBN 9781846275845 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ "Operation Legacy: How Britain Destroyed Thousands Of Colonial Files". 9 January 2014.
  4. ^ Winston, George (2014-01-09). "Operation Legacy: How Britain Destroyed Thousands Of Colonial Files". WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  5. ^ a b "Revealed: How British Empire's dirty secrets went up in smoke in the". 29 November 2013.
  6. ^ Cobain, Ian; Bowcott, Owen; Norton-Taylor, Richard (17 April 2012). "Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes". The Guardian – via The Guardian.
  7. ^ Sato, Shohei (2017-04-11). "'Operation Legacy': Britain's Destruction and Concealment of Colonial Records Worldwide". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. 0 (4): 697–719. doi:10.1080/03086534.2017.1294256. ISSN 0308-6534.

External linksEdit

"Mau Mau". Radiolab. WNYC. July 3, 2015. Retrieved August 1, 2017.