MBC’s Andrea Potts speaks to independent researcher Dan Poole about atrocity photography in British Malaya.
Please note that this interview features several text descriptions of violence (no photographs).
Andrea: What do you research?
Dan: I research a media scandal that happened in 1952. Or at least that’s how it started. In April 1952, a communist newspaper called The Daily Worker, which is still running today as The Morning Star, published leaked photographs of British soldiers posing with decapitated heads inside a military base in British Malaya. This led to a massive media scandal which eventually reached parliament. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, eventually ordered the military to stop desecrating corpses, though many soldiers ignored this order.
This all happened under the context of a conflict called the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), in what is now Malaysia. British Malaya was the most profitable part of the British Empire, rich in tin and rubber. These resources contributed to building post-war Britain and helped to pay off war debt to America. Britain’s exploitation of Malayan resources was resented, and the colony saw a rise in trade unionism and anti-colonial activism in many different forms. This eventually became a full-blown insurgency against British rule. The insurgents, known as the Malayan National Liberation Army, were organised into guerrilla cells and the British knew very little about who they were and where they were operating. In this context, British soldiers began decapitating the guerrilla fighters who they had killed and taking these heads back to police stations to photograph them.
This was ostensibly an effort to collate and share information on who the members of the insurgency movement were. But it was so much more than this. The British hired over one thousand Iban mercenaries from headhunting tribes in Borneo to work for them. British troops also started to take photographs of themselves holding scalps and heads. Eventually, some of these photographs got into the hands of communist activists in London, who published them through The Daily Worker. In my research, I’ve been trying to collate the evidence that we have about this media scandal. All of the reactions from the police, trade unions, politicians, and the military.
A: So, what was the reaction in Britain? Was this recognised as being an official British policy or practice or as an aberration?
D: I found a reference to what was happening in Malaya in a command of the Royal Marines journal called Commando News that dates to 1951. It mentioned: yes, we allow Ibans from Borneo to take scalps. There was also an activist newspaper calledThe People which claimed that Britain was allowing the Ibans to take heads. The Foreign Office saw this article as a propaganda threat and decided not to say anything for fear of bringing further attention to it. So before this media scandal of 1952, the government and the military were aware of what was happening and had a policy of ignoring accusations. Everything changed in 1952 because substantial evidence – the photographs – were leaked. This could no longer be ignored.
When the photographs were published, the British government tried to claim that they were fake. The Royal Navy and the Foreign Office said they were forgeries. The Daily Worker then released photographs of the same incident but from a different angle to show that it was not fake. The photographs were raised in parliament. On 7 May 1952, an MP asked the question: Are the photographs real? Oliver Lyttelton, who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, said: Yes, they are genuine and our previous denials were a mistake. A few days later, The Daily Worker published an article titled This Horror Must End, containing a small avalanche of horrendous photographs. After this, the British government just went completely silent. They realised that there was no way that they could ever deny it or justify it.
In fact, the British government had managed to identify both the photographer and one of the men in the photographs the day after ‘The Daily Worker’ published their first image! So the government’s position changed from denial, to silence, then to trying to rationalize these images.
A: What was the attempted justification?
D: General Gerald Templer, who was the head of the counterinsurgency in Malaya when the photographs were leaked to the press, supported the practice of headhunting. He even sent letters back to British officials in London saying I believe this practice should continue and I am in full defense of it because we need as much information as possible. Churchill and his cabinet then discussed this in private. They decided to ban the practice of headhunting and scalping, not for a moral reason, but because they feared that these photographs would fuel anti-colonial sentiment and would be used for Communist propaganda. This is exactly what happened. Newspapers in China and the Soviet Union got hold of these photographs and used them to paint the British Empire as though they were savages going around cutting people’s heads off. And, you know, that is exactly what was happening, so you can’t really argue with that.
A: I was going to ask you about the afterlives of these photos. Where are these photographs today and how are they used?
D: Some of them do circulate online, although often with very little context. They tend to be shared by socialist activists as a way to illustrate the barbarity of British colonialism. They resurfaced in a limited way during the Iraq War. The first time that I know of that a British newspaper republished the photographs that were published in The Daily Worker was, I believe, The Sunday Times in 2005. And it was following evidence of British war crimes in Iraq.
A: That’s very interesting. When you said earlier that this practice was justified as providing important intelligence I immediately thought of the war on terror. These arguments keep being used.
D: Yes, a lot of my research challenges this preconception that Britain needed these heads and the photographs of them for information. That doesn’t tell the whole story of how these photographs were being used. Actually, I found photographs in the private diaries of soldiers. I found a lot of evidence of British soldiers treating them like football cards – literally meeting up and trading them as a game. This is one of the reasons why these photographs appear in many different archives which don’t have any links to each other.
A: Could you give me some examples of the types of archives?
D: So the National Army Museum in London is important. Interestingly, it was actually founded by the very same general that approved of the headhunting policy, Gerald Templer. Templer also allowed his troops to publicly display corpses, he practiced collective punishment and mass deportations against civilians, he ran internment camps against ethnic minorities, approved of incendiary weapons, and he helped to popularise the use of Agent Orange which the Americans went on to use in Vietnam. The public display of anti-colonial guerrilla corpses by Commonwealth forces is another part of the war that I researched. Generally, he’s just an awful man. But he has been celebrated because he is credited for having ‘won the war’ against the Communists in Malaya. A kind of cult of personality has grown around him. He did what the Americans couldn’t do: he beat communist guerrillas.
A: Yes, the counter-insurgency could be framed as being an anti-communist war, rather than a desperate attempt to maintain a colony. It can be rebranded.
D: It’s an interesting experience visiting the museum’s archive because it’s actually named after Templer. And in the archive is a massive portrait of him, decked out in all this military gear.
A: I bet! What a way to frame the archive. So these photographs are actually scattered across many different archives?
D: Yes, and evenspeaking to veterans or their family members, many remember knowing someone who had a photograph. So there are still a lot out there, surely. This gives me the impression that headhunting was a lot more widespread than the archives alone present.
A: What other archives have you used?
D: One of my favourites is the Marx Memorial Library in London. They have a collection of left-wing leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers, letters, etc., especially from the early 20th century communist movement. They have a massive collection of all the copies of The Daily Worker so I was able to see the scandal itself. And The Working-Class Movement Library in Manchester was really helpful. I told the archivist that I was looking into this headhunting scandal, and they ran off and came back with some headhunting photographs that had never been published before. And it just so turns out that these photographs were taken from a different angle from some of the one’s that I found in the National Army Museum, which came from the Coldstream Guards which is one of the oldest regiments in the British Army.
A: It’s interesting that these photographs were leaked.
D: Yes, although this was a really common practice amongst soldiers, there were cases of soldiers feeling demoralised and ashamed. There’s a couple of cases of British soldiers refusing to be re-enlisted in Malaya. I found one eyewitness testimony by a soldier who says he witnessed one of his fellow recruits crying in his sleep after being forced to decapitate someone.
Ultimately, someone, likely multiple different soldiers acting independently, leaked photographs to the press. They needed photographs to show to the public that something so unbelievable was real. But it didn’t work. While the publishing of these headhunting photographs had a massive effect on trade union activists and socialist activists, who already hated colonialism, it doesn’t seem that many people outside of these circles saw the photographs or believed that they were real. Other newspapers didn’t republish the photographs. So it really remained in the context of left-wing activism.
They needed photographs to show to the public that something so unbelievable was real. But it didn’t work. I don’t really think that many British people were willing to admit that Britain was taking part in atrocities.
A: I wonder why they weren’t republished by the national newspapers.
D: I don’t really think that many British people were willing to admit that Britain was taking part in atrocities. And certainly, people were unlikely to want to believe that their own family members were committing atrocities. This was during conscription, aka National Service.
A: Was anyone disciplined for this?
D: No. I cannot find any solid evidence of anyone ever being punished. And one of the reasons for that is that this was a practice which was approved by the very highest levels of the colonial occupation. The Minister of State for the Colonies, Henry Hopkinson, told Parliament that no British soldiers would be punished for partaking in headhunting in Malaya.
This was a practice which was approved by the very highest levels of the colonial occupation.
A: What do you think should happen to these photographs now?
D: Well, when I wrote my book, I did it with the intent of trying to find as many of these photographs as I can and publishing them in one place. They were so incredibly hard to find and it was expensive to try and find them. I wanted to make them more accessible. There are certainly ethical questions to consider here. I decided to publish the photographs in my book. These photographs are extremely distressing, but I do believe that people need to know about this history. And people certainly have the right to know what happened to their relatives. The British government ultimately tried to suppress this horrendous episode altogether. Not making these photographs accessible simply perpetuates that. I don’t think that any good can come of hiding a war crime from the public when reparations and an apology is in order.
The British government ultimately tried to suppress this horrendous episode altogether.
Dan’s book: ‘Head Hunters in the Malayan Emergency. The Atrocity and the Cover-Up’ is out now.