Monthly Archives: February 2014

Imperial and Global History and the French National Archives

In the next installment in our series on archival research, Joanna Warson guides us through the complexities of the French National Archives, highlighting collections that are of particular relevance to Imperial and Global History:

Archival research is, in the words of Richard Evans, ‘rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces are scattered all over the house in several boxes, some of which have been destroyed, and where once it is put together, a significant number of the pieces are still missing’.[1] The difficult task of uncovering, accessing and piecing together the fragments of the past has only increased with the rise of Imperial and Global history, with scholars seeking documents from multiple archives in numerous countries. Nowhere, I would argue, is this challenge more acute than in the study of French foreign and imperial policy, something I have experienced first hand over the past five years while conducting research into French involvement in Anglophone Africa during the age of decolonisation.

french archives

Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine © Joanna Warson, 2014

Whilst it is common practice for historians of Imperial and Global history to make use of a variety of archives, both nationally and internationally, the highly decentralised nature of the French archival system further increases the number of archives available to historians of France overseas. This is apparent, most notably, in the case of the French National Archives. Although called the Archives Nationales, this archive is not, as is the case with the UK National Archives at Kew, located all in one place. Instead, there are three Archives Nationales sites located across the French capital – one in the heart of Marais district of central Paris, which houses all material from the Middle Ages and the Ancien Régime; a second site at Fontainebleau, housing a wide variety private archives; and finally, the most recent addition, a site at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, housing all material relating to the period after the French Revolution in 1789. Of particular note at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine is the Presidential Archive, which provides insight into the workings of the Elysée Palace, an institution central to French foreign policy, especially after the advent of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The Presidential Archives had a reputation for being notoriously difficult to access but there are now published catalogues available for many of the Presidential Archives, including Charles De Gaulle,[2] and, although a dérogation (a special permission granted by the Elysée, which can sometimes take months to come through) is required to view any document, these papers are gradually becoming more readily available to researchers.

However, this is far from the whole picture, since these so-called National Archives do not house all official French papers. Instead, there are separate archives for the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Colonies, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, to name but a few, which are located not only around Paris but across France. And the plethora of archives does not stop there. There are, for example, two different archives housing material emanating from the French Foreign Ministry. Firstly, there is the Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, recently relocated from the Quai d’Orsay in central Paris, to a vast, modern building in La Courneuve, five miles from the centre of the capital. Here you can find the papers of the Central Administration of the French Foreign Ministry relating to bilateral and multilateral engagement overseas. There are some limitations to this archive. Whilst an electronic document request system is now in place, catalogues are currently only available in paper form at the Archives itself. In addition, although the majority of documents housed here are fully de-classified, some of the material listed in the inventories is only available by a personal request to the archivist responsible for that particular collection. And, although it is easy enough to make such a request via email, the likelihood of actually gain access to all the material you desire is slim (I speak from experience!)

The second archive of the French Foreign Ministry, the Archives Diplomatiques, is located in the city of Nantes, two and a half hours by train from Paris, and houses papers repatriated from France’s diplomatic representations overseas. Although there is some overlap with the material kept at La Courneuve, this small and friendly archive is a personal favourite of mine. The atmosphere is relaxed, evidenced by the looser security arrangements and the more flexible approach to document requests, and archivists may seek out documents on your behalf if you let them know what you are working on. It is possible to download a basic version of the catalogue in PDF form in advance of your visit and the archive houses material from as recent as the year 2000. In my experience, these collections are a real gold mine, and I would highly recommend a visit if you are working on any aspect of French Imperial and Global history.

The final French archive that I used during the course of my doctoral research is the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, located – rather fortuitously one might say – in Aix-en-Provence. This is a rich archive housing material produced by the various ministries charged with the French Colonial Empire from the 17th to the 20th century. It also includes papers from the local administrations of France’s former colonies, various private archives and an impressive collection of photographs maps and books. There is an excellent digital catalogue for the majority of the archive’s collections, and the staff are knowledgeable and keen to help. Combined with the obvious pleasures of working in the south of France, this archive is a delight and should not be missed by Imperial and Global historians of France.

For further practical advice regarding the archives discussed in this blog, please visit the Society for the Study of French History’s website.

[1] Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), p.89

[2] Nicole Evans, Archives de la Présidence de la République. Général de Gaulle (1949-1969) (Paris, 2012).

Accessing Archives in Myanmar (Burma)

In the next installment in our series on archival research, Jonathan Saha reflects on his experience of working in Myanmar and raises some important questions about the ‘politics of knowledge production’ and the inequity of access to archival resources in the Global South:

Many academic disciplines have their own particular site for ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies. Anthropologists have the ‘field’. Scientists have the ‘laboratory’. Archaeologists have the ‘dig’. Medics have the ‘dissection room’. For historians, this special place is the archive. Amongst those historians studying the formerly colonised world, the ceremony is supposed to be a particularly gruelling one – and it often is. From my peers I’ve heard tell of intransigent, indifferent and unscrupulous archivists, and of animal-infested, dilapidated buildings filled with disintegrating records. In the anecdotes and stories shared between us, there is a certain pride at having come out of these places alive and having glimpsed the precious materials hidden within them. The experience validates both our research and our expertise. It is, therefore, with a small amount of embarrassment that I inform you that my own experiences of conducting archival research in the National Archives of Myanmar (formerly, and still to many, Burma) have been nothing but pleasant and productive.


Figure 1: Some old colonial-era houses in Yangon © Jonathan Saha, 2008

I first visited the National Archives of Myanmar in 2008 whilst I was researching for my PhD. It is located in Yangon and I arrived during the rainy season. Besides my research, it offered a welcome retreat from the elements. The building itself was an old merchant’s house constructed in the nineteenth century. It is a great example of the imperial architecture for which Yangon is receiving justified attention. The reading room has lovely wooden floors and was kitted out with a much appreciated air-conditioner. At any given point during my research there were never more than a handful of fellow researchers working in the archive. This meant that there was often an archivist per researcher, and usually several. The material from the colonial period has been catalogued and most has been copied onto microfilm and microfiche. Whilst reading the scrawl of British officials on a microfiche reader is not the easiest activity on the human eyeball, I had no trouble accessing the material I requested. I spent every possible moment in the archive reading through document after document, noting down those I wanted putting onto a CD to take home with me. The whole process was, future impairments to my vision aside, painless.

My most recent visit was in 2012. Whilst the impact of the liberalisation of the economy and the reform of political structures was marked in the city, my experience of the archive was the same: helpful staff and easily accessible records. The only noticeable difference was that the building appeared to be full of kittens. Loads of them. This was undeniably distracting, but other than finding I was spending ten minutes at a time watching them fight and play in the corridors, they didn’t really effect my research. Access on both occasions was easy to arrange. There is a fee of $30 for foreigners using the archives, and much smaller fees for local researchers (roughly the equivalent of 50 pence). I provided a brief outline of my intended research, supplied a letter from my home institution, and obtained a letter of support from a member of the Myanmar Historical Commission, a group of, mostly elderly, established and respected academic historians based in the country. Whether I received access so easily because my research was deemed so banal as not to warrant concern, I can’t say, but once I was working in the archive I had no problems consulting material tangentially and remotely connected to by initial research interests. In short, getting permission to research on the colonial period was a straightforward procedure.

The ease with which I was able to consult the material in the National Archives of Myanmar masks the structural privilege of being able to research in the Global South. The struggles of my peers to get access to archives brought home to them the politics of knowledge production. Instances of bribery revealed the difficult conditions for poorly paid archival staff. The broken buildings and rotten documents showed the material challenges of maintaining archives with limited economic resources. That I didn’t encounter these problems also got me to reflect on who could and couldn’t access these records. In 2008, following the devastation of cyclone Nargis and the earlier monk-led protests, the population of Yangon were under considerable political surveillance. During my time in the city, a bomb exploded in the park next to my hotel. The military were a visible presence and the streets in the centre were almost deserted after 10pm. Despite recent reforms, and particularly outside Yangon, repressive state practices continue and likely inform who has access to the archives. In addition, the deterioration of Myanmar’s education system during military rule (although literacy rates remain high) has led to a shrinking of the academic community. By virtue of my institutional backing, my nationality and relative wealth, I had access to resources that majority of the Burmese population did not.

Privileged access is not a problem limited to Myanmar. Comparatively (if my colleagues’ tales are true) the archive in Yangon is in many respects a well-functioning and open institution. However, that those from the former colonising nation can access the documentation of the colonial regime more easily than the majority of the formerly colonised, should give us cause to think about our responsibilities as researchers.

The Cayman Islands National Archive: A haven for historians, as well as taxes…

One of the Network’s objectives is to connect historians working on similar topics or geographic areas. Our Researcher Map documents where our members have carried out archival research and here on the blog members write about their archival work, drawing attention to important archival resources, providing helpful advice, or discussing how the preservation of and access to archival material is often linked to broader social, political, and economic issues. So if you’ve been somewhere interesting for archival work, whether in the U.K., Europe, the U.S. or further afield, then we want to hear about it.

In the first of our blogs on this topic Dr Daniel Spence discusses how social and economic changes in Cayman Islands have contributed to a drive to preserve the islands’ heritage through the creation of an impressive oral history collection.


It’s fair to say that most people’s view of the Cayman Islands probably resembles something from a Duran Duran video; a Caribbean playground for sun-kissed nouveau-riche playboys on private yachts, smoking Cuban cigars and quaffing champagne bought from hedge funds, tax evasion, and shady financial dealing, while the rest of us (impoverished historians), a layer of dust coating our archival pallor, are shamelessly left to self-promotional blogging in the forlorn hope that someone with real power and money might actually notice and give us a job! Yet, these two worlds are not quite as disconnected as they may seem. Historians actually have a lot of reason to thank the bankers (begrudgingly) because it was the seismic social and economic changes they helped usher in that indirectly stimulated efforts to preserve Cayman’s cultural heritage.

Local legend has it that the Islands’ tax free status originates in 1794, when on the 8 February 10 British ships led by HMS Convert were wrecked off the East End of Grand Cayman. The local residents were able to rescue all but eight of the passengers and crew, leading King George III to express his gratitude by declaring that the Islanders would thenceforth be free from conscription and taxes, or so the story goes…


No documentation, however, exists in support of this and it was not until after the introduction of the Companies and Trust Laws of the 1960s that the Cayman Islands became one of the world’s leading offshore financial centres. A population of just 10,000 in 1970 has grown to almost six times that number today, with only 50% of these residents Caymanian, and supplemented by an additional 1.5 million tourists arriving annually, often aboard cruise ships. In the wake of this social and economic transformation ‘the old ways began to be forgotten and, indeed, in the minds of some, grew the idea that Cayman did not have a culture of its own, which in turn led to a sort of cultural inferiority complex’.[i] Concerns about losing the Islands’ heritage meant a law was passed in 1979 to establish a Cayman Islands National Museum on Grand Cayman (housed in Georgetown’s Old Courthouse since 1991). Yet, many efforts were led by volunteers on the ground; inhabitants of Cayman Brac, known as ‘Brackers’, established their own small museum at Stake Bay,[ii] while other Caymanians began recording interviews with older residents on audio tape. Their efforts evolved into the ‘Memory Bank’, recognized by Government and incorporated into the Cayman Islands National Archive (CINA) in 1991,[iii] which moved to its current location a year later.


Though the CINA holds Government and legal records, locally-published newspapers, magazines and rare books, personal diaries, letters, photographs, film, and maps, arguably its richest and most unique resource is its oral history collection. 67 tapes in 1990 grew into 988 by 1998, including 874 transcriptions.[iv] This featured interviews dating back to 1978, while new ones continue to be regularly added, including those I recorded in July 2010 with three of the Islands’ last surviving veterans from the Second World War: William Harvey Ebanks, Carley Ebanks, and Thomas Ewart Ebanks (sadly only Ewart remains with us, seen below fifth from left). These meetings were arranged with the kind and passionate support of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association.

I spent three weeks on research in Grand Cayman during July 2010, though I began my preparations in January. Thankfully, the CINA’s web presence is much better than many other archives I’ve worked in (even appearing on youtube now), while an email address is listed in the Imperial War Museum’s guide for tracing West Indian servicemen – though this otherwise useful document fails to mention its oral history recordings. Impressively, I received a reply from one of the archivists within a week. Her assistance was invaluable as it became clear just how large their oral history collection was, and over several emails and weeks she produced a bespoke document of interview summaries and references directly relevant to my research. This allowed me to hit the ground running once I entered the building.


Unfortunately this was where I encountered my only real problem of the trip. If anything, it was actually disadvantageous getting everything organised so far ahead. When I did arrive four months later, I encountered what was essentially a construction site with no public access to the main entrance, no indication as to whether anyone was actually in the building, and had no phone to call them. After prowling the perimeter in the hot Caribbean sun, I finally managed to find one of the construction workers and convince him to try and contact someone inside the building for me. Eventually one of the archivists popped her head out from the top floor, somewhat surprised, and told me the colleague I’d been corresponding with was on maternity leave, there was no record of my appointment, and they were closed to general visits during the renovation work. As appealing as the prospect of having nothing to do but lie on a beach for 3 weeks was, I implored that I had spent a fortune travelling all the way from the UK to research my PhD there, and she eventually told me to return after the weekend.

Thankfully when I did, everything proceeded smoothly and productively. You need to present your passport or driver’s licence to receive a free Reader’s ticket. Usually no more than a couple of people are using the archives at the same time and often for shorter periods, not the whole day (though they have occasional school visits), so an archivist is almost always close at hand to assist and documents are retrieved quickly. You’re allowed to use laptops and can access a plug, though you can’t use a camera freely; anything you want to photograph will be charged and needs archival approval, or you can pay for a photocopy. Very conveniently, the oral history transcriptions are shelved in the main reading room, allowing you to consult them at your leisure. As the aim of the Memory Bank was to preserve the traditional ways of life for the Islanders, the majority of interviews are recorded in the form of autobiographical narratives, but specific subjects can be identified through the physical catalogue which contains summaries and keywords.


Very little academic historical study has been conducted on the Cayman Islands, despite the rich possibilities these sources offer. Geographic isolation, lack of terrestrial resources, and no significant plantation economy meant that for centuries the Caymans remained ‘the islands that time forgot’.[v] Yet, these very limitations drove Caymanians to make use of the only resource available to them – the sea. Maritime traditions evolved around boatbuilding, rope-making, turtling and sharking, with Caymanian fishermen forging transnational connections along the Mosquito Coast of modern-day Honduras and Nicaragua. These nautical skills meant Caymanians were sought-after as seamen for the Royal and Merchant Navies during the Second World War, providing the largest contribution per capita of any country in that global conflict.[vi] The professional experience and reputation gained by these men, and the wider networks it exposed them to, provided post-war employment aboard bulk carriers and tankers all over the world.

The changing political status of the Cayman Islands also offers some interesting research possibilities. The Cayman Islands were governed as a dependency of Jamaica, posing a potential study of sub-imperialism; until the dissolution of the Federation of the West Indies in 1962 saw the Islanders elect to become a dependency of the United Kingdom, which they remain today, presenting a paradoxical case of ‘re-colonisation’ at time of sweeping global decolonisation. Whilst opening the Caymans up to international finance has increased their economic status, generating the highest standard of living in the Caribbean and attracting younger immigrants, it also created a disparity in wealth for older Caymanians rooted to the Islands.


These social, economic and political transformations raise some important questions for historians of British imperialism. What has been the impact of this immigration, primarily from the US, on Caymanian identity, particularly with regard to the UK, Queen, and notions of ‘Britishness’? And how do the National Archives and other ‘local’ cultural institutions contribute to the continuation of this imperial connection?

These are important questions and could easily complement wider projects on decolonisation and post-imperial identity and connections. The Cayman Islands National Archive is therefore an enticing resource for imperial and global historians: with its largely untapped, rare and well-organised collection of primary sources, helpful archival staff (in undeniably pleasant surroundings), it’s the perfect destination for ‘academic tourists’!

Opening times and contact details:

9am – 4.30pm, Monday to Friday (last appointment at 3.30pm)

Tel: +1 345 949 9809

Fax: +1 345 949 9727



[i] Heather R. McLaughlin, ‘The Cayman Islands Memory Bank: Collecting and Preserving Oral History in Small Island Societies’, in John McIllwaine and Jean I. Whiffin (eds.), Collecting and Safeguarding the Oral Traditions: An International Conference (Munich, 2001), p.113.

[ii] Roger C. Smith, The Maritime Heritage of the Cayman Islands (Florida, 2000), pp.179-80.

[iii] McLaughlin, p.113.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Michael Craton, Founded Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People (Kingston, 2003), p.253.

[vi] For more see Daniel Owen Spence, ‘“They had the sea in their blood”: Caymanian naval volunteers in the Second World War’, in Nir Arielli and Bruce Collins (eds.), Transnational Soldiers: Foreign Military Enlistment in the Modern Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

A Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Post-Doc. Research Proposal

It might not feel like it at times but every PhD student knows that the thesis will one day be finished and that means planning for post-PhD life. Although universities are increasingly providing PhD students with training in order to better prepare them for a career in academia, many early career researchers remain unsure of what opportunities are out there, how to navigate the academic job market, or how to put together a successful research application.

With in this mind, we asked the University of Exeter’s Dr David Thackeray, an AHRC Fellow, Professor Richard Toye, the Department of History’s Director of Research, and Dr Gareth Curless, an ESRC Future Research Leader, for their advice on how to write a successful post-doctoral research proposal.

Richard, drawing on a similar post from his blog, provides an overview of how to write a research proposal, while David and Gareth offer some advice on how to tackle the challenges presented by a Research Council application. If you have any suggestions of your own, please post them in the comments below!

Richard Toye:

1. A statement of the topic and why it is important and interesting.

2. A summary of the existing historiography.

3. Some reflection on the deficiencies/limitations of the historiography.

4. A description of the sources that you intend to use, and how they will enable you to overcome those limitations.

5. Detail is good: not just which archives/sources but how they will help your project.

6. Needs to show development from PhD work – be distinct from it without moving away from it so far that it becomes implausible.

7. Specify (within reason) which journals/publishers you are aiming at. But don’t make your list of proposed outputs unrealistically long.

David Thackeray:

1. Get to know the Research Support team at your university. Often they will be able to provide you with previous successful applications from your institution for the funding scheme you’re applying for. Looking at past applications is great for getting a feel for how to structure your application (I learnt a lot from an application on medieval liturgy).

2. Think about potential project partners. Research councils are placing an increasing emphasis on encouraging academics to organise public ‘impact’ activities with organisations outside the academic sector. It’s worth giving thought early to who you might like to work with and then making contact with them. This doesn’t have to be a major national or international institution, think about what local museums, heritage organisations, or creative institutions you might already have links with. The list of regional partner organisations for the AHRC Doctoral Programme gives a sense of some of the opportunities available:

3. Be creative. A few months ago I attended the first conference for successful applicants under the new AHRC fellowship scheme. Having thought that aspects of my application were quite left-field before then, I was quite surprised by how many humanities and social sciences academics were engaged in activities such as documentary making and creative theatre. The core message of the day was to focus on creative, inter-disciplinary and experimental forms of research and public engagement, rather than worrying too much about the REF.

4. Plan early- ideally for about 12 months before you put your application in. Many schemes have long and unwieldy applications and the last thing you want to be doing while in the middle of teaching or finishing your thesis is rushing to make a research council deadline. It’s worth signing up for J-es as soon as you start to plan to apply for a RCUK grant as this provides you easy access with all the notes for applicants and you can also easily share applications on the system, including with colleagues at other institutions.

5. Don’t panic. Even if you aren’t successful with your initial application you can often get useful feedback which is valuable for subsequent applications. My current AHRC fellowship is loosely based on a post-doctoral application I submitted to the British Academy in 2009 and is all the better for the long period I had revise my initial plans. It’s worth thinking about opportunities that you have to develop your project if you aren’t initially successful, such as small grants or internal funding for workshops.

Gareth Curless:

1. Get feedback from colleagues before submitting. Your proposal should be reviewed by colleagues within your department or university before it’s submitted. It’s important that you make the most of this opportunity. Colleagues will often have experience of acting as peer reviewers and will therefore have a sense of what reviewers are looking for. Internal reviewers can also help you to refine your research questions and methodology, as well as offering helpful suggestions with regard to outputs, project partners and impact activities.

2. Be realistic. Research Councils are looking for research projects with potential ‘impact’ beyond the academic sector but in the rush to demonstrate the value of your research don’t promise more than you can deliver. Start by thinking about potential project partners or intermediaries, such as History & Policy, who can connect you to the relevant non-academic organisations. Involve these project partners in the application process. Find out if and how they could use your research and what type of activities would be most appropriate for disseminating your research. Once you’ve identified your project partners and how you can help them, you can then, as David advises, start to think creatively about potential impact activities. The ESRC has some useful advice on impact.

3. Persevere. Research applications – particularly those completed through J-es – are often long, confusing, and seemingly without logic. When you’re trying to juggle writing for publication, teaching, administration, and writing a proposal, it can often be the proposal that gets sacrificed. I almost gave up half-way through my ESRC application. It was only after my supervisor encouraged me to continue that I decided to finish. Even if I hadn’t been successful it would have worth the effort because not only would I have a proposal that I could use again but the peer review feedback would have helped me to improve the application.

4. Keep it simple. As Richard says, it’s important that you provide an overview of the existing historiography, commenting on its limitations and how your project will extend scholars’ understanding of a particular topic. However, avoid using too much technical jargon, keep your points simple and concise. Reviewers are busy and won’t want to spend too long deciphering what your project is about. The same principle applies to impact activities. Simply state what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, why it’s important or beneficial to your project partners or the wider public.