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.