The British Empire Library

British Documents On The End Of Empire

by Various

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.H.M Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-66, Lecturer in Modern History of Africa, Oxford University)
The period of 'transfer of power' represents essentially the years from tidal 1948 (Palestine and Ceylon) through the African waves of the 1960s into the Pacific ripples of the 1970s and beyond - with all the rest, from Caribbean swells and Mediterranean breakers to Atlantic rivulets in between. While, unlike World War I and II, there is no official history of the latter day British Empire, there does exist a vast (if incomplete) archive of official papers in the Public Record Office (PRO). Under present regulations, these are closed for at least thirty (it was fifty only a short while ago) years. This means, for instance, that the records on the decolonization of Ghana have only just been opened; those on Nigeria are in the process; and all those on the Central African Federation may only - or, perhaps like Cyprus and Aden, may not - become open to public scrutiny well into the 1990s.

Originating in a suggestion made at an international historians' conference on the transfer of power in 1985, and with the superb India and Burma record (14 volumes in all) as a precedent, the British Documents on the End of Empire (happily B-DEEP for short) was embarked upon with funding from, notably, the British Academy and, appropriately, under the direction of the Smuts Professor of Commonwealth (earlier Imperial) History at Cambridge University, Professor Anthony Low. Scholars to cover the inaugural round of places and periods were approached and long hours of research were then spent in the PRO at Kew. While privileged access to files not yet ready for release was not on offer, the PRO staff went out of their way, like the publishing HMSO, to co-operate.

The first fruits of this major research project, under the general editorship of Professor David Murray and Dr Stephen Ashton, have recently appeared. These are The Labour Government and the End of Empire 1945-1951 (4 volumes, some 1,700 pages) in the General Series and Ghana 1941-1952 (2 vols. 850 pp. approx.) in the Country Series, immaculately edited by Ronald Hyam and by Richard Rathbone respectively. Each contains a substantial, brilliant, scene-setting Introduction, with short summaries and thematic division of the copious verbatim documents that follow - Colonial Office and Cabinet minutes, memoranda, despatches, correspondence, etc. Frank, revealing and informative, these original documents are far removed from anodyne Government White Papers or dull diplomatic doublespeak. Each volume also carries a useful chronology and a valuable 'Who's Who' of the dramatis personae involved, as well as a workmanlike index.

Further volumes include Colonial Policy and Practice 1924-1945 and The Conservative Government and the End of Empire 1951-1957', and, in the Country Series, studies of Ceylon, Sudan and Malaya, along with a volume on Egypt and the Defence of the Middle East. As further funding is found, we may expect case-studies of the transfer of power in, say, Nigeria and Kenya, and maybe a major territory in the Caribbean. What happens about Hong Kong is probably not yet even a gleam in the B-DEEP eye! A bonus to follow-up researchers will be the handbooks of the CO, CRO, Treasury and Cabinet records. What is lacking, of course (and the title of the series consciously accepts this) is the documentary evidence from, as it were, the other side of the story: the archives from, if you like, Kuala Lumpur to Khartoum. On the one hand, at a price of 60 pound a volume, these are not the kind of books you and I are likely to run out and exchange for a birthday book token or even save up 300 for. Yet on the other hand, here is the raw material from which history was made - history in the making of which many of us who worked in the empire were, however marginally, likely to have been involved, without for a moment realizing half that was going on behind the scenes in Whitehall and Westminster. So what do we do now? Well, for a start, how about three cheers for (and a request to) our Public Libraries?

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