In December 1961, only thirty-four members of the colonial service in Kenya had access to the government’s top-secret records. Fifteen of those with privileged clearance were women. Mostly personal secretaries, and three listed as officers, these women were authorized not only to handle documents but to decide which of them to feed to an incinerator or to covertly ship to London in order to conceal evidence of the brutal colonial war that had recently ended. Commending their work, the Minister of Defence in Kenya congratulated the secretaries: “We like to think that in these matters we are as Caesar’s wife.” In London, library staff from the UK Colonial Office received these documents, alongside tens-of-thousands of others from across Britain’s shrinking empire, and preserved the secrecy enshrouding them for decades to come. One such librarian, Elizabeth Blayney, played a critical role in keeping them inaccessible to the peoples and governments of former British colonies throughout the 1970s and 80s. Trained during WWII through the Special Operations Executive’s cooperation with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, Blayney had supported the development of intelligence systems across south and east Asia before becoming a librarian. She was one of many young women, the average age was 19, deployed to British colonies under the auspices of wartime mobilization.
The little I know about the above people and their participation in late colonial activity arose from previous archival research that reconstructed the UK’s programmatic concealment of colonial-era records. It became clear that not only had women played an important role trying to protect/navigate/undermine British hegemonic interests during the 20th century but that attending to their stories would require an entirely different methodological approach. This talk introduces the project and preliminary findings after an initial period of archival research: critical companions are welcome!
Dr. Riley Linebaugh is Lecturer and Researcher in British History at the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. Before joining the Centre in January 2023, Riley obtained her PhD from Justus Liebig University, Giessen and held a position as postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz.
She specializes in the history of British colonial archives and her recent, open access publications include, “’Joint Heritage’: Provincializing an Archival Ideal,” in Disputed Archival Heritage (ed. Lowry, 2022), “Colonial Fragility: British Embarrassment and the So-called ‘Migrated Archives’” (The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 2022) and “Protecting Bad Intel in a Dirty War: Britain’s Emergency in Kenya and the Origins of the ‘Migrated Archives’” (Europe Across Boundaries (eds. Noëmie Duhaut and Johannes Paulmann, De Gruyter, 2022). She is currently beginning a new project on the participation of female secretaries and spies in the British empire. In addition to her historical scholarship, Linebaugh holds an M.A. in Archives and Records Management and has worked as an archivist in the United States, England and Uganda.
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