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date: 14 November 2019

Reading the Archives as Sources

Summary and Keywords

Archives used in Africanist historical research include those of the colonial state, postcolonial national archives, missionary archives, personal papers, political party archives, and the archives of corporations and international agencies involved in African affairs. Africanists historians generally accept that these archives are not transparent renditions of the past; they represent and even reproduce power relations related to colonialism and its legacies. Nonetheless, careful readings have enabled Africanist historians to understand the structural order and logic these archives (the archival grain), and thus demonstrate colonial (or other) power relations implicated in the collections. Reading archives against the grain can also reveal alternative voices and agents, however. Even as discussions of archival methodologies have been limited, archives have remained crucial sources for key trends in Africanist historical writing, including the representation of colonial hegemonies as well as African voice and agency. To advance such readings, Africanist historians develop post-positivist readings of archives that appreciate silences, dissonances, and conflicts within archives and documentation. Through a process of archival fieldwork, including a careful combing of archives, reading of files, and transcribing of select documents, historians have become adept at appreciating the grain of archives and reading the archive against this grain. The digitization of archives and digital research methods, including electronic search engines, full-text searches, online archives, and digital photography, challenge aspects of traditional archival fieldwork, holding benefits and potential setbacks for the critical appreciation of archival documentation. These challenges have sharpened with the changing role of physical documentation along with an increase in smaller archives that enable serendipitous and hodgepodge archival investigations.

Keywords: archives, primary sources, African historiography, historical methodology, archival methodology, archival theory, archival fieldwork, colonialism, postcolonial, documentation, digital archives

“Transparency is not what archival collections are known for …”

Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain1

Africanist methodology, as developed in its journal of method, History in Africa, concerned oral tradition and fieldwork-derived data. As the initial preoccupation with African pre-colonial history gave way to Africanist reinterpretations of colonial history, archival documentation, in particular the colonial archive, began to be employed more thoroughly. Yet the turn to colonial history and the use of colonial archives was rarely matched by a discussion of method. Jan Vansina complained of certain assumptions about the transparency of archival documentation: history became a cross-checking of documents, a naïve assumption that “ignores the whole documentary context: the institutions that generate written documents; the goals for which they were generated; the conditions under which that happened; the multiple links between authors, between institutions, and between the batches, series, and genres of the papers they generated.”2 The pages of History in Africa are filled with sophisticated questions regarding the use of oral sources; however, even as the intention was to legitimize these sources, it often made it appear as if written sources were more transparent and required less methodological discussion than oral ones. If archives were discussed in History in Africa, they were generally reports on archival resources rather than methodological or critical interventions on the use of such archives. Part of the problem may have been what Luise White terms the “smug” attitude of Africanists toward critical discussions of archival methodology, based on their assumption that their oral research and understanding of African societies enabled them to deconstruct colonial archives.3 Thus, even as much Africanist historiography became based on archival and documentary sources, a critical disciplinary inquiry into the use of these sources has remained limited.4 This article provides an account of existing conventions and practices of reading archival sources in Africanist historiography alongside a critical discussion of these conventions and practices.

African Archives

What is an archive? In the proliferation of theoretical discussions about archives by archivists, philosophers, historians, and literary critics in recent decades, the conventional notion of a formal institutional repository of documents has given way to an expansive notion of an archive. For French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his followers, an archive is a set of discursive constructions that underlie the appearance of a linguistic reality.5 Literary scholars of imperialism, such as Thomas Richards, have used the term archive to denote the imaginative constructions and forms of knowledge that underpinned 19th- and 20th-century European empires.6 For the purposes of this article, a more conservative definition of archive familiar to historians is employed. Archives here are limited to institutional—that is, governmental and non-governmental—collections of documents. These may include digital repositories, but have their origins in the collection of documents in a physical locale by an organized body dedicated to the collection and organization of documents.

The French social and gender historian Arlette Farge describes the archive as an impersonal but professionally organized repository where the researcher works in solitude to uncover forgotten stories.7 Africanist historical research often begins in metropolitan imperial archives that resemble those described by Farge. These include the National Archives of the United Kingdom (NAUK) in Kew, the French Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence, the Archives Africaines in Brussels, and the Portuguese Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino in Lisbon.8 Here the Africanist investigates colonial reports, correspondence, and Commissions of Inquiry that filtered back to the imperial center. In addition to state archives, missionary societies—including the London Missionary Society, the United Church of Scotland, Les Missionaires d’Afriques (Pères Blancs), and others—have organized their own archives or deposited papers in state archives and libraries. These state and missionary archives are also proving to be the frontline of digitization, with popular collections already available through digital providers.

As valuable as Africanist historians find metropolitan collections, they hardly ever fulfill the desire for African voice and detail. While long a basis for imperial historiography—and their subsequent “transnational” equivalents—few Africanist monographs and articles are based only on such metropolitan collections. The search for an African voice tends to attract the Africanist historian to country-specific and local-level archives. Sometimes the researcher envisages fieldwork designed especially around the collection of oral materials. In many instances, however, it is African archives that draw the historical researcher along new pathways of evidentiary fieldwork.

The first step in the search for such local archives are the national collections of the postcolonial countries. Some illustrative examples of frequently used and well-functioning postcolonial archives—although by no means exhaustive—include the National Archives of Nigeria, National Archives of Zambia, National Archives of Ghana, the Arquivo Histórico de Angola, Archives du Sénégal, and the Archives Nationales du Mali.9 In contrast with well-funded European imperial archives, such archives are run on budgetary shoestrings, and are rarely the priority of African states. The carefully preserved paper housed in temperature-controlled European archives gives way to decaying documents in leaky buildings. The archives themselves usually remain accessible, with a dedicated staff. Nonetheless, files in postcolonial national archives tend to go missing and do not always correspond to the catalog record.

The best-organized collections here remain those from the colonial period—generally after the 1920s but earlier for longer-lasting colonial regimes in, say, Senegal and Angola—when the organization of the colonial state was fairly established. Even as historians should take care not to assume the completeness of colonial records, documentation in these archives from the postcolonial period by contrast appears spotty and haphazard, with the uneven deposits from changing departments and ministries. This may, as Luise White and John Straussberger argue, reflect the uneven nature of postcolonial statecraft and governmentality.10 Postcolonial state officials, moreover, do not report in a colonial ethnographic mode of, say, describing native customs. Exoticism gives way to banalities. Documentation about postcolonial insurgencies, even if it exists, is rarely available. There are exceptions, of course: Klaas van Walraven’s detailed account of the Sawaba insurgency in Niger supplements extensive interview material with crucial archival material from the Archives Nationales du Niger and the French Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre to cover the postcolonial period.11 Such examples aside, the historian may struggle to find insurgent actors in the postcolonial records compared with the abundance of such agents in colonial ones.

Even more local collections can be consulted. Given the failure of documents to reach national archives, researchers often need to go to the government department, provincial, or district offices themselves, where documents have piled up in in spare rooms and offices. Documents are degraded by humidity and termites; sometimes they disintegrate upon being handled. It is unlikely that other researchers will be able to access these documents. A few researchers have ensured that these documents find their way to national archives for preservation. Digital photography has also been a boon for the recording of such collections. However, across almost every African country there is a need for systematic accounting of documentation from the postcolonial state. In contrast to the “archival fever” of Europe, the process of archiving is incomplete, institutionally weak, and hardly a priority for the postcolonial state.12 In some cases, archival project budgets are supported by international collaborations, such as the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, or the combination of Andrew Mellon Foundation, Ford Foundation, and UNESCO initiatives.13

In addition to state departments, individuals collect their papers for decades, and sometimes, as is the case for Islamic West Africa, for centuries.14 Such personal archives hold great promise for accounts of non-state actors. The Africanist is most excited by “tin-trunk” archives that contain such personal collections of writings.15 Digital photography has also encouraged such research; the researcher can rapidly capture documents and correspondence treasured and organized by individuals for decades, transforming an individual tin-trunk archive into a researcher’s personal archive. The consultation, reproduction, and digitization of such tin-trunk archives involves new types of ethical and methodological conundrums that the Africanist historian has hardly begun to consider, even as they are forming a popular source for the latest research.16 Beyond acknowledging the importance of this type of archive, this article does not treat such individual and non-institutional collections.

It is nonetheless difficult to isolate tin-trunk archives from institutional archives. Occasionally these tin-trunk archives find their way into national collections, such as the personal papers of nationalist leaders now housed at the National Archives of Zambia or the collections of personal libraries in West Africa that in recent decades have been incorporated into institutional collections.17 Tin-trunk archives usually refer to African collections, but they share characteristics with that long-established genre of archives, “personal papers,” sometimes termed “private archives.” These, too, have been collected into institutions, such as those now housed at the Historical Section of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren, Belgium, where the papers of African explorer and imperialist Henry Morton Stanley have been collected along with other notorious lesser-known officers from the Congo Free State administration of Belgian King Leopold II, such as Clément Brasseur, providing invaluable detail on this period of Central African history.18 There are also ethnographic archives that consist of the field notes and personal papers of anthropologists which are deposited in university archives (the notes of British and South African anthropologists, in particular those associated with the Rhodes–Livingstone Institute, have been especially important). In another example, the private papers of gay and lesbian activists during apartheid—along with related oral history projects—have been gathered by an activist archival non-governmental organization (NGO) to form the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA). In this case and others, such as the Centre for Popular Memory at the University of Cape Town and the Sound Archives at the District Six Museum, oral histories have been collected and archived—in some ways blurring the distinction between documentary archival and oral sources.19

In addition to collections that emerged out of European conquest, occupation, and the development of concomitant bureaucracies, several other types of Africanist archival collections exist. Researchers have examined archives drawing on the literate traditions of Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence in precolonial West Africa as well as in coastal East Africa (held in the Zanzibar National Archives).20 Activist and liberation archives include those of liberation movements during colonial times (such as the United National Independence Party (UNIP) archives in Lusaka, Zambia, and the African National Congress (ANC) archives at Fort Hare and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa), as well as activist groups in the postcolonial context.21 A third type of archive is that of international NGOs, ranging from missionary groups to secular aid and humanitarian groups, concerned with Africa. Then there are archives linked to non-African governments, including military and espionage archives (the CIA archives, for example) as well as diplomatic archives. Researchers are increasingly consulting the archives of governmental and non-governmental aid missions (USAID, DANIDA, Oxfam, Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, etc.), and multilateral agencies concerned with governmental, security, financial, and welfare issues (World Bank, IMF, Africa Union, and the UN agencies). Finally, there are archives of business corporations concerned with Africa; often the least accessible, these include Anglo-America, Lonrho, Firestone, and others.

This overview suggests the range of archives that are being consulted by Africanist historians. Given that there is no singular archival form, methodologies of reading the archive also diverge. There are certain commonalities regarding research, however. Since the colonial and postcolonial archives form the bread and butter of Africanist research, this article focuses on them, even as it reaches out to readings of other relevant archives as well.

Post-Positivist Readings: Along and Against the Grain

Positivist approaches to archival research hold that the archive is representative of an external reality and holds kernels of historical truths. The historian has only to find and correctly interpret documents to reveal conclusions similar to those arrived at by other historians consulting the same documents. Thus, historical research, for the positivist, entails finding the right documents and interpreting them correctly. Positivist methodologies encourage a sampling of the archive to gain an indication of the representivity and significance of any particular document. Researchers look beyond published summaries of documents—such as those that appear in a report back to the metropole that might track one aspect of interest at the expense of others. Thereby, the researcher gains an impression that is supposedly in-depth, holistic, balanced, and accurate.22

This article suggests, in what can be termed a post-positivist methodology, that reading an archive is not a narrowly empirical problem of working out the importance and relevance of archival documents (although it does not exclude these aspects of research), but also a way of problematizing the relationships between voice and power, between historical agents and the bureaucracies that record or silence them. Here, instead of objectivity and balance, the historian searches the archive for dissonances, silences, and conflicts that indicate alternative voices and versions of events. In place of an almost mechanical rendering of a truth already evident in the archive, the historian has agency in the interpretation of documents and the writing of history.

A post-positivist approach to archival research begins with the recognition that the archive is not an innocent assemblage of documents waiting to become historical facts: archives are sites of power that already construct and silence aspects of the past. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has most powerfully expressed this view in his study of Haitian revolutionary history:

By archives, I mean the institutions that organize facts and sources and condition the possibility of existence of historical statements.… Archives assemble. Their assembly work is not limited to a more or less passive act of collecting. Rather, it is an active act of production that prepares facts for historical intelligibility. Archives set up both substantive and formal elements of the narrative. They are the institutionalized sites of mediation between the sociohistorical process and the narrative about that process. They enforce the constraints on “debatability” … they convey authority and set the rules for credibility and interdependence; they help select the stories that matter.23

If, as Trouillot has it, archives are institutions of power in themselves that silence and amplify selectively, the positivist effort for objectivity and balance appears compromised from the outset. Historians can, however, use these insights to enrich their reading of archival documentation.

Since archives are a structure of power, they can be read as indications of power or of that which power suppresses, or both. Recognizing archives as sites of power advances research in two directions: historical analyses along or against the archival grain. The grain is the order of the archive, its “organized topography” that reflects the archive’s process of construction.24 Reading an archive along the grain analyzes the archive as an institution of hegemony and dominance. The researcher asks what the archive reveals about the legal, political, and cultural framework that shaped it. This is a reflection on power. Alternatively, historians can read for silences: what is revealed beyond or in addition to and in spite of these hegemonic conceptions and frameworks of power. Here historians identify agents and voices even as those who constructed the archive intended to silence such voices. This mode of reading is a reflection on oppositions and alternatives to power. Africanist historians have most often attempted to accomplish such against-the-grain readings.25

In her renowned study of reading Dutch colonial archives from the East Indies from the 19th century, Ann Laura Stoler, as her title Along the Grain suggests, reads for the “colonial order of things as seen through the record of archival productions … what insights into the social imaginaries of colonial rule might be gained from attending not only to colonialism’s archival content, but to the principles and practices of governance lodged in archival forms.”26 She treats archives “both as a corpus of writing and as a force field that animates political energies and expertise, that pulls on some ‘social facts’ and converts them into qualified knowledge, that attends to some ways of knowing while repelling and refusing others.”27 For Stoler, reading the archive is less about revealing an objective past but instead about what the categories and orders of the archive reveal about colonial power and culture. Africanist scholars have developed such interpretative strategies most effectively in their reading of colonial missionary documentation that reveals their conceptions of the world and how these were extended (or not) to African Christians.28 Less Africanist historiography focuses on reading the secular colonial state archive along the grain; to some extent these interpretations have been developed by literary scholars.29

The value of the archive also derives from the fact that it was not consciously created, at least not as closely and with as much attention and intention as Stoler and Trouillot imply. Farge expresses this most succinctly: “The archive was not compiled with an eye toward history.”30 The compilation of documents, sometimes random and haphazard, reflects less an imposed order than the encounter of people with state bureaucracies. To be sure, some archives have had audiences in mind, such as the James Stuart Archive, discussed by Caroline Hamilton, which seems to have several audiences—at the time of its composition and after. As Hamilton points out, to appreciate the audience (or its lack), the historian needs to consider the “backstory,” the conditions of production of an archive and its “biography,” the ways in which it is housed and brought into public discussion.31 Indeed, given such multiple audiences over time, Farge’s claim remains accurate: the archive does not in itself narrate history; the historian transforms the archive into a history.

Even as documents were suppressed and arranged in particular ways, a reading of the archives that emerges from an understanding of an archive’s order can reveal counter-hegemonic voices. Documents of interest to the historian emerge, as Farge puts it, through lives that have “involuntarily collided with authority.”32 In this collision, documented in the archive, the historian can find alternative voices and meanings. Such collisions, dissonances, and disjunctures become most evident once the grain of the archive is appreciated. The police and judicial record that Farge considers, for example, intentionally sought to exclude women and the lower classes from public affairs. “And yet,” Farge points out, “there is a large section of the police archives that contradict their certainty that popular opinion was entirely vacuous. Why then create an entire police force dedicated to capturing the murmurs and voices of the city, observing the streets and rumors that rippled their surfaces?”33 Their efforts to exclude those who were not considered historical agents actually bring them into historical view. They do not, as Trouillot argues, necessarily silence these voices; they can also amplify them. For Farge, these dissonances and contrasting constructions form a rich base for understanding the different aspects of social and gendered conflict in early modern France. The Africanist historian, interrogating the colonial archive, can similarly discern the various struggles during colonialism that emerged from the African voices that the colonial administration tried to silence. The archive viewed from this perspective offers the possibility for insights into subaltern voices and struggles.

Africanist historiography has already employed archives to reveal and imagine Africanist voices in this fashion. Archival research has been especially fruitful to give voice and agency to those who would otherwise not be remembered in oral praises and traditions focused on elites, in particular slaves and subordinate women. In one example, frequently used for teaching, Trevor Getz used a court case from the National Archives of Ghana to resurrect the agency of a woman, Abina, in her struggle for freedom, and imaginatively recreate this struggle in graphic novel form.34 Marcia Wright recounted the lives of female slaves in East and Central Africa by drawing on missionary and early colonial archives.35 Despite her work being grounded in oral sources, Nwando Achebe points out that historians should not ask of “oral history that which oral history cannot answer”; the National Archives of Nigeria thereby form a crucial source for her historical biography of a female king of colonial Nigeria.36 In a striking case from precolonial history, Linda Heywood bases her historical biography of the mythologized Angolan Queen Njinga almost entirely on Portuguese and Jesuit missionary archival sources.37

The contribution of the archive to the development of Africanist histories is rarely acknowledged and often subordinated to seemingly more direct and unmediated sources. Conventions in the Africanist historical field claim that the colonial archive is tainted since most documents were written by Europeans and generally archived by them. African perspectives, in the colonial state archives at least, were often based on collaborators and informants or European observations (although there are many cases of African writings also appearing in the colonial documentary record). The problem of exteriority of the document writer is evident in other historiographies—but given racism and the relatively recent colonial occupation, it is felt powerfully in the African context. Still, this does not make the documents less valuable. Colonial officials took great efforts to record Africans, especially those they considered potentially dangerous and troublesome. Those Africans who worked for the colonial administration were often very effective spies. Colonial administrators could also be astute observers of culture and society. Indeed, celebrated colonial-era ethnographers even relied on colonial administrators for contact with communities and ethnographic data; their data and interpretations were certainly influenced by colonial administrative priorities and conflicts.38

Recent Africanist historiography has thus pushed back against the rejection of archives. In addition to the recognition of counter-hegemonic readings of the archives of colonial states, it is also clear that colonialism produced diverse archives that represented the plurality of colonial agents. Nancy Rose Hunt, for example, recognizes the role of missionaries and their African collaborators in the creation of a useful archive: “These Flemish priests were linguists, anthropologists, and folklorists, with passions for history and conservation. Seeing themselves before worlds seemingly disappearing, they noted down, preserved, and published all they could, while encouraging Lomongo speakers to write as well. Their immense, vernacular archive is poetic, and it yields bits of song and performance, sometimes thickening or surfacing as event.”39 Reflecting postcolonial and transnational trends in historiography, Jean Allman and Florence Bernault have separately explored the ability of historians to develop interconnected histories from documents in heterodox archives.40

All of this explains why Africanists have employed archives extensively: quite simply, the archives of the colonial state, its collaborating agents such as missionaries, and their successors are too rich to ignore. There are fewer Africanist discussions over reading the archive, with or against the grain. The most notable example is the work of Caroline Hamilton, who, in her discussion of archives that have surrounded Shaka Zulu, acknowledges the hegemonic influences at work, but also suggests that there were “limits” to the hegemonic process of invention. These limits enable the possibility for the archive to offer voices and perspectives alternative to the dominant organization of power and authority.41 In her study of vampire rumors reported in the colonial archives of Central Africa, Luise White suggests that archives recoded and reterritorialized African territories and spaces. But, like Hamilton, she finds that these efforts at recoding were limited, or at least partial. Instead of stripping away the sediments of colonial domination to find African voices, White suggests Africanists should view archives as incomplete recodings of African ideas and reterritorialization of African spaces to indicate struggles over domination. In such a reading, archives report the struggles, imperial and local, over the vocabularies and tools of domination. The vampire rumors found in archives that White considers open a space in which historians can see “the failures of recoding and the incomplete reterritorialization that was the practice of colonial rule”42 The archive reveals the incompleteness of hegemony—or limited hegemony, as Hamilton would have it. “The archive reveals not only its own confusions and contradictions but the inability of colonialists to locate their practices completely in imperial rather than African terms.”43 If this is the case, such “African terms” emerge from the colonial archive. White emphasizes that these archival confusions and contradictions only reveal “general anxieties and concerns” rather than specific voices and meanings. Still, for White, these general anxieties and concerns, such as vampire rumors, are a valuable window into the colonial setting. Similarly, Nancy Rose Hunt finds that the colonial state archives reveal colonialism’s “diverse narrations, and visceral, nervous assessments of conditions and beings.”44

The two paths of reading archives—with and against the grain—are most evident for colonial archives; however, such approaches also apply to postcolonial archives. Liberation movements also archive select documents and alternatively amplify and silence voices, highlighting archival collections that may replace nationalist historiographies with what Terence Ranger termed “patriotic histories.”45 Under Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean government, for example, led initiatives to construct a new archive highlighting the very particular achievements of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) during the liberation struggle.46 The ANC in South Africa was involved in intense negotiations—some even claim sanitization—before committing its documentation to repositories such as the Mayibuye archives at UWC and the Liberation Archives at Fort Hare University.47 Getting the “backstory,” as Hamilton puts it, and appreciating the grain of these archives remains an essential historical task. Yet alternative histories still emerge from these archives, as is the case with critical examinations of the ANC’s history or, farther north, the post-nationalist historiography that has emerged in Zambia in part out of a critical examination of the Zambian liberation movement’s UNIP archives.48 The existence of such archives, regardless of their purpose of establishment, has enabled a more critical and detailed postcolonial historiography than in those countries where one-party regimes left few archival traces, such as the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution of Zaïre (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo).

Archival Fieldwork in the Digital Age

It is one thing to proclaim what an archive can do, but quite another to develop practices of reading that enable productive readings of archives. Appreciating the grain of an archive is a qualitative endeavor enhanced or compromised by digital technologies that, in the view of historian of the Caribbean Lara Putnam, open “shortcuts that enable ignorance as well as knowledge.”49 Here, with attention to some of Putnam’s cautions regarding digital techniques, methodological innovations driven by digital technologies are scrutinized, asking how they affect the qualitative reading of African archives and the rendering of Africanist historiography.

Reading, taking notes, and copying are the essence of archival research. The first step involves collaborations between the researcher and an archivist trained in archival methodology and with intimate familiarity with a particular archive. The archivist directs researchers to series of files appropriate to their topic. Researchers then comb through these files, developing an understanding of the documents, and then transcribing select ones. The process of combing through the archive for relevant files, and then reading the documents, develops an understanding of the grain of the archive; once appreciated, select documents can be placed in their archival and historical contexts, transcribed and accompanied by notes that explain these contexts. This is archival fieldwork. Like ethnography, such archival fieldwork should understand the power relationships surrounding evidence along with the social and cultural norms that mold it; in other words, the grain of the archive.50

Digitization has transformed archival investigation. With the digitization of entire archives, the archive is no longer a physical repository but a virtual one. Librarians and archivists are considering how digitization may change the forms and politics of selection, access, and representation.51 Africanist historians, such as Premesh Lalu, warn of other political implications—the qualitative transformation of the relationship between knowledge and power—that may occur with the digitization of African archives.52 Even as Lalu and others point to the possibility of a new type of digital imperialism, in particular with international archival collaborations, such as the ill-fated Mellon-funded Aluka project and the Digital Imaging Project of South Africa (DISA), archival digitization holds challenges and possibilities for African archives.53

The methodological implications of digitization are ubiquitous and profound, although less discussed by Africanist historians. Even if archives have not been digitized in their entirety, records of the files are generally electronic in the larger and better-funded archives. Instead of combing through numerous files, a search engine directs the researcher to documents identified by selected keywords. Search engines and virtual archives can reduce the element of surprise—the chance occurrence that uncovers new historical data or drives research in new directions (or, since such chance encounters occur through the overlapping semantic fields of search keywords rather than the combing of files, much depends on the quality of the search algorithm). Encounters with insurgent voices may become less likely. Or, because of the use of search terms, the historian may find certain actors too easily, without appreciating their scarcity in a morass of documentation that would otherwise have to be combed. Digital searching makes it difficult to detect the order of the archive—its grain—with less sense of how folios are organized in files and files relate to one another. The search engine has immense benefits: it can speed up research, and prevent a researcher from missing relevant sources. Physical combing of an archive guided by a trained archivist without overwhelming digital accouterments should not be underestimated as an essential element of archival fieldwork, however.

Recording select documents follows the combing of an archive. Digitization is also transforming the recording of documents. Digital photography (or page reproduction in a digital archive), instead of note-taking, reduces the actual time spent interacting with documents. A researcher enters into the writing up of research before they have read through a complete series of documents. Instead they have photographed an immense number of documents, which will later be selectively searched (digital images can be subjected to full text search). The research phase, sometimes completed as a vast photographic exercise without even reading documents, is collapsed into the writing phase.

To be sure, replicating documents by means of photocopying has long been possible. Photocopying, however, was relatively cumbersome, often costly, and generally had to be undertaken by archivists. (And how many suitcases of photocopies could the researcher carry?) Thus the impact of photocopying, while substantial, was limited. Researchers still had to visit a physical archive, and select those documents they chose to photocopy. And ultimately they had to read—not electronically search—the documents. Even as dense collections could be copied, it was often more effective to transcribe and take notes in the archive. Digital photography has removed many of these limitations of cost, time, and bulk in the production of copies, to immense advantage. However, transcription should still occur. A useful document cannot be appreciated in a single reading or by searching for keywords; transcription allows for an interaction with a document, for an appreciation of the context of the writing of the document, along with its possible meanings.

These methodological transformations in archival research affect different historical fields in uneven ways. Putnam has noted how digitization has been a boon for transnational history even as it compromises the place-based nature of research which was a keystone for Latin American historical research.54 The observation applies to Africanist historical research as well. As decaying documents in African archives are rescued by international collaborations, such as the British Library Endangered Archive Programme, historians will find less need to actually visit the archives in the countries concerned. Digitization may even challenge the nature of place-based Africanist historical expertise. Easier access will probably mean that greater effort needs to be made to understand the archival context, not to mention the ability to understand the importance of documents in relation to broader historical realities.

Digitization holds tremendous advantages for searching and retaining documents; on the other hand, it might compromise the in-depth fieldwork required for appreciation of documentary contexts, orders, and dissonances. The researcher might impress readers with references to numerous archives. But is the grain of these archives appreciated? Do researchers who rely on digital forms of combing and record-taking develop as close an understanding of the archive and its documents as those who rely on note-taking and select photocopying? Will transnational historical research based on virtual archives replace country-specific archival fieldwork? Digital archival fieldwork can be compared to ethnographic fieldwork in virtual reality; the researcher’s view is filtered and partial. The problem is evident. Its solution is not to dismiss digital forms of combing and recording, but to acknowledge and work with their limitations. The speed and efficacy of digital combing and recording needs to be combined with the slower qualitative aspects of archival fieldwork.

Archival Orders and Disorders

The world of the 21st century is moving beyond documents even as they have been instrumental in constructing diverse global modernities. As documents become less a part of our daily lives, they will likely become antiquated historical artifacts that require specialized skills. (Training in reading longhand is already needed). As physical documents become a less familiar aspect of our world, will they remain trusted representatives of external realities? Scholarship could turn toward a methodological positivism that finds that documents faithfully represent past realities, or a postmodern constructivism that views them as fabrications of power. This article has made a case for a middle road: a post-positivist approach to the reading of archives and documents that acknowledges truths evident in documents, but, from postmodern constructivism, also acknowledges archives and documents as sites of power. In doing so, historians can move beyond positivist historical methodology even as they acknowledge its contribution. Following the lead of Farge, the plurality of relations to reality developed by the archive is demonstrated.

The archives bring forward details that disabuse, derail, and straightforwardly break any hope of linearity or positivism. This eruption of words and actions shatters established models, broadens the norm, displaces conventional wisdom once and for all, and often adds a certain confusion to things that have been previously considered simple.55

Africanist historians bring distinctive problems and skills to the interpretation of archives. This stems from an appreciation of the history of the encounters between Africans and the world of documents over the previous two centuries.56 The imposition of regimes of writing and printing have led some historians to view documentary archives as a secondary form of evidence, representing foreign and colonial views. This article has pushed back against such claims: archival research is and should remain a leading generator of Africanist historical knowledge.

Archives are not transparent nor complete views into the past, however. Most Africanist archives have emerged out of colonial (or other) power relationships. The incompleteness of archives has led some scholars to celebrate methodologies of archival serendipity. Luise White encourages us to read hodgepodge “archives in all their disorganized and displaced splendor”; Florence Bernault conjures the “clusters of meaning” that emerge from “disorderly archives” and render “poetic” histories.57 Such approaches may be necessary for some postcolonial archives; they are also encouraged by the digitization of archives. Yet they tend to abandon attempts to understand the grain of the archive, its structural order, and hence the broader context in which documents were produced.

Once fieldwork has revealed the archival grain, historians can view and represent such colonial or postcolonial orders and disorders, along with their constructions of the past. Documents become historically significant through the appreciation of the archive. Knowing the archival grain allows historians to detect dissonances and reveal silences. A document gains in historical meaning when the context of its production and archiving is understood. That archives are sites and repositories of power relations adds meaning to the documents they house; this aspect of archives enhances rather than compromises their value as sources for Africanist historical investigation.

Discussion of the Literature

Philip Curtin wrote a preliminary but still helpful reconnaissance of colonial and national African archives.58 The most useful source for reports on Africanist archival resources is History in Africa: A Journal of Method. Short articles report on the availability of particular archives, their contents, and their accessibility. A useful introduction to archival and documentary sources for precolonial history is Beatrix Heintze and Adam Jones’s European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900.59

An eloquent introduction to the role of archival investigations for all historians, in particular those historians concerned with non-elites, is Arlette Farge’s Allure of the Archives.60 For methodological discussions on archival research in colonial archives, see Ann Stoler’s publications, in particular her Along the Archival Grain.61 Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past introduces historians to the narratives excluded from the archival record, and how to deal creatively with such subaltern silences.62 Thomas Richards has developed a line of inquiry into the imperial archive as an imaginative construction, which views the imperial archive along the same terms that Edward Said viewed the interweaving threads of knowledge that made up Orientalism.63

A few Africanist historians discuss archival theory and method. Caroline Hamilton pioneered an approach to understanding the archive surrounding Shaka Zulu, in her Terrific Majesty, which considers hegemonic archival constructions and their limitations. She has followed through with this analysis with an article on the “backstory” and “biography” of the James Stuart Archive, as well as a useful introduction to the precolonial archive of Southern Africa in the Cambridge History of South Africa.64 Along with Verne Harris and others, Hamilton also encouraged expansive discussions around the concept of archive in South Africa.65 Luise White has a useful discussion on the intersection of colonial and African concepts in the archive in her Speaking with Vampires.66

For non-colonial and “tin-trunk” forms of documentation, see Karin Barber’s Hidden Histories, with vernacular historical concepts that underpin some of these tin-trunk texts, in a collection of essays edited by Derek R. Peterson and Giacomo Macola.67 A useful and diverse introduction to the Islamic archives of West Africa are the essays included in Meanings of Timbuktu, edited by Shamil Jeppe and Souleymane Bachir Daigne.68

There are no published overviews of post-independence archives and few critical discussions of issues relating to research in them. Post-independence archives were a theme for an as yet unpublished 2012 CODESRIA conference.69 Some of the issues surrounding the haphazard nature of historical investigation in postcolonial archives are discussed in a forum organized by Luise White and Gregory Mann and published in History in Africa.70

The practical, political, and methodological issues underlying archival digitization have begun to be explored by librarians and archivists, as in a volume edited by Terry Ballinger and Marion Wallace.71 Some of the accessibility and proprietary issues surrounding digital archival platforms have been explored in Keith Breckenridge’s discussion of the politics and technological issues behind South–North digital archival collaboration.72 With the above exception, Africanist historians have not been part of this discussion. The focus has been the political implications of digitizing existing archival resources, rather than a critical discussion of how digitization affects research methodology and historiography. For an insightful view of how digitization contributes to transnational history and may compromise place-based archival investigation, see Lara Putnam’s essay in the American Historical Review.73

Further Reading

Ballinger, Terry, and Marion Wallace, eds. African Studies in the Digital Age: DisConnects? Leiden: Brill, 2014.Find this resource:

Barber, Karin, ed. Africa’s Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Breckenridge, Keith. “The Politics of the Parallel Archive: Digital Imperialism and the Future of Record-Keeping in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Journal of Southern African Studies 40, no. 3 (2014): 499–519.Find this resource:

Curtin, Philip D. “The Archives of Tropical Africa: A Reconnaissance.” Journal of African History 1, no. 2 (1960): 129–147.Find this resource:

Farge, Arlette. The Allure of the Archives. Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. (Original Le goût de l’archive. Paris: Le Seuil, 1989.)Find this resource:

Hamilton, Caroline. Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Caroline. “Backstory, Biography, and the Life of the James Stuart Archive.” History in Africa 38 (2011): 319–341.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Caroline, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh. Refiguring the Archive. Cape Town: David Phillip, 2002.Find this resource:

Heintze, Beatrix, and Adam Jones, eds. European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa Before 1900: Use and Abuse. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1987.Find this resource:

Putnam, Lara. “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast.” American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (2016): 377–402.Find this resource:

Richards, Thomas. The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire. London and NY: Verso, 1993.Find this resource:

Vansina, Jan. “Is a Journal of Method Still Necessary.” History in Africa 36 (2009): 421–438.Find this resource:

White, Luise. Speaking with the Vampires: Reumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 8.

(3.) Luise White, “Hodgepodge Historiography: Documents, Itineraries and the Absence of Archives,” History in Africa 42 (2015): 309–318.

(4.) There are some exceptions, in particular the study of archival production by South African historians who have discussed the productivity and limits of archives. This article is in some ways an extension of the discussions that they developed. In particular the work of Caroline Hamilton, first in Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); and in Caroline Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, Refiguring the Archive (Cape Town: David Phillip, 2002).

(5.) For Jacques Derrida, archives were a sickness (mal) of modernity that needed deconstruction, in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), original Mal d’Archive: Une impression Freudienne (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1995).

(6.) Drawing inspiration here from Edward Said’s argument for discursive construction of Orientalism, as in Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London and NY: Verso, 1993).

(8.) For Archives Africaines along with related colonial archives in Belgium, see Hugues Legros and Curtis A. Keim, “Guide to African Archives in Belgium,” History in Africa 23 (1996): 401–409.

(9.) A dated but still accurate accounting of the national archives and their relationship to metropolitan archives is Philip D. Curtin, “The Archives of Tropical Africa: A Reconnaissance,” Journal of African History 1, no. 2 (1960): 129–147.

(10.) John Straussberger, “Fractures and Fragments: Finding Postcolonial Histories of Guinea in Local Archives,” History in Africa 42 (2015): 299–307; and White, “Hodgepodge Historiography.”

(11.) Klaas van Walraven’s appendix of archives employed is an excellent account of archives available for late colonial and postcolonial rebellions, in The Yearning for Relief: A History of the Sawaba Movement (Leiden: Brill, 2013). Another recent account of postcolonial rebellion based on country-specific postcolonial archives David M. Gordon’s account of the Lenshina movement, in Invisible Agents: Spirits in a Central African History (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012), ch. 6.

(12.) The vicissitudes of archiving in postcolonial Africa were the subject of a CODESRIA-funded conference, “Archives of Post-Independence Africa and its Diaspora,” Dakar, Senegal, June 20–23, 2012. Abstracts are available through Archives Conference Dakar. For a recent description of the state of Ugandan and Tanzanian national archives, and efforts to preserve them, see Derek Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c. 1935–1972 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 27–29.

(13.) The Endangered Archive Projects is listed and described on the website of the British Library. For well-known international collaborations that led to Timbuktu institutionalization of degraded private archives, see Shamil Jeppe and Souleymane Bachir Daigne, eds., The Meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), esp. Part IV, “The Timbuktu Libraries.” For a lively account of the process of archival institutionalization of Timbuktu libraries, see Joshua Hammer, Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 30–69.

(14.) These include the several hundred private manuscript collections of Timbuktu; Abdel Kader Haidara, “The State of Manuscripts in Mali and Efforts to Preserve Them,” in Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. Jeppe and Daigne, 265–269.

(16.) One of the first examples, often celebrated for oral testimony, was the “tin-trunk” archive held by Kas Maine, the sharecropper whose life is recounted in Charles van Onselen, The Seed Is Mine: The Life of a South African Sharecropper, 1894–1985 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996). For the use of such archives see recent examples, such as Jonathan Earle, Colonial Buganda and End of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Peterson, Ethnic Patriotism, esp. 30–31.

(17.) Often fraught and under-resourced, however, as in the case of the Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu, as in Muhammad Ould Youbba, “The Ahmad Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research,” in Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. Jeppe and Daigne, 287–301.

(18.) Patricia van Schuylenbergh, La Mémoire des belges en Afrique Centrale: Inventaire des Archives Historique privies du Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale de 1885 à nos jours (RMCA: Tervuren Belgium, 1996); Giacomo Macola, ed., The Colonial Occupation of Katanga: The Personal Correspondence of Clément Brasseur, 1893–1897 (British Academy/Oxford University Press, in press. Estimated November 15, 2018).

(19.) See Oral History Archive for digital collections at the Centre for Popular Memory. For a more expansive but less institutionally based virtual collection, see the Aluka archive now housed by JSTOR.

(20.) With some overlap with private “tin-trunk” collections, the Timbuktu collections are discussed in Shamil Jeppe and Souleymane Bachir Daigne , “The Timbuktu Libraries,” in Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. Jeppe and Daigne, Part IV. For a thrilling account of the creation of the Timbuktu archives and their rescue during civil war, see Hammer, Bad-Ass Librarians. For East African Zanzibar National Archives, see Anne K. Bang, “Textual Sources on an Islamic African Past: Arabic Material in Zanzibar’s National Archive,” in Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. Jeppe and Daigne, 349–359.

(21.) Some of these archives have been digitized through international collaborations, such as the UNIP archives digitized through the British Library Endangered Archives Programme, and now available at the British Library in addition to its original archival site in Lusaka, Zambia.

(22.) This approach is suggested, for example, in Vansina, “Is a Journal of Method Still Necessary,” 433–434.

(23.) Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 52.

(24.) “Organized topography” from Farge, Allure, 30.

(25.) With and against the grain is defined in Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, as well as in Natalie Zemon Davis, “Introduction,” in Farge, Allure, xi.

(26.) Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 20.

(27.) Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 22.

(28.) This is a vast literature, but a focused and relevant example is Patrick Harries, Butterflies & Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries & Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2007). For interpreting the missionary archive, see Gordon, Invisible Agents, 16–18.

(29.) Richards, Imperial Archive.

(30.) Farge, Allure, 7.

(32.) Farge, Allure, 30.

(33.) Farge, Allure, 103.

(34.) Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(35.) Marcia Wright, Strategies of Slaves and Women: Life Stories from East/Central Africa (London: James Currey, 1993), 151–178.

(36.) Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), esp. 14–17.

(37.) Linda Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

(38.) See, for example, discussions between anthropologists and colonial administrators in Central Africa over “divine kingship,” in David M. Gordon, “(Dis)embodying Sovereignty: Divine Kingship in Central African Historiography,” Journal of African History 57, no. 1 (2016): 47–67, esp. 49–55.

(39.) Nancy Rose Hunt, A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 21.

(40.) Jean Allman, “Phantoms of the Archives: Kwame Nkrumah, a Nazi Pilot Named Hanna, and the Contingencies of Postcolonial History-Writing,” American Historical Review 118, no. 1 (2013): 104–129; and Florence Bernault, “Suitcases and the Poetics of Oddities: Writing History from Disorderly Archives,” History in Africa 42 (2015): 269–277.

(41.) Hamilton, Terrific Majesty.

(43.) White, Vampires, 242.

(44.) Hunt, Nervous State, 22.

(45.) Terence Ranger, “Nationalist Historiography, Patriotic History and the History of the Nation: The Struggle Over the Past in Zimbabwe,” Journal of Southern African Studies 30, no. 2(2004): 215–234.

(46.) Ranger, “Nationalist Historiography, Patriotic History,” 229–230.

(47.) Bavusile (Brown) Maaba, “The History and Politics of Liberation Archives at Fort Hare,” PhD dissertation (University of Cape Town, 2013).

(48.) Consider, for example, the importance of the UNIP party archives to the political biography of UNIP’s long-time opponent, Harry Nkumbula, in Giacomo Macola, Liberal Nationalism in Central Africa: A Biography of Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

(50.) “Archival fieldwork,” from Gordon, Invisible Agents, 16–17.

(51.) See, for example, on broader aspect of these matters, in the forum by James Mussel, Adeline Koh, Siobhon Senier, and Martha Nell Smith, “Digital Forum,” Journal of Victorian Culture 19, no. 3 (2014): 383–410. This is actually a series of four short articles yet none really discuss Africa in any detail. From an Africanist archival and librarian perspective, issues are covered in Terry Ballinger and Marion Wallace, eds., African Studies in the Digital Age: DisConnects? (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

(52.) Premesh Lalu, “The Virtual Stampede for Africa: Digitisation, Postcoloniality and Archives of the Liberation Struggles in Southern Africa,” Innovations 34 (2007): 28–44.

(54.) Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable.”

(55.) Farge, Allure, 42.

(56.) As recorded in numerous studies; to name some of the most influential: Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), followed by The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Patrick Harries, “Missionaries, Magic, and Marxists: Power and the Politics of Literacy in South-East Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 27, no. 3 (2001): 405–427; Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Paul Landau, The Realm of the Word: Language, Gender and Christianity in a South African Kingdom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993); and Derek Peterson, Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping and the Work of the Imagination in Colonial Kenya (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004).

(57.) White, “Hodgepodge Historiography,” 313; and Bernault, ”Writing History,” 277.

(58.) Curtin, “Archives of Tropical Africa.”

(60.) Farge, Allure.

(61.) Stoler, Along the Archival Grain.

(62.) Trouillot, Silencing the Past.

(63.) Richards, Imperial Archive.

(64.) Hamilton, Terrific Majesty, and “Backstory, Biography, and the Life of the James Stuart Archive”; Caroline Hamilton, Bernard K. Mbenga, and Robert Ross, “The Production of Precolonial South African History,” in Cambridge History of South Africa, ed. Caroline Hamilton, Bernard K. Mbenga, and Robert Ross, Vol. 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–62.

(65.) Hamilton et al., Refiguring the Archive.

(66.) White, Vampires.

(67.) Derek R. Peterson and Giacomo Macola, eds., Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009).

(68.) Jeppe and Daigne, eds., Meanings of Timbuktu.

(69.) “Archives of Post-Independence Africa and its Diaspora,” Dakar, Senegal, June 20–23, 2012.

(70.) Luise White and Gregory Mann, “Introduction: Suitcases, Roads, and Archives: Writing the History of Africa after 1960.” Relevant articles include White, “Hodgepodge Historiography”; Bernault, “Writing History”; and Straussberger, “Fractures and Fragments.”

(71.) Ballinger and Wallace, African Studies in the Digital Age.

(72.) Breckenridge, “Politics of the Parallel Archive.”

(73.) Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable.”