Author Archives: Gareth Curless

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.

Probing the Postcolonial

A one-day workshop at the University of Southampton, 19 June 2015. Administered by the Centre for Imperial and Postcolonial Studies

On 19 June 2015 the universities which are part of the South West and Wales DTP are hosting a workshop for PhD students interested in postcolonial studies. Details can be found below:

The aim of this workshop is to bring together colleagues and PhD students who are invested in the field of postcolonial studies.

The workshop is for those working within and across history and literature in Aberystwyth, Bath, Bath Spa, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Reading, and Southampton (The South West and Wales Doctoral Training Programme Consortium Universities).

The idea is to share research cultures and strengths. Instead of formal papers, we will have a series of 4 round-table sessions, each geared around a reading. Over the next month, we will be selecting some recently published essays/chapters from books around which to key the series of open discussions. For example, we might find a reading that helps us to think about the current relationship between “theoretical” and “historical” approaches in the field.

The day will not start before 10 and will end before 5.

Refreshments and lunch will be provided.

A more detailed programme will be available in early June.

The organisers are Madhu Krishnan (Bristol), Stephanie Jones, Priti Mishra, and Ranka Primorac (Southampton).

You do not need to be funded by the SWWDTP to be part of this workshop.  It is open to all PhD students, and we particularly encourage unfunded students to contact us if they need support covering train fares.  We hope to be able to cover the costs of everyone who does not have access to a budget for research travel.

The workshop is supported by:

Southampton’s Centre for Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies

Southampton’s Centre for Modern and Contemporary Writing

Bristol’s The Centre for the Study of Colonial and Postcolonial Societies


Room 1143, Avenue Campus
Faculty of Humanities
University of Southampton
SO17 1BF

Link to map

Contact for more information

Name: Stephanie Jones


The International Institute of Social History

In this week’s post Gareth Curless draws attention to the archives at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam:

The history of international labour organisations and movements has long been neglected. In recent years, however, a number of studies have emerged to fill this void, including Daniel Maul’s Human Rights, Development, and Decolonization; Globalizing Social Rights edited by Sandrine Kott and Joëlle Droux; and the collection of essays in American Labor’s Global Ambassadors, which is edited by Robert Anthony Waters Jr. and Geert van Goethem. Arguably the emergence of these studies is indicative of a broader trend within the historiography of the twentieth century, with historians paying increasing attention to the role of international organizations, the emergence of ideas and discourses relating to global governance and human rights, and the harnessing of technical expertise to development initiatives.


Above: The Reading Room at the International Institute for Social History.

A key archive for material relating to these topics, but one that is sometimes overlooked by historians, is the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. The Institute is only a short tram ride from Amsterdam’s central train station and contains a wealth of material that is of potential interest to historians of imperial and global history. The countries and themes tabs on the Collections page give an indication of the range of topics and countries covered by the archival material. The archives are truly global in scope, covering traditional social history topics, such as labour, housing, and student movements to more unusual historical subjects, such as vegetarianism.

Among the key collections housed at the Institute are the records of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the Socialist International. As well as material relating to international organisations and groups, there are also more general collections, some of which have been donated by individuals or organisations, such as the African Labour History collection. There are also a number of collections relating to leftist organisations from the ‘global south’, which have often been the target for state suppression, such as the Communist Party of Sudan. In this respect, the Institute’s archives contain original or rare material that is no longer available elsewhere or has been excised from the official record.

One of the most popular collections at the Institute is the material relating to the ICFTU. During the 1950s and 1960s trade unions and industrial relations in the global south became a key area of Cold War contestation, with the colonial powers and the U.S. State Department regarding instances of labour activism and industrial unrest as symptoms of communist insurrection. As a consequence, officials in Paris, London, and Washington sought to channel material and moral support to supposedly ‘western-orientated’ trade unionists through organisations such as the ICFTU and AFL-CIO. What emerges from the ICFTU records is that trade unionists in the global south were particularly adept at exaggerating the threat posed by communism in order to extract support from the ICFTU. This support sometimes took the form of material goods, including cars, filing cabinets and typewriters, and at other times it was simply hard cash, which was the preferred option. However, although African and Asian trade unionists willingly sought out and accepted this support, they did not necessarily sacrifice their own autonomy. The ICFTU material is replete with complaints about trade union lethargy on certain issues, labour leaders’ support for policies that were perceived to run counter to the West’s agenda, or the use of strikes to cause what Western officials regarded as unnecessary political instability.

As well as documenting the Cold War politics of industrial relations and the inability of the Western powers to direct trade union affairs in Africa and Asia, the ICFTU material also offers important insights into social, political and economic conditions in many colonial and former colonial territories. ICFTU officials, who were often stationed in regional outposts, such as Singapore or Accra, may not have been able to influence events to the extent they wanted to but through their routine meetings with colonial officials, embassy staff, and local representatives of civil society groups and political parties they were at least well informed. Their despatches back to ICFTU headquarters in Brussels therefore offer a useful counter-reference to states archives in London and Washington, yielding important insights and opinions regarding local politics and social conditions. In sum, the International Institute of Social History is not simply for social historians of Europe, its varied collections are of potential value to historians of empire, social movements in the global south, and the Cold War.

Key Info



Opening Hours: Monday, 10.00 to 17.00; Tuesday to Friday, 9.00 to 17.00.

Archival Research in New Delhi, India: Sources & Resources

The Imperial and History Network blog has been quiet over the autumn term. Fortunately though, this has been for good reason. Following our successful first conference, which was held at the University of Exeter in June 2014, we have been preparing a selection of the papers for publication as a special issue in The Journal of World History. The collection is currently with the editorial team at JWH and we’re hopeful that it will appear sometime in 2015.

In our first post of 2015 Vipul Dutta, a PhD candidate at King’s College London, talks us through archival research in New Delhi:

Archival research for historians, just like countless distinguished seminar speakers in the world- ‘requires no introduction’. Registration woes, issues relating to access and short cuts to the process have created a universe where anything and everything you may have heard about them may be true. This has however, not diminished, but in fact enhanced their stature- wherever they have managed to survive. A renewed interest in the study of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent has increased the ‘footfall’ in New Delhi, where the principal record keeping institution- The National Archives of India (NAI) is located. Set up in 1891 as the Imperial Record Department in Calcutta, it was later relocated to Delhi, following the establishment of the latter as the new capital city in 1911. Most researchers on India regard NAI as the first port of call and this was reaffirmed during the course of my fieldwork tenure in Delhi recently.

From the records of the late Mughal era and the East India Company to the records of the Nationalist movement and the more recently released files from the Foreign Ministry, the breadth of holdings at NAI is remarkable. The collection does seem to be growing and efforts to catalogue this burgeoning resource are being made. Modest attempts to digitise rare manuscripts are published on their website (, and a broad, relatively useful catalogue is also present (online, on-site). Even a casual glance at the catalogue lists ( would reveal that it should cater to a broad range of research interests spanning across multiple time scales.

While there is no comparison between NAI and its place in the public life of Delhi vis-à-vis Kew or the British Library, it is nonetheless, heartening to see the ways in which NAI has responded to a surge in the population density in its Reading rooms- ‘per square file’ as a Chinese friend who visited Delhi recently described it to me. In contrast to the more modern, well-endowed archives of the West, an experience at NAI would give one- the much needed endurance test, which everyone in academia must take at least once! Requisitions are done manually over set time periods, so a full calendar day at NAI really does begin early in the morning.

However, topics dealing with post-independence years may not find much mention in the catalogues. I mainly study the evolution of the Indian Army through the two world wars and examine patterns of recruitment from the 1920s to 1960s. For subjects broadly relating to the military, the NAI is a fairly good starting point. Apart from Viceregal documents and private papers, the Military catalogue is also a useful guide to documents (but it ends at around 1910c., for documents after that, check the Microfilm Catalogue list). Until the First World War, it is a good idea to first present your credentials at NAI. But if you think your moment in history arrives later, check out another famous Delhi institution- The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Foreign nationals may require letters from their embassies (in addition to institutional letters) for registration at all of these places.

The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library or Teen Murti as its commonly known, is a library cum archival complex which was set up in the 1960s. Aside from its strength in the more known branches of social sciences, military historians are also quite frequently spotted here. This is facilitated not least by the fact that the complex sits next to the erstwhile residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army and was later the residence of India’s first Prime Minister, now converted into a museum. So, if you’re looking to write and think about the ‘State’ and chart its political, military and ideological coordinates, park yourself here ( NMML has a complete online catalogue on its website and includes listings of manuscripts as well as collections of Private and Institutional papers. For military historians in particular, there are collections of individual papers (of officers of the Indian army as well as the revolutionary nationalist outfit- the Indian National Army, INA) and records of oral history transcripts as well. Also complementing NMML is the fact that it’s just a 20-25 minute rikshaw ride away from NAI as it is situated in the same Lutyens’ zone of central Delhi. A well-stocked library at NMML also includes memoirs of army officers and a wider collection of secondary literature pertaining to the Indian army. With an extensive Newspaper archive (in microfilm as well as print editions just behind the reception desk inside the reading rooms) it wouldn’t be incorrect to call NMML- the BL of Delhi. The staff is professional in its dealings and extremely cooperative.

Researchers interested in the Great War should also visit the United Service Institution of India, USI (Delhi). In addition to its collection of rare books and old issues of its historic journal (, the USI also has an archive, which is worth looking at if one is interested in combat operations of the First World War as well as the Second. The USI is also at the forefront in organising the Great War Centenary events in Delhi this year. Another great site is the History Division of the Defence Ministry, perhaps the richest but also the most under studied archive in Delhi. It boasts of several records on the two world wars and has sizeable Naval as well as Air Force war staff files. Cataloguing and digitization is in full steam, but the biggest spoiler is access. Unfortunately, the archive is closed for foreign nationals and even for Indians access is strictly regulated. For scholars working on more contemporary themes relating to security and Defence, there is the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA, adjoining the USI), and apart from its Library (with editions of old defence journals and magazines), it offers a stimulating environment for researchers working on related aspects of contemporary global security studies.

The archival and research geography in Delhi is essentially aligned across two but well connected corners of the city. In the central parts, one finds the NAI and NMML with their extensive, quintessentially archival, ‘footnote-worthy’ references. On the other side are equally vibrant institutions but which will offer their wares at a higher level of commitment and which depends on the amount of time an individual has. Pre-independence (i.e. pre 1947) documents on almost any subject are at the heart of NAI’s collections. NMML has more intellectually cosmopolitan resources and regularly hosts an inter-disciplinary research audience. Since my interests relate to the recruitment and socialisation of officers in the 20th century, I found the atmosphere at USI and IDSA quite stimulating and productive. NMML too has been a great repository and sounding board for my ideas. Almost all of Delhi’s researchers, students and faculty visit the Nehru Library and its research community and seminar series give it a dynamic character. Most requests for Research assistants, translations, discussions relating to ‘the future trajectory of the social sciences’ and other desperate world shaking requests encrypted in emails and messages- usually first arrive in oral discussion boards at NMML over a cup of tea and samosa.

Registration Open: Connected Histories of Decolonisation Workshop

Registration for a two-day workshop on the Connected Histories of Decolonisation is now open. The workshop is being organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in conjunction with the Centre for European and International Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth and King’s College London. Additional information about the workshop can be found via new blog for the University of Portsmouth’s Francophone Africa Research Cluster.

The Senate Room, Senate House (First Floor)


Thursday 13th November 2014

11-11.30: Coffee and welcome

11.30-13.00: Panel 1 – Creating spaces, connections and networks of resistance

  • Clemens Hoffmann (Bilkent University) – Anti-colonial empires and the creation of Afroasian spaces of resistance
  • James Renton (Edge Hill) – The Theatre of the anti-colonial nation: colonial Asia in the age of nationality
  • Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) – Contesting colonial rule: transnational networks of resistance and the politics of exile

13.00-14.00: Lunch

14.00-15.30: Panel 2 – Competing narratives of decolonisation

  • Andrew Kuech (The New School of Social Research, New York) – Duelling Chinese nationalism: a postcolonial confrontation with American power
  • Tim Livsey (King’s College London) – Connected histories of decolonisation and development: the United States, Britain and African universities
  • Robert S. G. Fletcher (University of Exeter) – Decolonisation and the arid world

15.30-16.00: Tea

 16.00-17:30: Panel 3 – Connected histories of nationalism

  • Thomas Sharp (Oxford Brookes) – A transnational nationalism: the UPC and the decolonisation of Cameroon, 1948-1961
  • Camille Evrard (University of Paris I) – Morocco, France and the UN in the Mauritanian decolonization process
  • Marta Musso (University of Cambridge) – Decolonisation and oil politics: economic interdependence and struggle for self-determination

17.30-17.45: Short break

17.45-18.45: Panel 4 – Networks, models and interconnections 

  • Bruno C. Reis (ICS-UL) – The trauma of Belgium decolonization in Portugal: real impact or legitimizing discourse?
  • Nathalie Mrgudovic (Aston University) – The Cook Islands: a new model of decolonisation for New Caledonia?


Friday 14th November 2014

9-9.30: Coffee

9.30-11.00: Panel 5Diplomacy, development and domestic influences on British decolonisation and its aftermath

  • Andrew W M Smith (UCL/ University of Chichester) – ‘Information about empire’: British overseas representation and Francophone Africa
  • Charlotte Riley (University of York) – ‘Overseas aid is no longer a form of charity’: Britain, decolonisation and the UN decade of development
  • Rosalind Coffey (LSE) – British press coverage of the Sharpeville massacre

 11.00-11.30: Coffee

11.30-13.00: Panel 6 – France in Anglophone Africa

  • Joanna Warson (University of Portsmouth) – A French vision of Africa: Franco-African relations beyond colonialism and Francophone Africa
  • Anna Konieczna (Sciences Po, Paris) – The dialogue with Pretoria or a dialogue at cross purposes
  • Roel van der Velde (University of Portsmouth) – Marketing helicopters to Pretoria: reconstructing parallel French and South African military and industrial development, 1955-1977

13.00-14.00: Lunch 

14.00-15.30: Panel 7 – Forced labour

  • Romain Tiquet (Humboldt University at Berlin/ForcedLabourAfrica) – Uneasy continuities: the alleged end of forced labour in Casamance (1945-1970)
  • Víctor Fernández Soriano (University of Thessaly, Greece/ForcedLabourAfrica) – The Belgian enigma: reform and stagnation in the Province of Equateur, Belgian Congo (1945-1960)
  • Alexander Keese (Humboldt University at Berlin/ForcedLabourAfrica) – Business as usual: repressive practices, the “vagabond problem”, and labour policies in the Middle Congo (1945-1968)

15.30-16.00: Tea

 16.00-17.00: Panel 8 – Human rights, anti-imperialist nationalism, decolonisation: mapping the global impact of the August 1941 Atlantic Charter

  • Martin Evans (University of Sussex) – From the general to the specific: the regional impact of the Atlantic Charter in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia
  • Clive Webb (University of Sussex) – African Americans, the Atlantic Charter and the global Civil Rights movement

17.00-17.30: Concluding round table discussion


Oral Histories of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle

As well as discussing the challenges of archival research for imperial and global historians, the Network also encourages to researchers to reflect on their experience of fieldwork and different methodological approaches. In this post, Emily Bridger, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, discusses her experience of oral history research in her study of the role of female children and youth in the anti-apartheid struggle:

The ability of oral sources to unveil the voices previously “hidden from history” is unrivalled by any other methodology. This advantage is particularly notable in Africa, where colonialism and authoritarian rule have obscured the histories of much of the continent’s population and left gaps in archival records. Yet the methodology is not without its limitations: memories are subject to decay and distortion over time; personal memories that do not fit popular public narratives will be altered to corroborate with what is publically acceptable or commemorated; and uneven knowledge-power relationships between academic and subject can perpetuate the colonising structure. Yet when used simply to fill the gaps of the archive, oral history’s greatest benefits are overlooked. By listening to oral testimony against the grain, and interpreting the meanings of silences, secrets, and subtext, historians can gain unique insight into the subjective meanings of history: what is remembered, by whom, and, most importantly, why.

My current research on the involvement of female children and youth in the anti-apartheid struggle relies heavily on oral sources. Since student and youth organisations in South Africa were forced underground in the 1980s, members were reluctant to commit any important information to paper and have thus left few traces in archival records. To gain insight into the activities, motivations and ideologies of young politicised women, I conduct unstructured interviews with former activists in the township of Soweto, located outside Johannesburg.


The township of Soweto, a central site in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid

I find my oral history research to be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. As a foreigner in South Africa, my research comes with some inherent difficulties: I frequently mispronounce names of people and places; I spend a large amount of time lost in the maze of unmarked township streets; and occasionally fear for my safety. Conducting research with foreign subjects also involves a number of methodological complications. All of my interviews are conducted in English, which despite being spoken by interviewees is nevertheless a second or even third language for most. This limits the expressive and symbolic language used in testimonies, and also biases my own thesis towards those informants who express themselves particularly well in English. My position as a white middle-class female from a British university undoubtedly influences the content of informants’ recollections. At times, confusion arises over who – my interviewees or myself – ultimately has authority over the historical narrative produced.

Yet most interviewees have been remarkably candid, recounting memories of their difficult childhoods, their involvement as both perpetrators and victims of violence, and their hopes for and dissatisfactions with the new South Africa. Most seem to be proud of their time as political activists, and do not shy away from talking about difficult subjects. Generally, I am welcomed into family homes, offered tea or food, introduced to children and grandchildren, and occasionally shown historical family photographs.

My first contact with a former student activist was made through a South African sociologist who worked with youth groups in Soweto in the 1990s. Luckily, my first interviewee happened to be the president of the Each One Teach One Foundation, an organisation that among many other objectives seeks to preserve the legacy of student activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. The foundation has since proved invaluable to my research by providing me with contact details of former youth activists. In addition, I use a snowballing technique, in which interviewees are asked to provide names and contact details for any other potential candidates. While aligning yourself with an organisation can raise issues over academic independence, it is an incredible time saver when attempting to conduct a large amount of interviews over a short period of time, particularly in a foreign country.

The next stage in the process – contacting informants over the phone – often proves the most difficult. Many former activists are currently unemployed, and my attempts to make contact are regularly impeded by phone numbers that are out of service. When I do get through, I am occasionally told they are “too busy” or simply do not like to talk about the past, or I am met with heated questions in regards to my credentials and motivations.

During meetings, I initially allow interviewees to speak uninterrupted, as this encourages them to talk in detail about what is most important to them. I also find that by providing them with narrative agency early on, they are more likely to give detailed responses to specific questions towards the end of the interview.[i] I do not prepare set questions but rather a general list of topics to cover. This list is quickly adjusted to match the tone and responsiveness of the interviewee. If I can tell that an informant is particularly uneasy or concerned about my motivations then I avoid potentially isolating questions. I also save more sensitive topics for the end of the interview once a relationship between us has been established.

After transcribing comes analysis. Why do informants make a statement only to contradict it later in the interview? How is it that two informants’ recollections of the same event can clash completely, or, in other cases, be all too similar? Following a postmodernist turn in oral history in the 1980s, it was argued that historians should not simply mine oral testimonies for facts “like currants from a cake”.[ii] Rather, they should appreciate their subjective nature and use testimonies to explore hidden forms of consciousness, emotions, and the connections between private and collective memories.


Members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) – South Africa’s most prominent student movement in the 1980s – marching

The tendency I see most is for informants to place themselves at the centre of historical events, at times overstating their political influence. Such exaggerations do not detract from the interview, but actually reveal tensions between personal and public memories. Student activists’ contribution to the liberation movement in the 1980s is often overlooked in academic and public accounts of the past, particularly for female activists, whose efforts and sacrifices have yet to be acknowledged in public or scholarly narratives. Consequently, women are much more forthcoming in interviews than men, particularly when speaking about their involvement in collective violence. Their desire to stake a claim in their country’s history is evidenced by their eagerness to be interviewed, their wish to share copies of their interview transcript with family and friends, and their description of themselves as being fundamental to the liberation movement.

Each oral history interview is a different experience, even when interviewing someone for the second or third time. The location, time of day, attitude of the interviewer and countless other factors will influence what is divulged, as memories are not simply stored but created in a specific time and place in a dialogue between the researcher and their subject.[iii] Seemingly insignificant decisions such as where to meet or how questions are phrased can completely change the historical account produced.

There are many details involved in the oral history process that are left up to the researcher. I personally prefer to interview people in their homes, as this is often where people are most comfortable and it also provides opportunities to meet family members or friends. Many informants ask to have copies of questions in advance, or of the transcript after the interview. Both questions make me uneasy, as I do not personally want informants to prepare scripted answers in advance, or to revise their recollections later. For more quantitative research, giving each informant the same survey to fill out can be beneficial. While allowing informants to speak more freely for qualitative analysis is preferable, certain details such as age, place of birth, and family history generally need to be covered. Whichever interviewing technique you choose, make sure you have ethics approval from your institution, and gain written consent from your informants. I also make sure that each informant has my full contact details, and always ask their permission to contact them again for a follow-up interview if necessary.

For further information on oral history theory see:

Frisch, Michael.  A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair ed. The Oral History Reader.  London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Portelli, Alessandro.  The Text and the Voice.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Samuel, Raphael and Thompson, Paul.  The Myths we Live By.  London: Routledge, 1990.

Thompson, Paul.  The Voice of the Past: Oral History.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Information on ethics approval at the University of Exeter can be found at:


[i] For more on this technique see Sean Field, Oral History, Community, and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[ii]Elizabeth Tonkin, Narrating our pasts: The social construction of oral history (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 6.

[iii] Joan Sangster, “Telling our Stories: Feminist Debates and the Use of Oral History,” Women’s History Review 3 (1994): 10-11.


The University of Fort Hare and the archives of the African National Congress in South Africa

In our latest installment on archival research, Emma Lundin, a PhD candidate at Birkbeck College, discusses the ANC archives at the University of Fort Hare:

Records from the African National Congress’ struggle against apartheid can be found in two main locations in South Africa: the UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives[i] at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, and the Liberation Movement archives of the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape.


University of Fort Hare © Emma Lundin

I spent a month in each location last year, finding evidence and material for my research on women’s liberation within the ANC and the Swedish Social Democratic Party. The two archives partially overlap and some researchers might find that it is enough to travel to one or the other (in which case most seem to choose Mayibuye as it is easier to reach for those flying long-distance). The key difference, however, is that while Mayibuye holds papers from the ANC’s Lusaka and London Missions, and other personal and organisational records (including the for me indispensable Women’s National Coalition [WNC] archive) up to 1990 or 1994, NAHECS has records from all ANC missions abroad as well as other archives, many of which cover the period until 1996 or even later.

Having started my South African archival research at Mayibuye, I soon realised that there were gaps in the repository that only Fort Hare could fill. Nevertheless, neither archive is complete: records from the ANC’s first decade in exile – 1960-1970 – are particularly patchy, due to relocations, threats and violence meted out against the organisation. But material is also missing for another reason: the ANC has taken a fairly controversial approach to its archive, vetting every single page in the folders made available. The whereabouts of the still-secret material is unknown to me and, it would seem, the archivists – it certainly is not stored on the premises. I was also told that the Liberation Movement archive has not been sent material covering the last decade, and they are not sure whether such material will be arriving in the future. On top of that, some personal archives are not accessible: that of Frene Ginwala, the ANC and WNC activist who is a very important person in my research, is but one.


The National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) © Emma Lundin

What is available, however, is well worth the trip – though the journey there can be exhausting even before you get on an airplane. I started my search on the internet, which took me down many one-way routes past websites that are no longer maintained, and complete dead ends in the shape of 404 error messages. The finding aids for the ANC archive at Fort Hare are currently available online[ii] and give a glimpse of the vastness of this repository. But, again, that list is not complete: it neglects to mention the part of the archive I found the most useful – that of the ANC Women’s Section from 1954-1994. Your best option for finding out what you can expect before you go is to speak to the very helpful archivists – Mosanku Maamoe and Vuyolwethu Feni-Fete – before your visit, either via email or by telephone[iii]. Once you arrive, you will find the reading room and archivists’ offices located on the top floor of the NAHECS building. The big desks, comfortable chairs, real windows and actual daylight are rare things in the archive business and make for a nice – albeit often solitary – working environment. The archive fee is R100 per day (about £5), which allows you to take as many photos and make as many notes as you could possibly want to. Opening hours are 8:30am-16:30pm Monday-Thursday; and 8:30am-15:30pm on Fridays. The archive is closed on public holidays.

The journey to Alice, the small Eastern Cape town where the University of Fort Hare is located, is a liberation pilgrimage. Fort Hare is the alma mater of a great number of anti-apartheid activists: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Chris Hani all studied there. Driving in from the nearest airport in East London, you will pass King William’s Town, where Steve Biko is buried. Fort Hare is a university proud of its connection with apartheid resistance and NAHECS is also the custodian of the archives of the Pan African Congress (PAC) and various Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) organisations. But it is also a university with simmering student dissent: sit-ins and student occupations have hampered colleagues’ access to the archive, and the latest violent clashes on campus took place on 1 August. Although it is a predominantly calm and friendly place where any anger is directed towards university management (which fellow students of the University of London have also experienced over the last year), it is something to bear in mind as you might need to be ready to change your plans during times of protest.


The town of Alice © Emma Lundin

The question of where to stay and how to travel was more important here than on any of my previous archive trips, as this is a remote, rural corner of South Africa. Used as a dumping ground for the poor and unemployed in the apartheid era when large parts of the area made up the bantustan of Ciskei, local communities remain impoverished and the area neglected even after two decades of ANC rule. Alice is on a string of small, countryside towns that dot the landscape along the Regional Routes 102 and 63, connecting it to East London where flights to Johannesburg depart several times every day. Sangweni Lodge is a good B&B within walking distance of the university, where a room costs R350 (about £19) per night. But, as there is no internet access at Sangweni, those in need of a reliable connection should consider staying further away, at the excellent Peppertree House in Fort Beaufort. A B&B and self-catering inn run by a retired member of the Fort Hare law faculty, Peppertree is about a 30-minute drive from Fort Hare and costs about R370/£20 per night. As in Alice, there is not much to do in Fort Beaufort, but there is a SPAR supermarket, and a KFC. According to Mr Maamoe, many researchers stay in backpacker B&Bs in nearby Hogsback instead, a village on top of the Amathole Mountains about a 35-minute drive away (e.g. Away With The Fairies). Hogsback is on the Baz Bus shuttle from East London, which makes it easy to reach without a car, but it is a place that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the region as its predominately white inhabitants live in a comfort hardly seen at the foot of the mountain and beyond. A trip here can be an eye-opening encounter with one of the apartheid era’s many legacies: the continued segregation of South African communities.

Minibus taxis connect all of these small towns, but you might find – as I did – that the best bet is to allow for the expense of a rental car in your trip budget. I was there in November, when the sun bleached the landscape and young shepherds struggled to keep goats off the roads. Boiling tarmac made potholes appear only for them to be fixed the next day, and driving to and from the archive in the mornings and afternoons soon became my favourite hobby. If you have access to a car, you can also spend weekends exploring the Amathole region; travelling to nearby Grahamstown – home to Rhodes University and Fables Bookshop – and spotting wildlife in the countryside (Addo Elephant National Park is just three hours away). It might not be the type of activities you would put in your funding application but taking the time to explore the impact of history on current realities outside the confines of an archive – which in this case includes reflecting on why it is easier for someone from northern Europe to access ANC sources in the Eastern Cape than it is for many of the people who live in the neighbouring villages – can never be a bad idea.


[i]     ; many other pages on this site are no longer working.

[ii]              The website is currently not working, but should hopefully be back soon.

[iii]               +27 (0)40 602 2011 will take you to the Alice campus’ main switchboard

Archival Research in Singapore

In our latest post on archival research Gareth Curless discusses the relationship between archival access and national myths in Singapore – what is often referred to as the ‘Singapore Story’.

My research trips to Singapore in January and April 2014 have been among the most enjoyable and productive of my foreign archive visits, not least because of the favourable climate and cuisine. It is unsurprising then that any complaints I have tend to fall on deaf ears among colleagues but archival research in Singapore is not without its problems.

Accounts of Singapore’s recent past have tended to focus on the role of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore’s ruling party since 1959, and the actions of individual figures such as Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee – the so called ‘men in white’. In what is referred to as the ‘Singapore Story’, the narrative is almost exclusively about the role of the PAP in leading Singapore’s anti-colonial struggle, the political acumen of its leaders in neutralising the communist threat, and the party’s subsequent role in the modernisation of the city-state, its transition from ‘third world to first’.[1] Such triumphalist tales are protected by a variety of gatekeepers, including not only the PAP and the state but also individual researchers and ordinary citizens of Singapore.[2]

The PAP plays an important role in upholding the ‘Singapore Story’. It affords limited space for the discussion of alternative interpretations of Singapore’s past. For example, a documentary film about Said Zahari, a journalist detained for 17 years without trial, was banned on the grounds that it might ‘undermine public confidence the Government’.[3] As well as silencing potential critics, the PAP also promotes works that support the established narrative. The memoirs of leading PAP figures emphasise the role of the party in Singapore’s socio-economic transformation since independence, while also denouncing their opponents as communists and would-be revolutionaries.[4]

The state – which can hardly be regarded as independent of the PAP – helps to sustain this dominant narrative and academics researchers, particularly non-Singaporean researchers, are mostly likely to experience this through the National Archives, an institution that serves as an important gatekeeper to Singapore’s past.

The National Heritage Board states that government records older than 25 years should become public archives and deposited at the National Archive.[5] However, as far as I’m aware there is no equivalent to Freedom of Information Act or the 30 year declassification rule in Singapore. Therefore, while the number of files deposited at the National Archives is increasing, the bulk of this material are records that are considered to be less politically sensitive. As a result, material relating to foreign affairs, defence, and internal security is generally unavailable, while other records require permission from the relevant ministry and may be subject to strict conditions of use, such as no transcription or citation.[6] During the course of my research in 2014 I found that material under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Manpower, particularly with regard trade union affairs, was often limited to a few files, specific documents, or even just a few pages from a particular document. Of course, a partially accessible file is better than no access at all but it can be frustrating. Not only does limited access make the reconstruction of events more difficult but a partial archival record also offers tantalising hints at what research might be possible if there was a greater degree of transparency and openness.

The archivists in the National Archive are extremely helpful and efficient and they can play a mediating role with the ministry, helping to explain the purpose and aims of the researcher’s project. However, beyond explaining the nature the researcher’s project, the influence of the archives appears to be rather limited. Public officials in Singapore remain concerned about the possible consequences of opening up the archives and as a result many ministries are ambivalent about academic research. In such a context, as Loh Kah Seng points out, requests for material relating to even the most ‘everyday’ of subjects, such as ‘trade, work, and housing’, can be denied.[7]

Academic researchers and Singaporean citizens are sometimes complicit in the reinforcement of the prevailing national narrative. Inadequate access to the archival record has prompted historians to utilise alternative sources, particularly oral history. Although oral history permits historians to probe the silences that exist in the official record, interviewees, particularly left-wing socialists, the one-time adversaries of the PAP, may refuse interviews or in recalling events from the 1950s and 1960s may avoid some subjects altogether, discussing certain topics within the boundaries of what is deemed to be publically acceptable. Researchers can reinforce such silences, opting to ‘excise what is considered politically incorrect … which if revealed may cause’ embarrassment to the interviewee or their families.[8] Such issues are no doubt common to oral history research wherever it is undertaken but in the case of Singapore it underscores the dominance of the ‘Singapore Story’ in a society where the state remains uneasy about alternative histories that do not conform with the linear narrative that emphasises the island’s transformation from impoverished colonial entrepôt to first-world city-state.

Thus far, I have painted a rather gloomy picture of research in Singapore. However, over the past decade there has emerged a body of scholarship that has pioneered the techniques of social history and has sought to undercover the subaltern voices from Singapore’s past, whether this has been lightermen on the Singapore river or rickshaw drivers.[9] Reading the archival record against the grain and making use of a variety of sources, such as local language newspapers and oral histories, these historians have done much to recover the social history of Singapore, a history that would otherwise remain unrecovered given the continuing focus on the high politics of decolonisation in the mainstream historiography.

More recently some of the more dramatic episodes in Singapore’s past have come under greater historical scrutiny. The established narrative dictates that it was inevitable that the PAP would lead Singapore to independence.[10] Yet during the 1950s and 1960s this was far from certain, with Barisan Sosialis, a left-wing political party with roots in the trade union movement, serving as a credible opposition party to the PAP. It was only with Operation Coldstore in 1963, when over one hundred left-wing activists were arrested and detained without trial, that the left was forced to retreat from public life. The PAP subsequently denounced Barisan as a communist front organisation and its leaders as Marxist revolutionaries – a view that has since become entrenched thanks to the ‘Singapore Story’.

However, with the recent 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore and with former leftist activists starting to pass away, there has been renewed impetus to revise conventional understandings of Coldstore and the motivations of the left. Historians, such as PJ Thum and Loh Kah Seng, have challenged the view that the Singapore left was simply a stooge for the MCP, arguing that the left should instead be regarded as a movement more concerned with anti-colonial nationalism, workers’ rights, and freedom from oppression than communist revolution.[11]

Such work is contributing much to our understanding of the formative years of national building but these revisionist interpretations have not gone unchallenged. Historians have exchanged forthright views on the alleged radicalism of the left,[12] while it has also been reported to me that researchers have struggled to secure public venues to debate and discuss their research, with many owners wary about events that challenge the prevailing historical orthodoxy.

In spite of such issues the work of the Coldstore revisionists and the Social History of Singapore series demonstrates that there is sufficient material for the researcher who has the time to follow the archival trail. The National Archives has an extensive oral history collection, which includes interviews with major political figures and ordinary citizens. Such interviews often repeat established national myths but there is also a wealth of additional material, offering insight into significant political events and the everyday minutiae of life in Singapore over the past 60 years.

As you would expect, the National Library has an extensive South East Asia collection and contains many published reports from the post-war period – some of which are freely available in the library but are restricted in the National Archives. The library at the National University of Singapore (NUS) also holds a rich variety of material, much of which is unavailable outside of Singapore, such as The Plebian – the official publication of Barisan. Another useful resource are the private papers of David Marshall (Chief Minister, 1955-56), which are held at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

It is important to emphasise that the staff at whichever institution I visited were friendly, efficient, and eager to help with my research however they could. In terms of practical advice, I would suggest that you contact the archives prior to your visit, stating the nature and purpose of your research and, if possible, provide a list of files or records that you would like to consult. This will enable the archives to liaise with the relevant ministry and seek permission for you to access the material you wish to view. The length of time it takes to get permission can vary, so, if you only have time for a short trip it’s worth trying to arrange all of this before you visit. Not all archival records are listed on the National Archives’ website so you may have to consult some paper based catalogues in Singapore and if you can’t find the specific material you’re looking for, it might be worth asking if the relevant ministry has any material relating to a particular topic. Such requests are often a long shot but you might get lucky.

As for the other institutions, the National Library is a public library so you can consult the material without being a member, while the library at NUS requires a temporary readers’ pass. Simply bring your passport and complete the necessary form at the front desk. I also have contacts with a number freelance translators, including Sivasamboo Revathy, who did an excellent job on a Tamil to English translation for me, so if you need any translating work completing I’d be happy to pass on the relevant contact details.

Gareth Curless is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of Exeter. He completed research in Singapore in January and April 2014 as part of larger ESRC-funded project on the relationship between trade unions and British decolonisation.


[1] See for example: Sonny Yap, Richard Lim, Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (2010); John Drysdale, Singapore Struggle for Success (1993); Dennis Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse (1993); Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 (2000).

[2] Loh Kah Seng and Liew Kai Khiun (eds) The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History (2010); Lysa Hong, The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts (2008).

[3] Straits Times, 11 April 2007 cited in Loh Kah Seng, ‘Encounters at the Gates’, in Loh and Liew (eds), The Makers and Keepers, p. 15.

[4] Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First.

[5] Loh, ‘Encounters at the Gates’, p. 9.

[6] Ibid., pp. 9-13.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Ibid. p. 6.

[9] Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002 (2003); James F. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore (2003).

[10] Drysdale, Singapore Struggle for Success; Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse.

[11] Loh Kah Seng et. al The Univesity Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (2012); Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok, and Hong Lysa, The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years (2013); Poh Soh Kai, Tan Jing Quee & Koh Kay Yew, The Farjar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politic of Postwar Malaya and Singapore (2010); PJ Thum, ‘‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-Colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s ‘Progressive’ Left, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia’, Asia Research Institute, Working Paper Series No. 211, (2013).

[12] See for example: Kumar Ramakrishna, ‘Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World Speech: A Closer Look, IPS Commons, [Online], Available at: [22 June 2014]; Hong Lysa, ‘What is History: A Glance at ‘Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World Speech: A Closer Look’, [Online], Available at: [22 June 2014]; Loh Kah Seng, ‘When Historians Deny New Research’, The Online Citizen: A Community of Singaporeans [Online], Available at: [22 June 2014].

CFP: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960


13-15 September 2015, University of Leicester, UK

A conference hosted by the School of History, University of Leicester, and supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme.

This conference will bring together historians and associated researchers of penal settlements and colonies from all over the world, during the period from Portugal’s first use of convicts in North Africa to the closure of Stalin’s gulags. It seeks to map and to analyse the transnational or global study of penal transportation and its legacies, and its relationship to the history of labour, migration and other modes of carceral confinement. The geographical scope of the conference is wide, spanning all empires and polities that used convict transportation, from and in regions stretching from the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Indian Ocean, Asia and the Pacific.

We are interested in exploring issues including: the process of conviction, convict voyaging, the nature of convict work, convict relationships with neighbouring communities, and the gendered/ raced dimensions of convict experience. We are also concerned to trace the circulation of ideas and information between penal colonies and other sites of unfree labour management and confinement. Finally, we are interested in the demographic and other impacts of convict transportation, as well as in the representation of its history in museums and heritage sites.

We invite proposals that address the full chronological scope, geographical reach and thematic concerns of the conference. We especially invite submissions that speak to histories of connection and circulation, and to literatures currently under-represented in the historiography, with respect to time and/ or place. We welcome proposals for papers, panels and roundtable discussions (please provide rationales for panels and roundtables). Postgraduates and early career researchers are of course welcome.

Proposals of 300 words and a brief bio should be sent as a Word document (saved as: SurnameTitle), with the subject line “CArchipelago Conference,” to

Travel, accommodation and conference fees may be covered for those participants without access to research funding. Please indicate clearly whether you wish to be considered for this financial assistance in your submission.

The conference will be held at the University’s dedicated residential conference facility College Court.

Closing date for proposals: 1 October 2014.

Draft programme published: 3 November 2014.

This conference is part of a 5-year project funded by the European Research Council, and based in the School of History, University of Leicester. Led by Professor Clare Anderson, the project seeks to produce a global history of penal transportation and its intersections with other forms of forced labour, migration, and confinement. For further information about the project, please consult our website.