Home >Opinion >A great pall of smoke, history and memories

In 1961, a circular was sent to the British authorities in eastern Africa with instructions on how to deal with colonial archives. As decolonization took place all over the African continent and nations transitioned to sovereignty, imperial authorities now had to deal with the prospect of handing over archives to successor governments. The circular implored authorities not to transfer documents that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government or other governments" or “might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others".

What, then, to do with these colonial-era documents? In a 2013 interview with Vice News’ Katie Engelbert, Mandy Banton, once a specialist in colonial archives in the British government’s National Archives, told riveting stories of the deception that took place in the waning years of empire. Independence, Banton said, was accompanied by a great pall of smoke over New Delhi as retreating British authorities lit bonfires of secret documents. A decade later, when Malaya was freed, administrators, having learnt from their mistakes in Delhi, decided to use an incinerator. Unfortunately for the British, the only incinerator operating in Malaya was manned by a group of Malays. Thus, five trucks worth of documents were rushed to Singapore where, Banton believes, they were destroyed in a British naval incinerator.

As for the eastern African documents, several colonial records were either destroyed before transfer of power, or shipped to London and placed in secret archives, often in blatant violation of the law. It would be decades before the UK government admitted to their existence.

However, it was not only at the moment of decolonization that the empire sought to bury records. In the 16 December 2017 issue of the Economic And Political Weekly, historian Sana Aziz published a fascinating profile of the National Archives of India (NAI). This month, NAI celebrates the 128th anniversary of its establishment. In the essay, Aziz described “the evolution of the archives, from an organization that articulated the colonial administration’s power—subtly regulating and colonizing not only the writing of history but also the minds of the colonized—to a postcolonial institution of preservation after independence".

For readers of Indian history, Aziz’s essay is a call for caution. Indeed, the British imperial project in India was nothing if not a massive exercise in documentation. Anyone who has had a chance to use the National Archives in Delhi or The British Library in London will attest to the voluminous archives of empire that are today accessible to researchers.

However, as Aziz succinctly puts it, these archives were much more than “an administrative tactic". They were also exercises in memory subversion and memory creation. Aziz illustrates this with several examples, of which I will pick one.

Following the defeat of Tipu Sultan, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, a Scotsman in the East India Company army, was appointed to survey parts of south India that subsequently fell into British hands. By the time Mackenzie died in 1821, he had assembled a substantial personal archive of thousands of south Indian texts, drawings and over 6,000 coins.

On Mackenzie’s death, one would have expected the colonial authorities to let his former team of native experts and assistants carry on working on the vast collection. Instead, it was taken away from them and handed over to British scholars of questionable expertise. When one of the assistants, Kavali Venkata Lakshmaiah, requested access and some research funding to continue his work, the request was rejected on the ground that Lakshmaiah’s qualifications or those of “any native could hardly be pronounced equal to such a task". At best, it said, the natives could provide auxiliary assistance. Later, the new British curators dismissed the collection as having little historical value. The texts, they said, provided “definitive proof that Indians were incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood".

Note the twin imperial strategies here. Not only is the native labelled incapable of historical scholarship, the native archive is dismissed as worthless, clearing the way for the indisputable place of the imperial archive. But this also means that the imperial archive only remembers what it wants to. As Aziz writes, “Since Indians were perceived as lacking intellect, their practices were deemed unfit for documentation. Sexual practices, gender relations and a variety of such issues in India were given exclusionist treatment." Thus, modern historians are faced with particular challenges if they wish to understand a host of issues in pre-British India.

What does this mean for modern historians? As Aziz points out, it means that colonial archives, for all their seductive abundance, must be handled with caution. They say many things, but also leave plenty unsaid. Native archives, manuscripts, coins, inscriptions and other sources must be recorded, catalogued and conserved with particular care. For these sources can often tell us stories that have been deliberately left out of records that look, feel and sound more authoritative. As we fling snippets of colonial texts at each other in the course of arguments on history, let us not forget that those texts have complex origins and motives.

But most of all, Aziz’s essay and Banton’s words remind us that the spectre of colonialism is not easily subdued. The yoke of empire may have been shrugged off, but its crushing load lingers on in our memories, archives and histories.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at

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