Monthly Archives: July 2015

Archival Research in the Indian Ocean

In this archival post Jehanne-Emmanuelle Monnier, an independent researcher, discusses her research on the history of indentured labour and scientific explorations, outlining which archives might be of interest to historians working on the history of French colonialism in the Indian Ocean region: 

Although South Asian studies and African studies still prevail, the history of the Indian Ocean as a region is an emerging field. The unity of the area is particularly tangible in the study of networks, which have connected the islands, South Asia and East Africa for centuries.

Since France had a significant colonial empire in this region, and still holds overseas territories such as La Réunion and Mayotte for instance, there are a number interesting French language archives that hold material relating to the Indian Ocean region, which English-speaking researchers may not be aware of.

As an MA and then a PhD student working on the 19th century-Indian Ocean region, I have had the opportunity to visit several archives, both in France and in the Indian Ocean. My research focused on two main topics: illegal slave-trade and indentured labour and scientific travels but I have also worked on shipwrecks. Such work involves archival research in multiple locations.

Regarding the illegal slave-trade and the coolie-trade, which involved significant rivalry between the British and the French, the best source remains the French Navy. The central archives of the French Navy are located in Vincennes (East of Paris). There you can find all the files of the officers and, more importantly, individual ship records, as well as all the correspondence between the officers or between the officers and the administration in France. In Lorient (Brittany) there are the archives of the Navy specific to the Indian Ocean region. Here you can find copies of the correspondence held in Vincennes but I found that some documents in Lorient do not exist in Vincennes and vice-versa so it is worth going to both places. Personally, I enjoyed working in Lorient very much because there are less people, so you can have more files in a day and the archives catalogue is very clear and easy to use. Besides, there also is a good library you can access. Although there is an online catalogue for the archives of the French Navy, it is not very detailed and you have to refer to paper based catalogues in each place:

In terms of local archives in the Indian Ocean region itself, the Archives Départementales of La Réunion have some documents relating to the illegal slave-trade, including the civil ships involved in the. Unfortunately though there is no online catalogue for this material and even the paper based catalogue is not very precise. It is a similar situation with regard to the archives for Mauritius and the Seychelles, neither of which are online.

In spite of this you can find a huge amount of valuable material concerning La Réunion, as well as Mauritius and Seychelles, in the Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer (CAOM), in Aix-en-Provence (South of France). The website and the catalogue are well-presented and you can even do your research in English. The sorting is geographical, but then, on a lower scale, you can find themes for each territory. I have worked there several times, both on indentured labour and scientific explorations. Almost any topic in the history of French former colonies requires to a trip to the CAOM. The greatest part of the archives comprises administrative documents and correspondence between the administration in Paris and local ones in each colony. Regarding slavery or indentured labour for instance, you can find information about the transportation of labour, the legal regimes that underpinned these labour systems and the social and working experiences of labourers once they arrived in the colonies. The CAOM also holds an extensive and rich collection of photographs. You can have a look online, though your research will have to be done in French:

To finish with, I would like to focus on the extensive, rich and unknown collection of photographs held at the Académie Malgache in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Dozens of photo albums, totally some 3,500 pictures from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, are stored there. They belong to the Grandidier Collection. Alfred Grandidier, the French naturalist and explorer, was the subject of my PhD thesis topic. Each photo album is labelled with a theme or a region. I believe these pictures to be a genuine treasure, for they can lead to different kind of research: history of photography, history of the French conquest, history of the Madagascan peoples prior to the French conquest. Because some pictures had been taken with an anthropological purpose, there are numerous pictures on ‘traditional’ festivals, clothes and artefacts. There also is a huge number of photographs relating to colonial infrastructure projects, such as road and railway works, agriculture and buildings. In addition to this invaluable photographic collection, the Grandidier Collection includes 13,000 books and manuscripts, mostly written in French but also in Malagasy and English. Unfortunately, the website created to promote this collection is no longer working. The only information that is available remotely is an article (in French) published in 2006, which summarises the collection.

CFP: Empire and Humanitarianism, 13 and 14 June 2016, The University of Exeter


Following the success of the Network’s first conference in June 2014, we’re delighted to announce details of our second conference, which will take place at the University of Exeter in June 2016. The next conference will be on the theme of ‘Empire and Humanitarianism’ and the call for papers can be found below. As with our first conference, we’re particularly keen to have submissions from PhD students and early career researchers but proposals from more established historians are welcome too. A selection of papers from the first conference are scheduled to appear in the Journal of World History later this year and we anticipate that our second conference will result in a special issue or edited collection. 

The ‘global turn’ has invigorated the study of humanitarianism, development and human rights. Within the context of Imperial history, historians have pointed to the complex and often contradictory relationship between humanitarianism and empire. Although humanitarianism emerged in response to the worst excesses of imperialism, such as the slave trade and the atrocities associated with the Boer War, it was nonetheless shaped by the ‘moral and political frameworks of empire’.[1] In other words, empire and humanitarianism were not necessarily incompatible and could in fact be mutually reinforcing, whether this was through the paternal rhetoric of the ‘civilising mission’ or the development of international regulatory agencies during the inter-war period. Although these discourses and mechanisms were often more concerned with consolidating the authority of the imperial powers than they were in protecting the rights of colonial subject populations, humanitarianism could have emancipatory effects. As the legitimacy of empire came under increasing scrutiny after 1945, metropolitan activists shifted from abstract expressions of sympathy for colonial peoples to forms of participatory activism that involved the outright rejection of empire and the channelling of political and material support to nationalist movements.[2] For anti-colonial nationalists the emerging discourses associated with human rights, self-determination, and development provided a global context for their local struggles, enabling them to forge transnational links with other anti-colonial groups and providing the language and the means with which to undermine the moral authority of the imperial state.

In view of long and complex relationship between humanitarianism and empire, the conference organisers invite proposals for 20-minute papers that consider one or more of the following topics:

  • Humanitarianism and the ethos and practice of imperial rule
  • Advocacy groups in both the metropole and the colonies
  • Networks of humanitarian activists, technical ‘experts’, and development practitioners
  • Medical emergencies in colonial contexts
  • The relationship between humanitarianism and development in both the colonial and post-colonial periods
  • Humanitarianism and colonial conflicts
  • Gendered histories of colonial humanitarianism and development
  • The role of international NGOs in colonial contexts
  • Humanitarianism and anti-colonialism
  • Indigenous, non-western or ‘local’ understandings of humanitarianism, development, and individual or collective rights
  • Empire and the global rights order
  • Humanitarianism during the era of decolonisation
  • The relationship between the developmental state, group rights, and individual freedoms
  • Population movements and refugees crises, with a particular emphasis on the period of decolonisation and its immediate aftermath
  • International aid and development after empire

The conference organisers welcome papers that consider one or more of these issues in the context of any of the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century European empires, as well as Latin America and the contiguous empires of the United States, Russia, and East Asia. Comparative papers are particularly welcome. Proposals, which should include a 300 word abstract and a brief biography, should be sent to Gareth Curless ( by Friday 27 November 2015.


[1] Rob Skinner and Alan Lester, ‘Humanitarianism and Empire: New Research Agendas’, Journal of Imperialism and Commonwealth History, Vol. 40, No. 5 (2012), p. 738.

[2] Ibid., p. 739.