In class last night, we closed with a conversation about archival power. I’ve read a bit on the topic, notably some of Jarrett M. Drake’s writing in OnArchivy, but last night I was especially struck by the global implications of archival practice, especially as a tool of colonialism. It jogged my memory, and when I went home, I dug out a Radiolab episode from 2015: “Mau Mau.” In less than 45 minutes, this episode shows how archives have been a tool of colonial control, worked to preserve dissent, and ultimately (in this case) became a tool for revealing colonialist abuses (60 years too late).
You should listen to the episode, but if you don’t, here’s a brief version. In the 1950s, a popular rebellion sprang up to the British colonial regime in Kenya. The stories that spread around the world were of a fearsome terrorist group calling itself the Mau Mau committing horrific acts of violence. Those acts happened. Then the Mau Mau went quiet. The British handed over power to Kenyans in 1963 and left. Beginning in the 1990s, historians (such as Caroline Elkins) working in Kenya started to find stray papers in the national archives that documented internment camps. Elkins set out on a massive oral history project to gather the story of the British suppression of the Mau Mau and found horrific tales of torture and concentration camps. Using this evidence, several elderly Kenyans brought suit against the British government. They were told they would lose, but then they didn’t when the British government was required to provide evidence of its own misdeeds from its tightly-held archives.
In this story, archival power manifests itself in many ways. As a tool of colonialism, archives supported oppression and subjugation, collecting the documents of control and privileging the voice of the colonizer over the colonized. When the British left Kenya, they exerted their power one more time, by taking their archives with them. In many colonies, retreating Europeans simply destroyed archival material, but even when these documents were saved, they were restricted. In the Mau Mau case, the papers seem to have survived as the voice of dissenting colonial functionaries, cataloging their objection to the crushing of the Mau Mau.
Perhaps most illuminating is the fact that it took archival material for the Mau Mau veterans to be believed. In our current post-truth moment, it seems especially important to question why this particular form of evidence is the only one that seems to matter. It seems clear that racism played a role in doubts of the Kenyan witnesses, but surely there were some surviving British diplomats who remembered the events; would they have been believed?
It is the sense that a written document is self-evident that supports oppression in the archives. The sheer extent of materials, half glimpsed on rows of shelves through a doorway or issuing in an endless stream on rolling carts, seems to suggest some platonic evidentiary whole and support the truth of archival research. While it is clear that the archives are not exhaustive and that collecting can fill in some of the gaps, I think it might also be helpful to emphasize the extent to which documents are not complete proof of anything in and of themselves. It is only in connection with other sources that a document can mean anything.
Also we should believe people.