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. Continue reading