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Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History

Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History

by Antoinette Burton

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Despite the importance of archives to the profession of history, there is very little written about actual encounters with them—about the effect that the researcher’s race, gender, or class may have on her experience within them or about the impact that archival surveillance, architecture, or bureaucracy might have on the histories that are ultimately


Despite the importance of archives to the profession of history, there is very little written about actual encounters with them—about the effect that the researcher’s race, gender, or class may have on her experience within them or about the impact that archival surveillance, architecture, or bureaucracy might have on the histories that are ultimately written. This provocative collection initiates a vital conversation about how archives around the world are constructed, policed, manipulated, and experienced. It challenges the claims to objectivity associated with the traditional archive by telling stories that illuminate its power to shape the narratives that are “found” there.

Archive Stories brings together ethnographies of the archival world, most of which are written by historians. Some contributors recount their own experiences. One offers a moving reflection on how the relative wealth and prestige of Western researchers can gain them entry to collections such as Uzbekistan’s newly formed Central State Archive, which severely limits the access of Uzbek researchers. Others explore the genealogies of specific archives, from one of the most influential archival institutions in the modern West, the Archives nationales in Paris, to the significant archives of the Bakunin family in Russia, which were saved largely through the efforts of one family member. Still others explore the impact of current events on the analysis of particular archives. A contributor tells of researching the 1976 Soweto riots in the politically charged atmosphere of the early 1990s, just as apartheid in South Africa was coming to an end. A number of the essays question what counts as an archive—and what counts as history—as they consider oral histories, cyberspace, fiction, and plans for streets and buildings that were never built, for histories that never materialized.

Contributors. Tony Ballantyne, Marilyn Booth, Antoinette Burton, Ann Curthoys, Peter Fritzsche, Durba Ghosh, Laura Mayhall, Jennifer S. Milligan, Kathryn J. Oberdeck, Adele Perry, Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, John Randolph, Craig Robertson, Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, Jeff Sahadeo, Reneé Sentilles

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Archive Stories is path-breaking in its subject matter, methodology, and up-to-date reflection on the status of historical knowledge. It is hard to see how anyone can avoid using this important anthology in methodology and historiography courses.”—Bonnie G. Smith, author of The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice

“Important and timely, this fascinating collection of tales from a multitude of repositories and record offices removes all sorts of archives from the historian’s grasp (though there are many extraordinary and brave historians writing here) and restores their meaning to politics and society, to the telling of individual and collective pasts.”—Carolyn Steedman, author of Dust: The Archive and Cultural History

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Archive Stories


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3677-8

Chapter One


Close Encounters


Durba Ghosh

National Narratives and the Politics of Miscegenation


HISTORIANS LONG TO TELL their archive stories, but unlike anthropologists, sociologists, and even political scientists, our narratives of fieldwork have little purchase within the professional standards of our discipline, which demand a certain level of professional distance that makes history "objective," rendering the archive as a finite site of knowledge about the past. And yet historians' archive stories often reflect the process by which historical knowledge is gathered, narrated, and represented. Archival research is an important credential in the career of a historian, often making or breaking our claims to "truth" and positivism. In processing the so-called primary sources of the archives into the secondary sources used by other scholars and students of history, it is a largely inadmissible secret that our work is often shaped by archival conditions beyond our control, conditions such aswhether the archivist or librarian is sympathetic or drawn to the project, whether the proposed topic or research is congenial to particular types of national narratives, and whether the nation-state in which we do our research is invested in preserving and protecting the records we need.

My archive stories are drawn from the radically different responses in the two nations in which I did research, showing the ways in which what seemed like a great project in Britain was a terrible, even unspeakable one in India. If there is a lesson in these anecdotes, it is that national narratives and identities remain strong features in the production of histories, particularly in the ways that histories are fashioned from the spaces and conventions of national archives and libraries. In spite of recent efforts to downplay the importance of the nation and look at our historical projects transnationally, the ways in which archives are national institutions that regulate access by scholars, both formally and informally, often structure the information historians are able to retrieve. In presenting a personal "ethnography of the archive," this essay examines the stories and advice that were offered to me in encounters that I had with people who inhabit the archive-archivists, librarians, and other scholars-as a way of exploring the national and political investments that many archives and archive dwellers maintain in spite of a quickly globalizing and transnational world.

This essay seeks to expand our definitions of the kinds of knowledges that archives produce by destabilizing the notion that archives are only places of impersonal encounters with printed documents. As Nicholas Dirks and Ann Stoler have argued, a complete ethnography of the archive examines the logic of the archive, its forms of classification, ordering, and exclusions. As well, however, I would argue that an ethnography of the archive should include accounts of our exchanges with the people we meet and dialogue with in the process of our research. Doing research in archives in which we are "foreign" (in one way or another) is particularly fraught. As Jeff Sahadeo shows in his essay in this volume, the archive is an important "contact zone" that brings foreign scholars together with indigenous scholars and archivists, often producing a confrontation over what counts as history. When historians research colonial histories drawing largely from documents that are housed within the archives of colonizing and colonized nations, safeguarded by civil servants whose own relationship to the archive is a central part of the historian's archival encounter, the histories we write are inextricably bound up with archive stories. By telling these stories explicitly, we can remain mindful of the very powerful political and nationalist investments that continue to gird historical narratives, particularly when our projects challenge the history that those committed to maintaining the archive would like us to write and record.

My research topic was on local women who cohabited with or married European men in the long eighteenth century, circa 1760 to 1840, that coincided with roughly the first century of British rule in India. Represented in many historical accounts as a golden age in which racial hierarchies were nonexistent, the coupling of white men and brown women represented the tolerance observed between Britons and Indians in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. Sometimes partnered with a lowercase orientalism, in which East India Company men studied Asian languages and cultures for pleasure and curiosity, living conjugally with a native woman was often read as a sign of living like a native, participating in local culture to its fullest, and reflecting the most productive (and reproductive) aspects of early Anglo-Indian "friendship." For my own part, I have always been suspicious that these relationships were as carefree and consensual for the native women as they were for the men, so I started the project hoping to find out more about how women became involved in these relationships, what sorts of cultural and ethnic borders they crossed, and what kinds of racial, class, and gender dynamics structured their experiences.

Although my project was an investigation into the intimate domestic lives of British men living in India some two hundred years ago, it impinged greatly on the public perceptions that Indians and Britons today have of their past. My experience of doing research demonstrated that this shared history between Britain and India was hotly contested, given their respective nationalist narratives. In India, both in Calcutta and in New Delhi where I did my research, many archivists and librarians denied that native women became sexually involved with European men. In the process of delegitimizing the topic as an appropriate one for writing a dissertation, they marginalized the practice of interracial cohabitation as something that was "not respectable" or, alternately, "something Muslim women did." Distaste for the notion of interracial sex involving Indian (read: Hindu) women was expressed to me many times over by historians, archivists, librarians, and various library hangers-on, even security guards with time to waste, as they examined the contents of my purse. Much as in Craig Robertson's account of his encounter with the archives of the United States in this volume, these men and women acted as gatekeepers to the archive, controlling and mediating my entry into Indian archives by stressing what they thought was "important" to archive and catalogue. Their antipathy, by no means uncommon in my travels through the archives of northern India, reflects the ways in which contemporary anxieties about the sexual purity of Hindu Indian women are folded into a historical imagination in which "good" Indian women were necessarily Hindu and only ever slept with men of their own race, religion, and caste.

Perhaps because I am female, and was then young and unmarried, and so perceived as naïve about the workings of interracial sex, my presence invited advice of many sorts. My own status as a high-caste Hindu woman was often referred to; one gentleman in the Calcutta High Court library, upon noting that I seemed like a girl of a good family, asked if my parents knew what type of research I was doing. Another gentleman, while delivering my documents to me, noted that what I was working on was not particularly savory or respectable. The equivalent of "what is a nice girl like you doing working on something like this?," these questions highlight how closely our topics for study make us the objects of everyday surveillance within the archive. One archivist, upon hearing that my topic was on something that was, in his mind, mundane and everyday could not believe that I was doing a Ph.D. at Berkeley, an American institution that he held in high esteem; after some convincing that I was a "real" historian, he shook his head and concluded that Berkeley had once been a fine institution-implying that Berkeley's perceived downfall in academic circles was directly related to my outré topic. While I was busy reading the archives, I found the archives were reading me.

In London, on the other hand, from the white-haired old ladies doing genealogical research to the young Cambridge-educated journalists and the many librarians and archivists who staff the reference desk at the India Office Library, it seemed that everyone I talked to about my topic was keen to tell me about their familial connection to a native woman. Among those doing family history in the rooms of the old India Office Library on Blackfriars Road, I became a type of resident expert, helping them to decode the archival proof of native women, particularly since the colonial archives had been especially effective at restricting the ways in which the names of native women were registered in colonial records. For some Britons, admitting that one is mixed-race, even a little, has recently become a sign of a cosmopolitan identity, making light brown into the new black in cool Britannia, at least in some circles. Despite the longstanding ambivalence Britain has had in its dealings with black Britons, library goers and archive hangers-on in Britain seemed especially drawn to accounts of cross-cultural sex. Indeed, the recent bestseller by William Dalrymple, White Mughals, about a British political agent in the court at Hyderabad and his love affair with a young native noblewoman, has sold over sixty thousand copies in the British Isles, showing the extent of the mainstream appeal for colonial histories of interracial sex. Dalrymple's book, a true story skillfully dramatized by his narrative style, has proved so enticing that it has been optioned for a Hollywood film treatment and a play at the National Theater.

These differing claims about the relative acceptability of histories of interracial conjugality suggest that miscegenation and racial hybridity have an appeal in Britain that they certainly do not in India. As noted, to be mostly white, with a tinge of brown, is to be cosmopolitan for some in an increasingly multicultural Britain. Having a native woman as ancestor perhaps gives people license to claim they are not racist or intolerant of racial and ethnic difference. While this is an admirable sign of cross-cultural and interracial appreciation, a celebration of miscegenation serves a particular type of postcolonial agenda in Britain: it diminishes the overall violence of colonial activity and promotes a vision (not always accurate) of a culturally and racially tolerant postimperial twenty-first-century Britain in which Indians are putatively claimed as biologically and culturally part of the colonial family. The problems of racial tension are overwritten by narratives of familial sentiment, conjugal and companionate love, and more important, by narratives of romantic intimacy that suggest that both sides were somehow uplifted by the multilayered experience of the colonial encounter.

For many Indians, to have the slightest tinge of white is to be racially contaminated, socially suspect, and more important, insufficiently Indian. To the many Indian archivists, librarians, and scholars that I spoke with, the idea that "Indian" women slept with Europeans was only acceptable if they were marked as Muslim-or Portuguese; this type of marking implicitly supported the common belief that only women of marginal groups were likely to be sexually promiscuous with foreigners and other outsiders. This sanitized history of interracial sex rewrites India's colonial centuries as ones in which Hindus remained racially pure by observing endogamy, Hindu women remained sexually faithful to their tribes and castes, and Europeans slept only with women who were marginal to Indian society. The impression many had that only non-Hindu women slept with foreigners and that this was not an appropriate history to write is consonant with a longstanding and enduring vision of history that dates to the colonial era in which non-Hindu, low-caste women are not seen as Indian or as rightful subjects of India's pasts and history. Moreover, relying on what has become a hegemonic female ideal in Hindutva ideology, these often expressed views positing Hindu female virtue and purity versus Muslim promiscuity show the ways in which communal categories remain very prominent in mainstream and common cultural perceptions within India about what kinds of topics are worthy for history dissertations on colonial South Asia.

In both nations, these competing visions of history intersect with political and cultural agendas that reflect how contemporary Britons and Indians identify and affiliate with their respective postcolonial nations. As in Sahadeo's account of the Central State Archive in Uzbekistan below, there might as well have been a sign over the door of the archives I visited that read "Without the past there is no future." By consolidating and defending national identifications with particular pasts, the archive dwellers and hangers-on I encountered showed me that researching, sharing, and writing histories are necessarily shaped by highly politicized visions of India's and Britain's future. In India, colonialism, in spite of all its cataclysmic effects, becomes a historical development that left (and continues to leave) the contemporary middle-class Indian (again, read: Hindu) family untouched and "pure." Enacting a version of Partha Chatterjee's model middle-class Bengali household, narratives that deny the existence of interracial sex protect the putative Indian family's women from the "material" and penetrative forces of colonialism, particularly European men. In Britain, common references to an Indian granny or half-sister or niece seemed to bring empire into biological if not psychological proximity at a time when the British empire itself is territorially small and ebbing away from mainstream awareness.

If the goal of transnational histories is to unsettle national narratives, what is clear is that people who identify as "British" or "Indian" are deeply invested in maintaining certain forms of national belonging, providing historians of empire with an important challenge to the project of breaking down the boundaries between metropole and colony, between colonizers and those who were formerly colonized. While I am largely sympathetic with Tony Ballantyne's ground-breaking strategies for examining archives transnationally and undercutting national histories, we can make more of the confrontations between different national histories and the ways in which they produce competing fictions to which men and women become attached as a part of forming national affiliations. My use of "fiction" here is not meant to pit literature against history but to examine the productive tensions between the two. Following Doris Sommer, who argues that national literatures act as allegories for the nation because they enable communities to imagine and discipline themselves as a collective, my goal is to examine the ways in which the types of stories people told me in relation to my project indicated their investments in their respective nations and the ways in which they felt I should conduct my research. Many Indians were reluctant to admit that their history was shared in such an intimate way with Britons and discouraged such a topic, while some Britons were keen to acknowledge a certain level of familial and conjugal attachment and applauded my project. This disjuncture often affected the documents that became available to me in the archives in which I did research.


Excerpted from Archive Stories Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Antoinette Burton is Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is the Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies. She is the author of Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late Colonial India and At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain. She is the editor of After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation and a coeditor of Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, both also published by Duke University Press. With Jean Allman, she edits The Journal of Women’s History.

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