Gossiping into the Archive: Authority and Speech in the Colonial Archive

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Emily J. Manktelow, Lecturer in British Imperial History at the University of Kent. Emily moves our discussion into a consideration of the particular difficulties of retrieving ‘voices’ from the colonial archive, and examines ‘gossip’ as a category of speaking that can provide the historian with considerable insights into the operation of power, authority and speech. 

Emily J. Manktelow

Catching the voices of those marginalised by the authority of the archive is an important and sometimes difficult project – as this online symposium has been pointing out. These problems can become even more daunting when the marginality of the object of our investigations is multiplied by differences not only of class, but of race, ethnicity, and subjugation as well. The colonial archive is a space fraught with complex methodological problems, which students of colonialism and postcolonialism have been grappling with for a long time. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was the title of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous 1988 chapter, which questioned whether we can ever recover the voices of the oppressed from a source-base compiled and created not only by the powerful, but as a means to power. Knowledge creation and collection were part of the colonial regime not only as an exercise in record-keeping and bureaucracy, but as a means to create understandings of selfhood and otherness that justified and consolidated the colonial project. The archive itself, then, is an exercise in oppression and marginalisation – what does that mean for those of us who use it? Are we simply replicating the regimes of power and authority encoded through the past?

You won’t be surprised to learn that historians of empires and colonialism have not fully ascribed to this view. After all, it would mean the euthanasia of our field. Rather, proponents of what is increasingly being called “critical colonial history” are constantly alive to new ways of thinking with and against the grain of the colonial archive – of recovering lost or marginalised voices, and of reading and understanding the “common senses” of the colonial past. This requires sensitivity and thoughtfulness (something which some of those engaged in more traditional imperial history seem sadly to lack), but can enrich our understanding of the complex colonial history that unites Britain (among others) with so many parts of the globe in diverse, and sometimes unsettling, ways. The archive is not something to be avoided in colonial history, but something to be interrogated, problematized, and questioned – not least because recent revelations have shown that the UK government has taken direct steps to obscure its availability and content, and hide documents (as many as 1.2 million files) from historians, victims, and the general public. The colonial archive is a place of authority and memory-making: not just in the past, but in the present too.

This was most evident at the bureaucratic level – the level of states, governments and the imperial parliament. But it is also a story that can be read at lower levels – in personal correspondence (where images and understandings of otherness were expressed in letters, diaries and memoirs), in private interactions (which states and governments monitored, sometimes criminalised, and certainly fetishized), and in non-governmental institutions or organisations (such as schools, charities, and missionary societies). It is with the latter – mission societies – that my work is concerned, and that this post is about. Whether or not missionaries can be seen as directly linked to imperial expansion and practices (a topic of live debate among mission historians), what we can say is that missionaries were directly involved in colonialism – in colonial practices that sought to reshape pre-colonial behaviours, construct knowledge and understandings of otherness, and influence the encounter between indigenous peoples and modern western (imperial) capitalism. That their archive is a “colonial” one is indisputable for me (though not for others), but because missionaries had close personal contact with colonial and pre-colonial peoples at the grass roots, it is also one uniquely able to enrich our understanding of cultural encounter, social histories of empire, and exchange at a day-to-day level.

This post makes the case for “thinking with gossip” in the colonial archive. Its basic contention is that attuning one’s lens to what has been labelled or thought of as “gossip” can actually not only help us recover the voices of the marginalised, but can help us to read the power-lines of authority that actively marginalised them. I will be exploring this question by looking at one case study: that of the Reverend Alexander Simpson, accused in 1842-3 of sexually assaulting a number of the students under his care. That these students were the white daughters of his fellow missionaries does not diminish the power-politics at play here, but did lead to the case leaving a firmer imprint on the archive than like accusations involving indigenous women (which were dismissed as irrelevant). The case of Alexander Simpson gives us a window into the social world of the South Seas Mission of the London Missionary Society, and a methodological lens through which to think about authority, power and speech in the archives of colonialism.

*          *          *

The marginalised voices in this story are those of the victims of Simpson’s alleged crimes – young girls at the time of the assaults, and young women when they became known to the mission community around five years later. Rumours of Simpson’s “improper liberties” as they became known had been circulating for some time, but had generally been either dismissed, or more actively ‘hushed up’.[1] When the case was finally subjected to a pseudo-trial at the station’s Mission Committee, the accusations were mediated primarily through the two of the girls involved who had subsequently married, and thus whose social and sexual reputations were secured. When asked why the girls had not spoken up before this time, they made the case most plainly: that they were afraid not only that they would ‘be crushed’,[2] but that the trial would in fact investigate ‘their characters, and not Mr Simpson’s’.[3] Thanks to the authoritative gossiping of Mr Simpson, they were right.

CWM/LMS/Home/ Miniature Portraits/Box 1

CWM/LMS/Home/ Miniature Portraits/Box 1

Simpson was accused of three counts of attempted rape, one of attempted seduction, and numerous instances of his having groped, tickled or pushed the young women under his care while they were washing, or undressing in their bedrooms. He was the superintendent of the South Seas Academy, school for missionary children, and as such had pastoral and professional care over his victims. While the case did not come out until about 5 years after the alleged events took place, gossip about them circulated the islands: ‘They float in every mouth and go off in every ship.’[4] Simpson’s wife Sarah worried continually about the ‘base insinuations and secret whisperings’ and ‘the fabrications in circulation, defamatory to the character of my persecuted and injured Husband.’[5] ‘Mr Simpson bears it with his usual firmness and submission’, she noted with relief, ‘but it is like a wound eating his vitals. I sometimes fear he will be a martyr to persecution.’[6] In 1843 Simpson noted that ‘the charges… have, I grieve to say, been for some time past the private scandal, which too unhappily obtain in some of the Mission families’, but professed himself ‘exceedingly glad it has come out, as it was, though unknown to me, gnawing away the vital of my character, every succeeding month.’[7]

Simpson’s response to the accusations was to undermine the characters of his accusers, and as such to gossip into the historical record about their (im)moral conduct. ‘[D]uring my residence here’, he noted, ‘three well authenticated instances of natives having been found in the bed rooms of missionaries’ daughters have been sustained.’ The first instance involved a native man having been let into the house of George Pritchard by either Ann Mary Bicknell or Ann Scott. The second involved a ‘native man having been discovered under the bed’ of two of David Darling’s daughters. The third involved a native man being found in the bedroom of Mr Orsmond’s daughter – ‘but [he] escaped through the thatch of the house.’ In authoritatively gossiping about these cases, Simpson mobilised ways of knowing about missionary children that positioned them as inherently corrupt and corruptible. He problematized their testimony such that he only received a ‘severe censure’ from his colleagues, and that the Directors in London were able to dismiss the accusations as gossip themselves. Simpson was to observe ‘the strictest circumspection in regard to all your future conduct, that you may not only maintain a conscience void of offence, but that you may abstain from all appearance of evil’.[8] He did not lose his position, his profession, or his authority. He had, according to the Mission Secretary, been given ‘the benefit of every doubt.’[9]

In some senses, then, this case can be read as an unsettling, but all too common case of sexual abuse and attempts to cover it up, expose it in a satisfactorily contained manner, and neutralise its impact (particularly to the mission). It sheds light on the lives of missionary children, on the production of knowledge about them, and on the power structures at play in a mission community. When we re-align our lens to think with gossip, though, we not only get an enriched understanding of the case itself, but of the methodological implications of recognising whose speech was labelled gossip, and whose was labelled as authoritative. Simpson’s defence essentially revolved around gossiping about his accusers, at the same time as lamenting the fact that they had apparently circulated rumours about his sexual (and criminal) behaviour. His gossip was not problematized – he “gossiped into the archive” and his speech was rendered authoritative. The testimony of the young ladies, meanwhile, who were apparently ‘at a time of life not characterised by habits of reserve’,[10] was dismissed as gossip: they had, speculated the Directors in London, ‘[either] in error, or in the spirit of exaggeration… built their statements.’[11]

Gossip is also crucial to the story’s postscript. Simpson, having not been expelled for attempted rape, among other charges, was finally removed from the mission because of his propensity for drink – and even more importantly, because his subsequent public disorder and drunkenness became the object of gossip among the local (indigenous) people. As such, his moral authority was questioned, and his reputation crumbled. When the Directors finally expelled him in 1852 they seemed satisfied that ‘the injurious rumours’ and ‘the grave charges of repeated intoxication… [had] no sufficient foundation.’ There were, though, ‘other points affecting your Missionary character which cannot be excluded from our consideration.’ His conduct was not deemed ‘seemly and proper’, and the Directors could not ‘suppress our surprise and grief at your heedless improvidence’. Ultimately they concluded, ‘though with the greatest reluctance… [and] taking into account the present state of your health, and considering all the great scandal that has been brought upon the cause of Christ by means of the painful occurrence with which you have been associated, it would on the whole be desirable that you should retire from the Mission field.’[12] It was scandal, rumour and gossip that were Simpson’s downfall, over and above the ‘heedless improvidence’ that occasioned them.

*          *          *

Aligning our lens to gossip brings fresh insights to our understanding of this case. It brings out the power dynamics of a community regulating itself far removed from its roots in Britain. Methodologically, it helps us to rethink the colonial archive. Recognising that Simpson’s speech was given authority only because of his marital status, his profession and his gender, helps us to break down his defence. At the same time, giving historical authority to speech previously rendered as mere gossip (the girls’ testimonies) allows us to hear the voices of those marginalised by the authority of the archive. This is not trivial – early in my investigation of this case I came across a previous historian’s verdict (buried in a footnote along with all reference to this scandal) that the girls involved had ‘seduced’ their schoolteacher. Such a conclusion, I think, can only be explained by too much attention to the authority of the archive, and not enough attention to the “voices from below” that this symposium is interesting in exploring. It is all too easy for us as historians to be absorbed in the voices of authority who have left the firmest imprint upon our sources, and our historical knowledge. For me, though, it is at least trying to speak for the oppressed, the marginalised, and the ignored that gives the production of historical knowledge its meaning in the contemporary world.[13]


[1] David Darling to London, 25th July 1843, SSIL 16/3/A.

[2] Joseph to London, 24 June 1842, SSIL 16/2/C.

[3] Joseph to London, 24 June 1842, SSIL 16/2/C.

[4] Orsmond to London, 29th June 1843

[5] Alexander Simpson to London, 25th July 1843, SSIL 16/3/A; Sarah Simpson to William Howe, 12th June 1843, SSIL 16/2/C.

[6] Sarah Simpson to William Howe, 23rd July 1843, SSIL 16/3/A.

[7] Alexander Simpson to London, 16th August 1843

[8] London to Simpson, 4th June 1845, SSOL 3, p.390.

[9] Joseph to London, 24 June 1842, SSIL 16/2/C.

[10] London to Thomas Joseph, [undated], SSOL 3, pp. 164-71.

[11] London to Thomas Joseph, [undated], SSOL 3, pp. 164-71.

[12] London to Alexander Simpson, 11th December 1850, SSOL 4, pp. 604.

[13] For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Emily J. Manktelow, ‘Thinking with gossip: deviance, rumour and reputation in the South Seas Mission of the London Missionary Society’, in Will Jackson and Emily Manktelow (eds), Subverting Empire: Deviance and Disorder in the British Colonial World (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).

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9 thoughts on “Gossiping into the Archive: Authority and Speech in the Colonial Archive

  1. Thanks for this great post, Emily. One gets the impression that practically everyone here was trying to use gossip and reputation to achieve their aims, but only some were successful.

    Presumably the initial rumours of ‘improper liberties’ began with the girls who were his victims, but – as you say – they were ineffective in getting rid of Simpson both while the accusations remained rumours and even later when they came out in open court. In contrast, your analysis of Simpson’s success in using gossip to discredit his accusers brilliantly shows the way a powerful man could take advantage of his existing authority to add heft to his hearsay. However, the group that piqued my interest were ‘the local (indigenous) people’ who’s gossip about Simpson’s drunkenness eventually caused his expulsion.

    Why were they – the classic ‘subaltern subject’ – able to succeed where the white girls/women had failed? Were they simply too numerous for Simpson to discredit them? Or did the word of an indigenous man count for more than a white woman?

    • Great question! I don’t think it’s that the indigenous people had more authority than the white women involved (though obviously the intersections between race and gender here are intriguing – and complex), but rather that the mission was extremely anxious about indigenous scrutiny – about the local people exerting the ‘imperial eye’ back onto them. Simpson’s drunkenness was public, and thus exposed the mission to ridicule and judgement, which endangered the moral authority that it relied upon for its very purpose (cultural and spiritual conversion). Once the indigenous people became involved in the making and unmaking of Simpson’s reputation, his tenure became untenable.

      • Huh, I seem to be replying as the Women’s History Network (whose blog for our upcoming conference at Kent I run) – hope that’s okay! This is Emily though – and this is also a good reminder to register for that conference if you’re interested! (womenshistorykent.wordpress.com)

      • Ah, yes, that makes sense. Simpson was more vulnerable to accusations from the indigenous people because his whole mission was predicated on maintaining his standing with them, whereas the accusations of the girls did not endanger the success of the mission itself. Also, as you say, the ‘public’ nature of his drunkenness – in contrast to the (supposedly) ‘private’ nature of the sexual assaults – seems to have made a signficiant difference to the effectiveness of ‘subaltern’ voices.

  2. This post resonates to today with the recent exposures of Saville and others as well as what’s happened in Rotherham and elsewhere. As you describe the ‘power-lines of authority’ work so effectively for those in power while the marginalised or voiceless have no such overtly effective communication channels. This is where gossip through its persistence and its consistency can ultimately bring down those power-lines, as in Simpson’s case. Great post.

    • Many thanks Michael. The modern-day relevance of this is startling – and shows how much more work we have to do in listening to the marginalised, and breaking down those voices of power that dominate our cultural (social, and legal) discourse.
      – Emily

  3. Interesting post raising some fascinating questions about the way power was played out within mission space. In a sense these ‘third spaces’ are marked by close interaction between indigenous and setter and a particularity of interaction which at one level is based upon power differentials which while overtly favouring the white ‘government’ while at another latent if not unconscious level may well have the indigenous people to be the more powerful. What is interesting is the way Aboriginal people legitimized the mission space by the nature of their use of it. As mentioned earlier, if a missionary lost his or her standing with the residents then the success of the mission was in jeopardy. The Australian Missionary Daniel Matthews who, in 1888, was removed from the organization he had begun, the Aborigines Protection Association, by members of that Association who then moved Matthews’ Maloga Mission ( Buildings, residents, the lot) is an example.

    On another note I am not surprised that Simpson denied the allegations against him and relied on gossip to discredit his accusers. It takes us into a murky aspect sexual and gender politics In the words of a barrister friend whose specialty is defending people accused of sexual misconduct ( amongst others),is that such matters will always go to court because sexual offenders will never admit their guilt.

  4. [I’m posting this comment on all of this week’s posts – those by Nick, Emily, and Gajendra – as I was struck by a common theme I observed in all of them, so really it is something for each of you to think about]

    All of the posts this week seem to me to demonstrate that even in the most hierarchical of power structures, where the voices of subordinate groups are most heavily restricted, their very restriction is often born out of a recognition of their agency.

    So, in early modern England explicit articulations of same sex male desire were silenced because it was recognised that allowing them a voice could destabilise dominant ideas about order and social relations. In the context of the South Seas Mission, ‘gossip’ about the character of Revd Simpson was on the one hand dismissed as flippant, whilst at the same time the powers that be sought to hush it up, or to use gossip as a powerful tool themselves, and ultimately its spread did serve to bring Simpson down. Indian Muslim soldiers in the First World War were permitted to write letters, but their officers allowed them to do so only so that they could monitor and police the voices of the soldiers – they were fearful of the power of discontent and divided loyalties, and ultimately here too the soldiers managed to use their letters to communicate in a way that evaded the attempt at control from above.

    Building then on a comment from last week in response to Will Pooley’s post – that we need to be careful about seeing the silences of the people as imbued with agency, when many were examples of the people being actively silenced – it seems to me that even in instances when structures of power worked hardest to silence the people we can often tell a story of the agency, either inherent or realised, that marginal voices had in their own time.

  5. Pingback: VoxPop2015: The People’s Conclusion | the many-headed monster

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