Can We Use the Colonial Archives to Do Non-Elite History?

By Akhilesh Karumchand Issur (@AkhileshIssur)

History is much more than a sequential list of events; it is full of nuanced perspectives that are experienced, remembered, memorialised, and interpreted in various ways by different people. In need of remaining objective and precise, every historian is therefore confronted with the major challenge of supporting their claims about the past with good evidence. In this sense, the past that historians evoke is not exactly a “real past as it was when it was present” but rather a construction of what historians make of it as “the best explanation of the evidence” they have.[1] The body of evidence available to historians come from various sources: different kinds of texts and documents that have been preserved over the years in various archives, from people who remember events and convey them through orature or oral history, objects and symbols obtained from archaeological excavations, among others. None of these types of evidence sit in a vacuum nor are they certain and definitive. Contexts matter and additional historical research can shed light even into the most researched events of the past.

The issue of finding substantial evidence was one of the most challenging aspects of my own research on the political history of Mauritius. As I sought to focus on the politics of the Hindu peasantry that emerged from the diaspora of indentured labourers who had migrated to the island from India during British colonial rule, I found it quite difficult to find primary sources that expressed the voices of the peasantry. Few secondary works about Mauritian history have in fact focused on the distinctions between the political interests of the Hindu peasantry and those of the few politicians who were (uncritically) deemed to represent the same group of people. What is missing from the narrative when the history of politics is framed solely through the perspective of the political intelligentsia?

Therefore, when I decided to use the colonial archives as my evidentiary base, it was imperative to use these documents very carefully in order not to treat the peasantry as “a mere embellishment, a sort of decorative and folklorist detail serving primarily to enliven the curricula vitae of indigenous and foreign elites.”[2] Archives across Europe, as well as those institutionalised by European imperialist powers across much of the Global South, have not only defined much of the commonly accepted history but also shaped the very ways by which we do history. Archives, which were once considered to be the holy grail of primary sources in the historiography of the last few centuries encompassing the coming of age of modernity, colonialism and the making of the nation-state, encompass several meanings. They refer to documents that are kept as records, buildings and spaces where such records are kept and preserved, and institutions that are often state-owned. The very processes through which the records are produced and managed involve a selection of what to include and exclude.[3]

However, colonial archives do indeed often emphasise the voices of a few at the expense of others for a number of reasons. Their use in historiography has therefore been contested in various spaces and at different times. For example, as historians sought to do the history of those who have been historically ignored within the traditional academic literature, they were presented with situations where archives lacked perspective about and accounts from these groups of people, were biased in favour of the colonizers, and were framed in ways that depicted a general lack of understanding about colonized subjects. In particular, the Subaltern Studies Group, which emerged in the 1970s, sought to do Indian historiography differently by conveying the histories of those traditionally left out of nationalist history, engaging both with new sources of evidence and existing ones in innovative ways. Subjects of non-elite history typically included enslaved people, peasants, the working class, women, and over time, also came to include queer and disabled people.[4] Colonial archives could not be used in the same way to convey these histories as they were for the history of the nation-state and European history.

While examining the records both at the British National Archives in Kew and the Mauritian National Archives in Coromandel, I attempted to use frames of analysis introduced by several scholars of the Global South who thought of innovative ways to work with these colonial documents in retracing non-elite history. The anthropologist Ann Stoler, one prominent such scholar, highlighted the need for students of history to see the archives for their form and politics in addition to the information they withhold.[5] Instead of only frantically “mining” through archival records for bits and pieces of information, it is also essential to consider questions that pertain to the processes through which these archives were created and maintained in the first place. For example, when retracing the political history of Mauritius, historians should also understand the reasons behind the very poor condition of the local national archives and what led to the disappearance of many documents during colonial rule.

Even when archives are better-preserved, such as the ones at Kew, attempts to restrict their access from the public must be evaluated. For example, the FCO 141 records, part of the British migrated archives, and which contain potentially sensitive information about British colonies, were kept hidden for years as part of Operation Legacy until their declassification in 2013. The same records again mysteriously disappeared from public access for several months this year as I was conducting my own research.[6] Such analysis has the potential to unveil a few of the voices that are both consciously and unconsciously silenced within the archives and the motivations behind this kind of silencing.

Moreover, a critical evaluation of the language used in drafting the content is paramount. This can be achieved by not only bearing in mind the target audience of the documents as they were written and communicated but also considering the context of power relations in which they were drafted. In his brilliant piece of scholarly work, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot presents several examples of how a rigorous re-evaluation of language, context, and power serves to inform historical inquiries.[7] He urges us to think of what was “unthinkable” to the colonizers as they wrote records that came to form part of the archives. For example, when the enslaved people of Haiti rose up against the French in 1791, the French authorities were never able to conceive of the events as a revolution. Even though there are allusions to local unrest that involved the enslaved within the archives, these events are framed in ways that silence their agency and the very act in which they were engaging. The revolution becomes a mere spontaneous act riddled in complex conspiracy theories. Trouillot argues that “when reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs, human beings tend to phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs… (and) devised formulas to repress the unthinkable and to bring it back within the realm of accepted discourse.”[8] How does one go about producing the history of what was unthinkable when it was happening?

Perhaps, an important way of retracing this kind of non-elite history is to re-ascribe consciousness to the non-elite or the subaltern, as the historian Ranajit Guha has argued.[9] Too often, colonial registries treat the subaltern as an object instead of a subject. The Indo-Mauritian peasantry, just like the Santhals of India, are also generally assumed to be passive. Their history is usually erased through nationalist discourse which presumes that they were led to independence by a few fathers of the nation. Similar to the protest movements of the enslaved of Haiti, the acts of rebellions in which they partook are depicted as spontaneous riots in the colonial archives. Yet, a cross-examination of commission of inquiry reports, for instance, can give perspective about the nature of these protests, which coupled with other primary sources such as folklore songs and oral history, can challenge patterns within conventional nationalist history. If one ascribes agency and consciousness to the subaltern actors and treats them as subjects instead of objects, it is possible to do a re-reading of the colonial archives to obtain important insights that can in turn be used to construct narratives of non-elite history.

Stoler, Trouillot, and Guha are only but a few scholars who informed the methodological enterprise behind the analysis of colonial archives in retracing non-elite history. My task as a student of history was therefore to use some of these frames of analysis and interpretations about the forms, politics, language and issues of subjecthood present within the colonial archives when retracing the history of the Hindu peasantry in Mauritius. As I engaged with historical research and the need to critically examine the nature of evidence that informs historical narratives, I knew that a specific evidentiary base is never fully certain nor finite. What I learned in the process was how methodological tools used in doing the histories of different peoples across different times and geographical locations have the potential to inform one another to devise ways to make the discipline of history ever more rigorous and informative. This type of knowledge production can also potentially serve to better understand how narratives about world events are framed as they occur in the moment and then framed into history shortly after.


[1] Goldstein, L. (1962). Evidence and Events in History. Philosophy of Science, 29(2), 175-194, p. 177.

[2] Guha, R. (1983). Elementary aspects of peasant insurgency in colonial India. Delhi; Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 13.

[3] Carter, R. G. S. (2006). Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence. Archivaria, 61, 215–233.

[4] ​​Chakrabarty, D. (2009). Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts. Humanities Research, Humanities research, 2009-07.

[5] Stoler, A. (2002). Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance. Archival Science, 2(1), 87-109.

[6] A few months after the disappearance of the records, the British National Archives claimed in late June 2022 that it was due to a pesticides contamination. See https://commonwealth.sas.ac.uk/blog/recent-withdrawal-public-access-important-migrated-archives.

[7] Trouillot, M. (1995). Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.

[8] Ibid, p. 72.

[9] Guha, R. (1983). Elementary aspects of peasant insurgency in colonial India. Delhi; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image credit: Female dockworkers in colonial Mumbai, joined by a Muslim muqaddam. In the public domain and accessible via Wikimedia Commons here.

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