‘Operation Legacy’: Britain’s Destruction and Concealment of Colonial Records Worldwide

Shohei Sato*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


The end of the British Empire in the mid-twentieth century was accompanied by a large-scale rearrangement of sensitive colonial records worldwide. A great number of these records were destroyed and a sizeable portion sent to Britain to be kept secret. This article advances studies of this policy, eventually code-named ‘Operation Legacy’, by reading the ‘migrated archives’ that have been newly discovered and declassified in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 141 series. It asks where the policy was decided, for what reason and how it was carried out. Sources suggest that the policy was not planned in the Colonial Office in London and delivered to the colonies in a hierarchical fashion, but, rather, significant elements of the policy were developed in the colonial governments overseas in response to each local context. The general idea was to save Britain’s honour and to protect its collaborators. However, the limitations in terms of time and manpower often prevented the officers from putting sufficient thought into the actual screening of the documents. At the same time, some officers demonstrated a level of historical awareness regarding their actions. The episode reminds us that the official mind as it relates to decolonisation is to be understood not only by reference to the highest levels of strategic planning but also in terms of how it worked at the lower levels, in the colonial administrations on the ground.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)697-719
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Jul 4
Externally publishedYes


  • FCO special collections
  • Memory
  • collaboration
  • imperial legacy
  • official mind
  • race
  • secrecy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Development
  • Political Science and International Relations


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