Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Silencing the past: reflections on remembering and forgetting


Issues of public history continue to raise important questions on both sides of the Tasman. From the attacks on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Invasion day protests in Australia, to the ongoing effects of the New Zealand Wars and the compulsory teaching of history in Aotearoa New Zealand’s schools, more and more people are grappling with narratives about the past. Social media feeds are flooded with programmes such as the civics series The Citizen’s Handbook and live, COVID-clouded discussions on colonisation and constitutional transformation. Debates on remembering and forgetting are more and more common, helped along by the tweets and press conferences of an embattled President Trump. As an archivist and labour historian, it’s exciting to see such a public engagement with history.

For me, it’s also timely. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of a book that profoundly changed the way I understand the production of history. I’m only now realising that it also influenced my working trajectory as an archivist and my own practice as a historian. More importantly, the book continues to offer insights into why some stories are remembered and others are not, and how historical narratives are produced and reproduced.

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Haitian writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot was first published in 1995. Twenty-five years on, its weaving of personal narrative with stories of slave rebellion, black Jacobins in the Haitian Revolution and the ‘discovery’ of the Americas still resonate. As I write, filmmaker Raoul Peck is using it as one of the key sources for Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part docuseries about the exploitative and genocidal aspects of European colonialism. Written with a nod to postmodernism and a critique of structuralism, Silencing the Past nonetheless blends such an approach with the best aspects of social history and its analysis of power relations.

This, however, is not intended as a review (of which there are plenty online, and I’d encourage you to read them). Instead, I want to pull out the bits that speak directly to discussions of remembering and forgetting; the bits that remind us that history is more than just individual or collective memory recall.

There are several insights in Silencing the Past that now seem like common sense but were relatively novel at the time: ‘The past – or, more accurately, pastness – is a position’; power ‘does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation … in history, power begins at the source.’ As an archivist, I geek out at statements like ‘historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power’ and ‘archives are the institutions that organise facts and sources and condition the possibility of existence of historical statements.’

Silence and the act of silencing have become buzzwords in historical scholarship, used as markers or tropes without further explanation. In response, some historians have pointed to the wealth of archival sources available to us, from oral histories to nineteenth century documents. Yet it’s Trouillot’s treatment of silences in the production of history that are especially important.

For Trouillot, silence is ‘an active and transitive process: one ‘silences’ a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active.’ He emphasises that history is constantly produced, that what we understand as ‘history’ changes with time and place, and that what is said to have happened as the recall of facts is indeed a process filled with silences. For Trouillot, it is not just a matter of what is remembered or forgotten. Silences are produced and reproduced throughout any telling of a story.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

And further: these moments ‘are not meant to provide a realistic description of the making of any individual narrative. Rather, they help us understand why not all silences are equal and why they cannot be addressed – or redressed – in the same manner.’ In other words, ‘any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly.’

I’ve written about the last three moments for Overland before, reflecting on the WW100 commemorations or the hidden history of prison labour. The writing of history from below is a partial attempt to amplify the voices of the silenced. However, questioning the moment of fact creation is just as crucial.

As Trouillot notes, ‘silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded.’ Take the Imperial officer reporting on an engagement with Māori during the Waikato War, or the Tasmanian colonist recording hints of a frontier massacre in his diary; the ‘facts’ they choose to put down on paper come with their own ‘inborn absences, specific to its production.’ Historical facts are not created equal, nor are they neutral. The mentions or silences engaged in by the person creating a story ‘reflect differential control of the means of historical production’ from ‘the very first engraving that transforms an event into a fact.’

Even if we are blessed with a wealth of sources, they are still shaped by silences. In my day job as an archivist I work with documents from German Sāmoa, during the period before New Zealand invaded the country with its own imperial ambitions. At that time, indentured Chinese labourers (or ‘coolies’) were shipped in by boatload to work the various Sāmoan plantations mostly owned by German or British nationals. Thousands of Chinese men flushed through these capitalist ventures, by choice or by circumstance. In some cases, they challenged their poor conditions and treatment through riots, strikes and absenteeism. Yet, while we hold container after container of German Sāmoan records, the names of Chinese labourers are nearly never recorded. They exist in the documents as Kuli. No.323, or simply Kuli (the German word for coolie). Only by painstakingly cross-referencing scattered fragments (or mentions) can the names and human agency of some Chinese labourers be rescued from the produced silences of German clerks.

Hence the mention of ‘power’ in the by-line of Silencing the Past. ‘Power is constitutive of the story’ writes Trouillot. ‘Tracking power through various moments helps emphasise the fundamentally processual character of historical production, to insist that what history is matters less that how history works.’ This not only includes power from above, but power from below. As Vincent Brown notes in his masterful history of ‘Tacky’s revolt’, the Jamaican slave war that influenced the Haitian revolution: ‘as surely as wind and water change the contours of stone, slavery’s archival sources have been shaped by the black people they rarely describe.’

An understanding of context is radical, in the original meaning of the term (of relating to a root, to get to the root of something). It is context that allows us to make sense of a source and its creation, and to place it in relation to others. It is context that can unveil the legal fictions of state or white supremacist narratives. As we continue to discuss the past and its impact on our present, as we question what stories are remembered and what stories are forgotten, I look to Trouillot and the scores of critical writers since as a reminder of how power relations continue to shape history; how context matters; and how, sometimes, remembering alone is not enough.

First published by Overland Literary Journal, 28 May 2020

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Covid lockdowns give us a chance to reimagine Anzac Day and consider war more honestly

A wreath made from fallen Kauri tree leaves commemorates Anzac Day in a driveway in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
My latest article for The Guardian.

Public memory is a funny business.

The New Zealand government spent $65m on its first world war commemoration programme. According to its own figures, 93% of New Zealanders aged 15 and over engaged in the centennial in some way. The futility of war was the most-cited emotional response, which is interesting when put alongside the programme’s objective to strengthen “national identity” (read: the nation state) and an “enduring commitment to peace, global security and international cooperation” (read: current and future wars).

The foundation stone of this nationalist and militarist commemoration was, and is, Anzac Day. Every year on 25 April the country marks the anniversary of New Zealand and Australia’s 1915 colonial invasion of Turkey. State events and dawn ceremonies have been present from the very beginning, held every year since 1916.
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But this year Aotearoa New Zealand will not mark Anzac Day with public services. Lockdown restrictions to eliminate Covid-19 has seen all dawn ceremonies and other civil events cancelled. Instead, people can decorate their letterbox, lay a virtual poppy or hashtag their tweets. For the first time since 1916, Anzac Day will be relatively free of the state.

For some, the idea of not having a public dawn service will be hard. Even this historian of wartime resistance has trouble imagining what Anzac Day will look like without them. Some of my earliest memories of Anzac are of emerging into the cold, autumnal morning to attend a dawn service. My understandings of why were vague. Yet the message was clear. The simple act of getting out of bed and attending a dawn service was enough to say to an eight-year-old boy: if you fight and die for your country, you will be remembered.

This year, we have an opportunity to jettison the militarism and remember the trauma of war in a different way. This year, we may be able to escape what the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the “industrialisation of memory” and consider the root causes of war, as well as the voices that are heard in wartime commemorations and those that are not. Not having a public commemoration defined and organised by the state might just enable a “just” remembering of war.

What would a just remembering of war look like? This year we don’t need to ban politicians, as Guardian writer Paul Daley has suggested, as there are no public events for them to crash. Would it be to focus on the horror of war, what David Aldridge claims to be the only justifiable approach to the commemoration of war, especially in education? Would it be to widen our remembering to others, to those our grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed with bullets and bayonets, and the millions of civilians killed and maimed? Would it mean recognising the thousands of wartime resisters – Māori included – who would not fight for the state? Would it mean refusing the day altogether?

“When it comes to war, the basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is not only about remembering and forgetting certain events or people,” writes Nguyen. It is also “about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity.” For Nguyen, doing justice to the historical trauma caused by war involves recognition of both the humanity and inhumanity within ourselves and within others.

Personal reflection at home might be the perfect way to start. So, as we stay in our bubbles and avoid state-sanctioned memory-making, we can decide to commemorate Anzac Day (or not) on our own terms. And maybe it will mark the dawn of an honest, meaningful, and “just” remembering of war.

Monday, February 3, 2020

'Dead Letters' longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards


Last week I was happy to have finally finished my article on the 1843 Nelson labourers' revolt. To learn that Dead Letters had made the long list of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards was mind-blowing! The category of general non-fiction is a field packed with some amazing titles, and I'm so happy to be one of the ten writers in the running for the shortlist: http://www.nzbookawards.nz/new-zealand-book-awards/2020-awards/longlist/

Thanks to the team at Otago University Press and everyone who made Dead Letters possible, including the descendants of those whose stories feature in the book. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The History of a Riot: Class, Popular Protest and Violence in Early Colonial Nelson


On Saturday 26 August 1843, pay day for the gang-men employed on the New Zealand Company’s public relief works, acting police magistrate George White frantically prepared for the confrontation to come. Having deployed Nelson’s entire police force to the port and hidden them inside houses surrounding the Company store, White was on his way himself when he was met by a constable in haste. An angry group of 70 to 80 gang-men, armed with guns, clubs and the collective experience of months of continuous conflict, were waiting for him. 


White sent for reinforcements, hoping the Sheriff could muster up some settlers as special constables. “The generality of the persons however were very reluctant to be sworn in, and some refused.” Settlers believed that they too would become objects of attack. Class lines between settlers and labourers had been drawn. In fact, they were there from the beginning.

The next hour would not go well for White. Nor was it the first time White, his fellow magistrates and the New Zealand Company officials had confronted the gang-men – agricultural labourers, artisans and their wives who found themselves relying on relief work not dissimilar to schemes administered by the English parishes they had only recently left behind. For the directors of the Company, “nearly all the evils of the old English Poor Law system prevailed in the Settlement”, and they repeatedly demanded an end to a scheme that was so drastically draining their funds. For White, the gang-men’s continued efforts to assert control over their situation had created a power vacuum in the young settlement: Nelson was “in a state little short of Anarchy and Civil War.”

But what of the gang-men themselves? Who were they, and what had led them to such acts of collective revolt? The events of August and September 1843 were a culmination of struggles, including ‘combination’, petitions, public meetings, strikes, go-slows, work refusal, violence to both persons and property, and armed revolt. The self-activity of the gang-men had a significant impact on the development of Nelson. Yet much of the existing literature on this period simply list the men as ‘labourers’ – a faceless mass whose collective agency is inferred but given little political weight, or dismissed as relatively peaceful. Causality is put down to simple hardship, the result of an imbalance between capital and labour in the settlement that dissipates with time; the gang-men’s future as pioneering colonial farmers a teleological given.

If the gang-men remain nameless in most histories, then their wives fare even worse. As Kristyn Harman notes, personal accounts of working people’s experiences in early colonial New Zealand are scarce due to illiteracy. The voices of working-class emigrants – especially working-class women – are under-represented. Not to mention the inattention of male-focused histories to gender and gendered work, one of the defining features of the lives of the labouring poor in the nineteenth century but something that is too often relegated to the side-lines of the male experience. The hidden half of the gang-men’s struggle was the reproductive labour of their wives, who marshalled wit, kin networks and class-based strategies of making shift to complement the Company’s meagre rations.

What follows is a microhistory of collective revolt. It attempts to uncover the people involved, the handling of their situation in class ways and the impact they had on the composition of capitalist relations in 1840s Nelson. The emigrants who travelled steerage across unforgiving oceans had names, families and a history, bringing with them traditions of collective rituals, shared labour and memories of agricultural and political unrest. How did their experience of popular protest before arriving in Nelson play out in their struggle? And how did they force the Company to rethink its plans for colonisation and recompose wage and property relations in Nelson? As Geoff Eley notes, “the collective action of ordinary people exposes the fallacy of treating ‘violence’, ‘protest’, or ‘disorder’ as a world apart, as a phenomenon distinct from high politics, as a mere reaction to stress… By the actions that authorities call disorder, ordinary people fight injustice, challenge exploitation, and claim their own place in the structure of power."

After a brief discussion of class, Part I continues with a narrative of events surrounding the tumultuous pay day of 26 August 1843. Part II shifts in focus to the who, how and why. Using the pay lists of the New Zealand Company, I detail the 70-odd men of the gangs most involved, and explore their forms of collective resistance with reference to their past experiences of parish relief and popular protest. Following Raewyn Dalziel, I believe the agricultural backgrounds of many of the emigrants and the conflicts of the English countryside – including but not limited to the Swing Riots of 1830/31 – played a role in structuring the gang-men’s response to their situation. Finally, Part III tells how the power of the gang-men was countered by the Company. It draws on theories of class composition – with its focus on worker’s resistance to capital and capital’s efforts to decompose such class resistance – to analyse the dynamic of capitalist development in 1840s Nelson. Settler privilege, in the form of access to land, played a significant role in the division and ultimate decomposition of the gang-men’s power.

Read the rest of the article online: http://www.lhp.org.nz/index.php/the-history-of-a-riot-class-popular-protest-and-violence-in-early-colonial-nelson/

Published by the Labour History Project, January 2020. ISBN: 978-0-473-51230-9. This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Hundred Little Treaties

Click to enlarge
Sharing my 2016 article for Mana Magazine about the Crown Purchase Deeds held at Archives New Zealand. Click on the image to read the article.

Monday, January 6, 2020

#AuthorsForFireys - signed books in aid of a good cause


To support our Australian friends in this time of need, my #AuthorsForFireys offer is a signed copy of all three of my books shipped free to NZ or AUS:

- Dead Letters
- Remains to Be Seen
- Sewing Freedom


You can bid an amount on my Twitter feed, and the full amount of the winning bid will go to the CFA in Australia. Info on the hashtag auction here: https://authorsforfireys.wixsite.com/website. Auction closes 11 Jan.

Here's the Twitter post for any bids: https://twitter.com/anrchivist/status/1213994577796812800