Audra Diptée | The secret history of Jamaica’s Independence
As Jamaicans celebrate another year of political independence, some time should also be taken for sombre reflection on the nation’s history.
In my work as a historian, I have had the opportunity to read documents that Britain secretly removed from Jamaica in the months before it attained political independence in 1962.
This was done under the British policy called Operation Legacy. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, Britain imposed this policy on all its colonies – including Jamaica.
Less than five months before Jamaica attained independence in 1962, the Governor of Jamaica, Kenneth Blackburne, received instructions to “sift” the colonial records. He was to make sure that “the government of an independent Jamaica” would not have access to colonial files that would “embarrass” the British government.
Blackburne was expected to appoint a small committee of senior colonial officials, preferably born in Britain, to decide what colonial files should be destroyed or secretly removed.
Concerning the destruction of files, here are the exact instructions that Blackburne received: “As an alternative to fire it is permissible to pack documents in well weighted crates and sink them in deep and current free water … .”
NO COMPLETE LIST
There is no complete list of the files destroyed, and so we will never know what was so “embarrassing” to the British that it needed to be hidden from the people of Jamaica.
In 2011, this secret practice of destroying and removing colonial documents became public knowledge because of a court case in which several elderly Kenyans accused the British colonial government of severe human rights violations in the 1950s.
More insights about this case are in a short animated video that I wrote for TED Ed: https://ed.ted.com/lessons/why-did-the-british-empire-burn-sink-and-hide...
Fortunately, not all the documents were destroyed. Some were secretly removed and kept for several decades under high security at Hanslope Park in England.
Since 2011, these documents have been gradually made available to historians when they were moved to The National Archives of the United Kingdom.
What this means is that until recently, important historical documents were deliberately withheld from Caribbean historians as they tried to understand the region’s past.
Of the approximately 1,000 files that deal specifically with the Caribbean, one-third address Jamaica.
As part of my research project, I have launched a website that is gradually releasing these documents so that Caribbean researchers and nationals can access the Operation Legacy documents without having to make a trip to England.
Interested readers can view the documents processed to date on the project website: https://operationlegacyinthecaribbean.com/
So why would Britain develop a formal policy to hide colonial documents just before each of its colonies attained independence?
The answer is quite simple and can be found in the lyrics of a Bob Marley song known to every Jamaican. In Marley’s Redemption Song (1980), he appealed to his fans when he sang “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”.
Although Marley popularised these words, they are originally from a speech given by Marcus Garvey in 1937.
Long before we learnt about Operation Legacy, Jamaican heroes were warning about the importance of rejecting colonial perspectives.
In other words, the battleground for Jamaica’s future has always been the Jamaican mind. The British colonial office understood this reality and so controlling access to information was key to its relations with Jamaica after independence.
Jamaica might have gained its political independence in 1962, but the British government intended to continue using the Jamaican economy to serve British interests just as it did under colonialism.
Or as Michael Manley, another Jamaican hero, put it, “To understand today’s politics, one must always begin with yesterday’s economics.”
The British colonial office knew that it would be difficult for the people of Jamaica to break free of the economic chains that were put in place under colonialism if they lacked the records to fully understand British strategy and the negative consequences of colonialism.
The files taken under Operation Legacy also raise important questions about the fight for Caribbean reparations from European colonising countries. The inhumanity of slavery is well known to every Jamaican. An understanding of how the economic structures put in place under colonialism continue to affect Jamaican lives today is perhaps less clear.
Most of the documents in the Operation Legacy files focus on the 20th century and can help us better understand these economic legacies. These documents will provide even more evidence to Caribbean researchers who are relentlessly advocating for reparatory justice in the Caribbean.
As Jamaican celebrates another year of political independence, it is important to remember that the injustices of colonialism continued long after slavery. After all, the British colonial office destroyed countless twentieth-century documents under Operation Legacy precisely because it wanted the people of Jamaica to forget.
Audra A. Diptée is an associate professor and the coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program at Carleton University. To learn more about her research on Operation Legacy in the Caribbean, visit https://www.chainedinparadise.com and https://operationlegacyinthecaribbean.com/. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.