Blogs > Cliopatria > Historian as Snoop: Experiencing the Archive

Jul 31, 2006 8:39 pm


Historian as Snoop: Experiencing the Archive



One thing that I think historians bring to the academic table is their experience of working with archives of all kinds. Lots of scholarly disciplines are involved in going to libraries and databases for their evidence, but historians, at least potentially, have the greatest range of experience in working with heterogeneous documents and materials, and the greatest potential creativity in the ways they make use of those materials.

I also think, as I suspect most historians do, that archives are the best part of the discipline, the most enjoyable experience.

I’m in a field where I need to do some ethnographic research on many projects, but I can’t say as I’m particularly good at it in comparison to some of my friends in anthropology. More importantly, I don’t like doing it much: I find it a stressful chore. But an archive is a different matter: there’s almost nothing better than just getting a huge stack of old letters or reports and chomping through them for half a day. In some ways, I like it best when the materials are relatively unorganized or unaccessioned and where I’m just on a fishing expedition, uncertain of what I want or what I might find. That kind of research is always an important cautionary reminder of what can happen when you enter an archive with overly narrow tunnel vision: you tend to ignore what is typical or representative about an entire class of documents in favor of your specific predefined needs.

So while spending a bit of time this past month in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban, South Africa, I took a few days just to speculatively call up materials on a number of late 19th and early 20th Century officials who served as part of “native administration” in southern Africa. Killie Campbell isn’t the best archive in South Africa for doing that kind of work, not by a long shot, but there were still some interesting collections of papers of men who had a strong connection to KwaZulu-Natal in some respect.

I don’t think non-historians have a very clear understanding of what archival work is like: they either mystify it or make it banally like working in any library. I particularly think it’s hard to give many of our students a clear view of the pleasures and possibilities of archival research, as it compares to ordinary topical research. (This has a lot to do with what kinds of archives are proximate to any given university or college. I can’t do much pedagogically here at Swarthmore in my own major field of specialization, but my colleagues in American history have enormous riches at their beck and call.) So I thought maybe I’d talk here a bit about one of the files I looked at in Killie Campbell to give some sense of the process of reading through an archive.

I’d decided to order some of the files of a J.S. Marwick, a man who served in the local “native administration” in Zululand after the Anglo-Zulu War and was then appointed Assistant Secretary for Native Affairs in Johannesburg after the end of the South African War. I didn’t know much else about him besides the fact that he was a labor recruiter for the mines in the 1910s, but he fit the loose category of “early colonial officials” that I was primarily interested in.

Killie Campbell has a set of folders that describe the specific content of large manuscript collections, though the organization of a given folder can often seem fairly haphazard. I looked at the breakdown of the Marwick papers and decided to order several files labeled “Native Administration”. The first file I received, like most of the manuscript files in the collection, had the original copies of Marwick’s correspondence with carbon copies of transcriptions that were created by archivists at a later date. This is a blessing: much as it can be interesting to try and work with old handwriting, it’s a slow process.

1) The first letter I looked at was about Marwick’s reluctance to testify before a commission of inquiry, written to his superior.

At first it seemed routine bureaucratic procedure: “I understand that all evidence required in regard to the policy and administration of the Dept. is to be tendered by you, and properly so for you have been associated with the treatment of questions of policy and with the organization of the Dept. from the date of the establishment of the Civil government. I do not know enough of the principles on which these questions have been settled to be able to give evidence about them.” But then something with other undercurrents came up: “You will remember my having told you that any evidence I could offer would partake more of the nature of personal opinion than official knowledge. I hold strong opinions about such questions as those of Labour, Land Pass Law Administration, etc., but I should prefer to keep such opinions to myself and not risk the possibility of being made to appear antagonistic to the policy of the Dept. in which I am serving. For above reasons I should be very glad if I could be excused from appearing as a witness before the commission.”

This is the kind of thing where a historian says, “Hm. I wonder what’s going on here?” Might be something, might be nothing. The reply simply indicates receipt of Marwick’s request.

2) The next few letters: Marwick’s letter to his superior asking for legislation allowing greater powers for officials to forcibly return mine laborers to their rural homesteads; a complimentary letter dated 1904 from his supervisor, Godfrey Lagden, about Marwick’s handling of an incident.

3) A long letter concerning Marwick’s 1904 investigation of labor recruitment practices in Bechuanaland [now Botswana] in which Marwick found several officials guilty of abuses and recommended various punishments or disciplinary sanctions.

4) Two letters from a missionary representing one of his converts asking for assistance in returning her husband from the mines of the Rand or at least getting more of a remittance from his wages. Marwick apparently succeeded in getting the man to send more money. Seems connected to his letter to his superior asking for more power to order some miners to return home.

5) The next letter I looked at was a very interesting narrative of a complicated incident that Marwick intervened in, the removal of deposed chief Amos Mathibe and some of his supporters from the Mathibe Trust Lands in 1905. I typed most of the content of the letter into my notes, as it was an interesting case study. Marwick described himself as compelled to take over for the official on the scene, who Marwick implied had made some initial misjudgements in his approach to the problem.

So at this point, the logic of the file seemed rather miscellaneous. Interesting and useful for describing some of the ways that early colonial procedure was often improvised, which was the main argument I was looking to reinforce.

But then suddenly, my sense of the entire file changed, as the question of Marwick’s reluctance to testify returned. A series of short letters which were substantially about references to other, longer, as yet unseen by me letters made it clear that Marwick and his superior Lagden broke into open bureaucratic warfare with each other in 1906, and that this was the occasion of his unwillingness to testify.

This often happens when you’re working through documents. It’s not clear what they’re all about, even though they may be individually interesting, and then suddenly you come across some new vein of meaning that changes everything. What became clear as I read was that all of the other materials were placed in this file by Marwick as pursuant to the dispute. He was assembling evidence of his own competence and more importantly, of his reputation among Africans on the Rand as a fair and trusted official. He was demonstrating that some other officials might hold a grudge against him (the recruiters he disciplined, or the lower official that he overruled). He was documenting that his previous efforts to gain policy changes might have earned him Lagden’s animus, but also recording that before their dispute began, Lagden had a favorable impression of Marwick’s work.

And then I hit paydirt, in relative terms: a comprehensive letter in which Marwick summarizes the entire history of his dispute with Lagden for their mutual superior, tries to justify his actions to date, and puts forth the case for himself. The immediate issue, it turns out, was an effort by Lagden to move Marwick’s position to Pretoria and afterwards to eliminate it as redundant. Marwick dates this back to late 1904, and claims that the dispute was building steadily throughout 1905. But the best part of this lengthy letter is Marwick’s version of a meeting between himself and Lagden in March 1906. Up to that point in the file, there were other short letters from Lagden to his superior complaining about threats made by Marwick in this meeting, most crucially an allegation that Marwick had said he had a file of confidential papers about Lagden’s professional conduct that he would release to the papers in London if Lagden attempted to move or eliminate Marwick’s post.

Marwick gives a minute-by-minute account of the disputed meeting in which he claims that he was speaking of the unhappiness of other disgruntled officials with Lagden’s leadership, and in particular, that one recently retired official had said that he would send his complaints to the newspapers in London in the near future.

“I said that I was not the only officer of the Department who considered he had not been quite fairly treated and I had heard of more than one who failing to get what they considered fair treatment in the Department where as ex-officials waiting for the coming elections to air their grievances.
I stated further that I had heard of one case where a late officer of the Department considered that he had been so unfairly treated that he had sent to England a sealed packet containing a statement of his case which he had as a last resource ordered to be opened in London, should he fail to obtain any consideration in this Country.
I beg to attach hereto a letter dated 17th April 1906 from Mr. Moodie late Clerk to the Sub-Native commissioner at Blaauwberg, and who was the gentleman I referred to but whose name I did not disclose as I had not then his permission to do so.
I deny in toto the construction put upon my words by Sir Godfrey Lagden, who listened to me very impatiently throughout, must have entirely and unwittingly perhaps misunderstood and only partially followed my utterances.”

From this point on, the rest of this particular file of letters concerns the aftermath of this exchange. There’s a draft version of the longer letter that reveals just how carefully worded it is, and how much effort Marwick devoted to getting it right. There are a few follow-up and repeat letters substantially rehashing the longer narrative offered by Marwick, and then the file skips ahead to 1910, when he’s been fired. From there on, it’s about his attempt to gain what he sees as proper pension benefits that acknowledge his period of earlier service in Natal before the South African War. A few later letters add more nuance by suggesting that Marwick and Lagden disagreed about other policies, including how many qualifications officials should have to serve in native administration (Marwick favored more, Lagden seems to have favored less.)

I’m not saying that there’s anything particularly important about this exchange in the grand scheme of southern African history. But it’s a good illustration of why working in the archives can be so pleasurable.

Suddenly I’m on the inside of hundred-year old bureaucratic infighting, and there’s some really interesting detective work to be done, some basic interpretative guesswork. Sure, if that interpretation became deeply material or pivotal in a larger argument I was making, I’d go hunt down secondary sources or check with other scholars in the field to make sure that there wasn’t something missing in my understanding—or I’d go do more archival work in Pretoria and possibly London. (There’s a decent amount out there about Lagden, who was a significant figure, and even Marwick pops up in the scholarship in quite a few places.) But since I’m never really going to do much with this slice of human experience except blog about it, or incorporate it as a shading of arguments that rest on other evidence, I can feel safe about speculating.

So here’s some choices I have: is this dispute entirely about personalities, or was there some larger question about the architecture of the post-South African War government, or specifically in “native administration”, at stake? Is Marwick really defending any kind of meaningful principle in claiming that it is important that his office remain in Johannesburg, or is this just about disliking Lagden or not wanting to be under his thumb in Pretoria? What did Marwick really say in that meeting, and if he himself intimated that he’d send documents to London, what was he really hinting at about Lagden’s conduct? What at the end of the day is really my impression of Marwick’s personality and ethics based on these letters? There’s a real pull to emotionally sympathize with him, but then the skeptic on the other shoulder whispers to remind you that these are his letters, not Lagden’s, and reading them with another pair of lenses, he comes out as vain, obstreperous, and very possibly as guilty of pretty serious insubordination for which he deserved to be fired.

Archives often take you to a juncture like this. You’re rarely without tools that help you decide what to make of a set of documents, but you often still find yourself having to make some basic choices about what happened, what it meant, and whether anyone should care. But even before you get to those choices, there is a kind of secret pleasure that precedes them: a historian in the archives is often a kind of combination of Miss Marple and Mary Worth, a detective, judge and gossip, learning about the complicated art of being human from the traces and fragments of writing that accidentally trail behind individuals and find their way into boxes and files all around the world.


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More Comments:


mike John Battcock - 11/5/2009

Hi, I found your article very interesting. JS Marwick was my great great grandfather. I would be very interested in any information on him.

All the best

Mike Battcock


Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 8/1/2006

Archives as requiring peculiar study are matched by archivists. I'm aware of one archive collection for which ca. 1920 a competent inventory replaced an incompetent one - a rational system based on proper archival principles instead of random numbering applied to whatever was on the top of the pile. But when the new inventory was presented and practical experiments showed that it couldn't be used, the author rather stiffly commented, "No one was paying me to stick numbers on the pieces, so I didn't. I just wrote the inventory." There is now a dimly typed concordance to use after locating what's interesting in the archivist's inventory.


Timothy James Burke - 7/31/2006

I hear you, Thomas. This is another weird thing about archives: you have to really inhabit them to know how to give people the right trail of breadcrumbs to find exactly what you saw, and even then in a few cases, they'd have to spend the same hours you did reading the same file. There are files in the National Archives of Zimbabwe that I've used where I'm quoting a single letter that is stuck in a file of about 1,000 letters: there's no way to be more specific about it barring a further accessioning. But also each archive is peculiar. I'd used Killie Campbell before, and it still took me a while to remember the way to get the files I actually wanted: they've got three different schema for numbering their materials, at least one of which is almost irrelevant from the perspective of actually finding something, as far as I can see.


Thomas Brown - 7/31/2006

Even though I am trained and employed as a sociologist, archival research is my first love, both for the first-hand experience of history, and for the excitement of plunging into an unknown world.

Which brings me to my biggest beef--historians who give untraceable citations to archival data. I hold an excellent book by William Evans, published thirty-odd years ago, and filled with unconscionably sloppy citations.

Evans' cites his central source--the document that informs and drives his narrative for more than half of the book--by its National Archives Record Group number. This number encompasses roughly all of the military records made in the 19th century, plus a few decades on either side. I've spent two separate trips to DC looking for this needle in a haystack, with no luck. I wish Evans was alive so that I could give him a piece of my mind about his lack of professionalism.


Jonathan T. Reynolds - 7/31/2006

That's one of the best essay's I've seen on the subject in a while. It brought back all sorts of memories from my own archival work.

One thing it points up is the beauty and importance of drafts in historical research. In many ways, the marginal notes and changes from draft to final version tell the researcher more about what is going on than anything else.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/31/2006

Ditto. I gotta get back into the files....


S J - 7/31/2006

Great post, I get the same feeling looking in certain archives and not others. It is as though I just know that I have a chance at striking pay dirt at any moment in the good archives.