Foreign and Commonwealth Office migrated archives
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office migrated archives are sensitive and incriminating collections of documents from Britain's former colonial governments that were sent back to the UK (hence migrated) on the eve of decolonisation for storage in the FCO archives to avoid their disclosure and subsequent embarrassment to Her Majesty's Government. A great many similar documents were not repatriated, but instead destroyed.
Between 1963 and 1994 the migrated archives were stored in Hayes repository; in 1994 they were moved to Hanslope Park, home of Her Majesty's Government Communications Centre, to save on storage costs. In 1967, in 1974, and again in the early 1980s, Kenya asked for them to be released, but the UK refused.
Under the Public Records Act, documents are liable for release to the National Archives after 30 years. Up to 60 per cent of material is shredded and burnt at this stage. Less than 1 per cent is kept secret. Under the present rules, the Foreign Office may retain documents relating to intelligence, national security and defence. Some files transferred to the archives remain closed if they are deemed potentially harmful to international relations or contain personal information. Any decision to retain official documents is subject to scrutiny by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on National Records and Archives, a panel chaired by Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, the Master of the Rolls.
Once at Hanslope, reviewing documents for release is a job for 17 part-time "sensitivity reviewers", mostly retired Foreign Office officials; it is rare for a file to be judged sensitive enough to warrant withholding it in entirety. When it came to the migrated archives, however, the question of whether they fell within the scope of the 1958 Public Records Act was never answered definitively, and so they were conveniently left undisturbed in archival stasis.
In 2005, two Freedom of Information (FoI) requests were submitted to the FCO by researchers wanting Mau Mau-era government files. The second request was very specific, and did not warrant checking the migrated archives, but the first request should have warranted such a check, yet none was made. More seriously still, in 2006, lawyers for Leigh Day, the legal firm representing former Mau Mau members who were attempting to sue the UK for their torture during the uprising, submitted a Court Disclosure request for "a final tranche of documents relating to the suppression of the Mau Mau" that the government was "refusing to release"; the FCO response explicitly denied the existence of this tranche of documents, i.e. the migrated archives, stating that all information they had held had been transferred to The National Archives (TNA). The Treasury Solicitor's response to Leigh Day went even further, stating that not only were all relevant documents with TNA but that they were also in the public domain. It was only the persistence of a handful of FCO officials, notably Edward Inglett, and a witness statement by Oxford professor David Anderson in December 2010 alleging "systematic withholding by HMG of 1500 files in 300 boxes taking up 100 linear feet", that eventually resulted in the migrated archives coming to light in January 2011.
Upon their 'discovery', Foreign Secretary William Hague requested Anthony Cary, a former British High Commissioner to Canada, to conduct an internal review into why the migrated archives had been spotlighted neither by the FoI requests nor by the initial Court Disclosure request. Cary reported the following month, and outlined the background as follows:
As British dependent territories came to independence decisions had to be taken about which papers to destroy, which to leave for successor administrations, and which to ship back to the UK. The general rule, as set out in a Colonial Office guidance telegram of 3 May 1961 on the 'disposal of classified records and accountable documents', was the successor Governments should not be given papers which:
- might embarrass HMG or other Governments;
- might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers;
- might compromise sources of intelligence information; or
- might be used unethically by Ministers in the successor Government
In addition "There would be little object in handing over documents which would patently be of no value to the successor Government". A great many documents were destroyed on this basis, but others were returned to the UK. These became the so-called 'migrated archives', eventually totalling around 8,800 files.
Though sympathetic to the FCO, Cary's report nonetheless judged that despite the involvement of relatively junior staff, who had been genuinely ignorant about the contents of the migrated archives, there were more knowledgeable staff who had not been. Conveniently, in 2006, after the FoI requests came in, the 50-year-old migrated archives were relocated to the section for "FCO material of between 3 and 30 years old".
One excuse offered by the FCO for their failure to consult the files was that the ownership of the papers was confused, that the FCO merely possessed stewardship, thus the archives had been considered "out of bounds" for FoI requests (the FCO were not the owners, so they did not have the right to go through the documents). Cary, however, managed to uncover the fact that this was not the case, that there had been "major exceptions to the general principle that these papers have been considered 'out of bounds'." Such an excuse became irrelevant after the 2006 legal request from Leigh Day because all documents have to be checked when it comes to court cases. "It was perhaps convenient to [think] that the migrated archives . . . did not need to be consulted for the purposes of FOI requests, while also being conscious of the files as a sort of guilty secret, of uncertain status and in the 'too difficult' tray", Cary concluded.
After making Cary's report public in May 2011, Hague declared his "intention to release every part of every paper of interest subject only to legal exemptions"; "the sooner the better", urged David Anderson. Edward Inglett conveyed "sincere and unreserved apologies on the FCO's behalf to both the claimants and the court", and the Foreign Office promised a "process of transparency" and the appointment by Hague of an independent "colonial files tsar" to oversee the release as a matter of urgency.
The search that turned up the "lost" documents on Mau Mau revealed a second raft of documents had also been "lost" and, hopefully, also therefore awaited discovery. This second batch included files on: the rebellion against British rule in Cyprus; Special Branch; the Colonial Office's use of witch doctors during Mau Mau; Uganda; Nigeria; and Sierra Leone. This second batch were labelled "Top Secret" and held separately from the other files "migrated" from former colonies, which suggests they contain the most sensitive and incriminating material.
The process of removal/destruction
Documents that were to be left to post-independence governments, known as "legacy files", were separated from "watch files", which were marked for destruction or repatriation. In Uganda, the process was codenamed Operation Legacy; in Kenya, the process was described as "a thorough purge" and directed by colonial Special Branch officers. Africans were forbidden from involvement: only "a servant of the Kenya government who is a British subject of European descent" could participate. The watch-file instructions also made clear to leave no trace of their existence to successor governments: "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." If possible, a dummy file was inserted to ensure file and page numbering was uninterrupted by the cull; when too many dummies were needed, they simply removed or destroyed the entire section. In Kenya, instructions insisted that "emphasis is placed upon destruction", meaning much of the most shocking material was probably destroyed, and "the waste should be reduced to ash and the ashes broken up", so that not even a trace of the destruction was left. Large quantities of files were also "packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast". Malaya's purge was less rigorous, and was facilitated by less experienced officials.
Reaction and contents
Cary's report and the documents initially released had shown that, on 3 December 1963, nine days before Kenya formally declared independence, three wooden packing crates containing 1,500 highly sensitive government files were loaded on to a British United Airways flight bound for Gatwick. On the eve of Kenya's independence, Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod ordered that sensitive colonial-government documentation be destroyed or flown out of the country because its disclosure "might embarrass Her Majesty's Government". "Embarrassment hardly covers it," remarked a Times editorial, noting that "the covert history of colonial administration in Kenya bears comparison to the methods of torture and summary execution in the French war in Algeria." In April 2011, the government officially admitted for the first time not merely to having relevant Mau Mau documents, but that it had a total of 8,800 files from 37 ex-colonies, which it would make public in batches from April 2012 to November 2013. The Times opined: "Even given the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's apparent skill in such matters, it is quite a feat to ignore 300 boxes of documents filling 110ft of shelving for almost half a century."
David Anderson, describing the Mau Mau initial 2011 revelations as just a start, emphasised that other former British domains, including Malaya, Cyprus, and the Gulf States, likewise await a final reckoning, and that colonial personnel and tactics subsequently made their way into the policing of The Troubles. In particular, noted Aileen McColgan, the techniques alleged in 1950s Kenya were refined into what are now known as the "five techniques" for use in internment in 1970s Northern Ireland: wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink. She went on to note: "The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1977 that Britain had breached Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and 'inhuman and degrading treatment', by the use of the five techniques in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, told the Commons in 1972 that the techniques would never again be used 'as an aid to interrogation', a commitment reiterated before the European Court."
After the Cary investigation, Hague appointed Cambridge's Tony Badger as "colonial files tsar" to oversee the review and transfer of the hidden files to the public domain. The Foreign Office duly released a first batch of more than 1,200 records from 12 former colonial territories in April 2012, a portion of some 10,000 files that Britain removed from 37 of its colonies. Badger described the migrated archives episode as "embarrassing, scandalous. . . . These documents should have been in the public archives in the 1980s. It's long overdue." Harvard's Caroline Elkins observed: "At the time, Britain was in the middle of parallel, massive cover-ups. While the government was besieged publicly with allegations of brutalities in the detention camps and the cover-up of systematised violence—and denying all allegations—it was culling and purging the record. The process—practised in other colonies as well—deliberately sought to remove incriminating evidence. So, too, did it seek to shape the future colonial archive and the realities it would produce."
It is not the first time a UK government department has systematically withheld files regarding British colonial crimes—and not the first time that Professor Anderson has been involved in challenging it. As he and two colleagues noted in 2006 after their reconstruction of the Chuka massacre: "Evidence on these events should have been released into the Public Record Office in 1984. The file was withheld by the Ministry of Defence and marked for closure until 2038. . . . But not everything on this [Chuka] file has been revealed: and that raises tough questions about the culpability of the British Army in colonial war crimes, official secrecy, and the inadequacies of Freedom of Information legislation". In 2009, British taxpayers were presented with a £1 million bill after the Ministry of Defence failed to disclose relevant evidence in a 2009 court case involving allegations of murder by British troops in Iraq.
The Guardian stated:
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.
As the Guardian's summary shows, even after the first 2012 release of Tony Badger's review, the FCO continued to deny the existence of documentation on the repeated British subversion of democracy in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s, though Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King's College London, said this was simply not credible: "When Kenyan historians requested documents in the past, they were told repeatedly by the FCO that they had been destroyed, only for the FCO, under judicial pressure, to yield them. It is to be hoped that the FCO will at some point 'discover' its British Guiana archive. Already, under my pressure, having asserted that it held no British Guiana materials whatsoever, the FCO has found one document which describes 'a formidable schedule of documents which the Governor of British Guiana sent home in April 1966 showing how the accountable documents in his custody were disposed of '." Elkins agreed that it was "frankly impossible, given that there were well-established procedures for handling archives at decolonisation by the 1960s. Warning bells should be going off." Drayton also noted that the FCO "refuses to make public the full inventory of the Hanslope Park archive. While we have full confidence in Professor Badger, many historians now wonder if he was not handed an archive which, once again, had been screened and culled." Drayton further mused that "it was almost as if the material now made public had also been screened according to the same criteria applied c. 1960—preventing potential prosecutions, protecting collaborators, and protecting the reputation of Britain."
There was wide agreement that the FCO was still withholding files. Keith Flett said: "It is likely to be correct that despite William Hague's professed policy of transparency towards the release of government files from the colonial era that far from everything will be released and it will depend on the skills of historians to spot gaps in the record." Elkins, who, like Anderson, is an expert witness for the Mau Mau legal action, highlighted the need for caution, and wrote of her involvement with trying to get files out of the foreign office for analysis back at Harvard: "This process has been anything but straightforward. Despite the legal context, the FCO has culled files, requiring multiple requests for full disclosure, and still files have not been forthcoming." Of the April 2012 release, she noted that it "excludes territories such as Palestine and Rhodesia. The Cyprus files exclude the period of the emergency. The Malaya files cover very little of the contested emergency years. The Kenya documents are a meagre subset of the files released (though culled) in the context of the Mau Mau case. For all 12 colonies covered in today's release, there appears to be a great deal pertaining to finance, tourism, administration and the like. . . . The first release of the 'migrated archives' is, at first glance, lacking in substantive files, particularly for former colonies like Cyprus and Malaya where future lawsuits potentially loom."
The Aden material was ludicrous. Given the extent [of] torture and ill-treatment, detention and protest in that colony in its latter years, it was laughable to see the released files having to do with fisheries. . . . It seems to me that the whole release is a whitewash intended to mollify critics and save the government from embarrassment.
Journalist Ian Cobain and others suggested that, owing to the nature of the British withdrawal from the Colony of Aden, the incriminating material may, instead of being withheld, actually have been more comprehensively destroyed at the time of decolonisation, rather than migrated.
Badger accepted that historians believed the FCO was "up to its old tricks again", and added: "Given the failure of the Foreign Office to acknowledge the existence of the migrated archives, I understand the legacy of suspicion. It is difficult to overestimate the degree of suspicion."
Ominously, the Guardian noted:
In a number of colonies, as files were destroyed a certificate was completed and sent to London to show that the job had been done. Could these certificates also be stored at Hanslope Park, providing a glimpse of the contents of each file that was destroyed? The FCO was refusing to say on Tuesday, and insisted that any queries about such certificates should be the subject of an freedom of information request. Furthermore, Cary's report states that a separate inquiry is now examining the fate of a number of files that were lost or destroyed after they were returned to the UK. The FCO failed to answer a number of questions about that inquiry, stating only that the files remained missing despite an extensive search.
David Anderson expressed alarm at the Foreign Office refusal to release the index of the files that might enable historians to know what is missing.
Regarding the Mau Mau Uprising, the records included confirmation of "the extent of the violence inflicted on suspected Mau Mau rebels" in British detention camps documented in Caroline Elkins' study. Numerous allegations of murder and rape by British military personnel are recorded in the files, including an incident where an African baby was "burnt to death", the "defilement of a young girl", and a soldier in Royal Irish Fusiliers who killed "in cold blood two people who had been his captives for over 12 hours". Baring himself was aware of the "extreme brutality" of the sometimes-lethal torture meted out—which included "most drastic" beatings, solitary confinement, starvation, castration, whipping, burning, rape, sodomy, and forceful insertion of objects into orifices—but took no action. Baring's inaction was despite the urging of people like Arthur Young, Commissioner of Police for Kenya for less than eight months of 1954 before he resigned in protest, that "the horror of some of the [camps] should be investigated without delay". In February 1956, a provincial commissioner in Kenya, "Monkey" Johnson, wrote to Attorney General Reginald Manningham-Buller urging him to block any enquiry into the methods used against Mau Mau: "It would now appear that each and every one of us, from the Governor downwards, may be in danger of removal from public service by a commission of enquiry as a result of enquiries made by the CID." The April 2012 release also included detailed accounts of the policy of seizing livestock from Kenyans suspected of supporting Mau Mau rebels.
Commenting on the papers, David Anderson stated that the "documents were hidden away to protect the guilty", and "that the extent of abuse now being revealed is truly disturbing." "Everything that could happen did happen. Allegations about beatings and violence were widespread. Basically you could get away with murder. It was systematic", Anderson said. An example of this impunity is the case of eight colonial officials accused of having prisoners tortured to death going unpunished even after their crimes were reported to London. Huw Bennett of King's College London, who had worked with Anderson on the Chuka massacre, said in a witness statement to the court that the new documents "considerably strengthen" the knowledge that the British Army were "intimately involved" with the colonial security forces, whom they knew were "systematically abusing and torturing detainees in screening centres and detention camps". In April 2011, lawyers for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office continued to maintain that there was no such policy. As early as November 1952, however, military reports noted that "[t]he Army has been used for carrying out certain functions that properly belonged to the Police, eg. searching of huts and screening of Africans", and British soldiers arrested and transferred Mau Mau suspects to camps where they were beaten and tortured until they confessed. Bennett said that "the British Army retained ultimate operational control over all security forces throughout the Emergency", and that its military intelligence operation worked "hand in glove" with the Kenyan Special Branch "including in screening and interrogations in centres and detention camps".
The Kenyan government sent a letter to Hague insisting that the UK government was legally liable for the atrocities. The Foreign Office, however, reaffirmed its position that it was not, in fact, liable for colonial atrocities, and argued that the documents had not "disappeared" as part of a cover up. Nearly ten years before, in late 2002, as the BBC aired a damning documentary on British crimes committed during the rebellion and 6,000 depositions had been taken for the legal case, former district colonial officer John Nottingham had expressed concern that compensation be paid soon, since most victims were in their 80s and would soon pass away. He told the BBC: "What went on in the Kenya camps and villages was brutal, savage torture. It is time that the mockery of justice that was perpetrated in this country at that time, should be, must be righted. I feel ashamed to have come from a Britain that did what it did here [in Kenya]."
The April 2012 documents suggested that the British never intended peace talks with the rebels to succeed. The UK conspired with its Seychelles colony to deport the troublesome Archbishop Makarios even as the talks took place.
Plans for chemical warfare testing in Botswana
In 1943, Britain planned to test a "very virulent" type of poison gas in what was Bechuanaland (now Botswana). On 6 June 1943, Harold Eddey Priestman, Administrative Secretary to the High Commissioner in South Africa, sent a hand-written letter, marked "secret and personal", to Aubrey Denzil Forsyth-Thompson, Resident Commissioner of Bechuanaland, in which he explained: "Certain types of poison gas are being manufactured in the union [South Africa] on UK account. The UK Ministry of Aircraft Production have now asked that practical trials may be carried out on a considerable scale. . . . We understand this poison gas is a very virulent type. It would therefore be necessary 1) to preclude access to the experimental area for a considerable time after the experiments had ceased. 2) and also to take into consideration any danger of the gas being carried by wind to areas adjacent to the experimental area."
The British looked for an "isolated area" within "reasonable distance" of an air base, that had a 15-mile buffer zone with no water sources, and that was "comparatively free from vegetation". Nowhere suitable could be found in South Africa, but they provisionally settled on somewhere in the Makgadikgadi Pan. Forsyth-Thompson later said that he was unwilling to consider testing in that area because it was surrounded by farms and it would be impossible to maintain secrecy. Under the codename of FORENSIC, air-launched trials were envisaged, but the approach of the rainy season prevented testing from going ahead. There is currently no evidence FORENSIC was actually executed.
- Ben Macintyre (5 April 2011). "50 years later: Britain's Kenya cover-up revealed". The Times. Retrieved 6 April 2011.
- Cary 2011, p. 2.
- Ben Macintyre (5 April 2011). "Tales of brutality and violence that could open the claims floodgate". The Times. Retrieved 6 April 2011. "A letter was sent to William Hague on March 31 stating: 'The Republic of Kenya fully supports the claimants' case and has publicly denied any notion that responsibility for any acts and atrocities committed by the British colonial administration during the Kenya 'Emergency' was inherited by the Republic of Kenya.' "
- Macintyre, Ben (16 April 2011). "Mau Mau and so much more: inside the Foreign Office house of secrets". The Times. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
- Cary 2011, pp. 8–9.
- Cary 2011, pp. 9–10.
- Cary 2011, p. 10.
- Macintyre, Ben (9 April 2011). "One Foreign Office worker's dogged pursuit of 'missing' Mau Mau files". The Times. Retrieved 29 May 2012. "If the 35-year-old Kenya desk officer at the Africa department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had not made it his mission to find the 1,500 missing files, they would still be lying in secret archives at Hanslope Park. . . . Mr Inglett was told by IMG, repeatedly, that there was no trace of the files. Finally, on January 13, he announced that he was coming to Hanslope Park, with a lawyer, to find the files himself. Three days later, the files were found."
- Ben Macintyre; Billy Kenber (12 April 2011). "Foreign Office says sorry for misplacing Mau Mau papers". The Times. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
- Cary 2011, p. 1.
- David Anderson, David (23 June 2009). "Mau Mau claim will be fought every step of the way". The Times. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
- Cary 2011, p. 14.
- Cary 2011, p. 5.
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- BBC News (9 May 2011). "Mau Mau torture files were 'guilty secret'". Retrieved 12 May 2011.
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- Macintyre, Ben; Kenber, Billy (15 April 2011). "Hundreds more top secret files missing in Mau Mau abuse case". The Times. Retrieved 26 May 2012. "In a statement to the court dated March 8, released to The Times yesterday, Martin Tucker, head of corporate records at the Foreign Office, reported that the 13 missing boxes could not be found. 'There were at one time a further 13 boxes of material retrieved from Kenya at independence which are additional to the documents discovered in Hanslope Park [the closed Foreign Office repository in Buckinghamshire] in January of this year,' he wrote. He found evidence that the files had once been stored in the basement of the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall, but traces of them had vanished after 1995."
- Cobain; Bowcott, Owen; Norton-Taylor, Richard (18 April 2012). "Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 May 2012.
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- Macintyre, Ben (8 April 2011). "Archive at 'spook central' had secret Mau Mau files". The Times. Retrieved 30 May 2012. "On Tuesday night, Lord Howell of Guildford, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister, made a statement acknowledging for the first time that it was 'general practice for the colonial administration to transfer to the United Kingdom, shortly before independence, selected documents which were not appropriate to hand on to the successor Government'."
- "End of empire". The Economist. 21 April 2012. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
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- Anderson, Bennett & Branch 2006.
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- Caroline Elkins (14 April 2011). "My critics ignored evidence of torture in Mau Mau detention camps". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
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- Question, House of Lords, London 12 May 1959 – 'Whether the Government will make available to this House the text of the Cowan plan' | http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1959/may/12/deaths-in-kenya-detention-camp
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- For more on Anderson's reaction to the 'missing' papers, see:
- "Colonial secret papers to be made public". BBC News. 6 May 2011. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
- Mark Thompson (7 April 2011). "Mau Mau blame 'goes right to the top'". Today. BBC. 02:38–03:31. Retrieved 12 May 2011. "These new documents were withheld because they were considered to be particularly sensitive, so we can but imagine what will be in these documents. . . . Senior members of the Commonwealth Office in London did know what was happening; senior legal officials in London did, to some extent, sanction the use of coercive force; and also, at Cabinet level, the Secretary of State for the Colonies certainly knew of the excesses that were taking place." (The quote is of Anderson).
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- Malvern, Jack; Kenber, Billy (18 April 2012). "Poison gas tests planned for site in Botswana". The Times. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
- Norton-Taylor, Richard (18 April 2012). "Britain planned poison gas tests in Botswana, records reveal". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 May 2012.
- Anderson, David (2011). "Mau Mau in the High Court and the 'Lost' British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39 (5): 699–716. doi:10.1080/03086534.2011.629082.
- Anderson, David; Bennett, Huw; Branch, Daniel (2006). "A Very British Massacre". History Today 56 (8): 20–22.
- Bennett, Huw (2011). "Soldiers in the Court Room: The British Army's Part in the Kenya Emergency under the Legal Spotlight". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39 (5): 717–730. doi:10.1080/03086534.2011.629083.
- Cary, Anthony (24 February 2011). "Report on Migrated Archives". Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
- Elkins, Caroline (2011). "Alchemy of Evidence: Mau Mau, the British Empire, and the High Court of Justice". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39 (5): 731–748. doi:10.1080/03086534.2011.629084.