Recalling Forgotten Voices

History neglected is as troubling as history erased. We need to rethink the discipline.

A slave registration certificate for a female infant, Jamiela, Cape Town, 27 December 1826. Michael Graham-Stewart/Bridgeman Images.

For those in 2020 who did not support the removal of statues (the Secretary of State for Culture among them, you’ll remember), their dismantling constituted a form of erasure: cancel culture’s elimination of the past, the rewriting of history. Of course, the truth is that the statues being deposed were those of men who had far more literally and violently erased history themselves. They were slave traders and owners, colonisers and imperialists. It was on their watch, with their authority and to their enrichment that humans were enslaved, oppressed, murdered, censored, raped, traumatised, kidnapped and traded as chattel. 

This you know. But perhaps few beyond professional historians have thought about the effects of these activities on the archive of history: that is, the very documents that create for us what history is. It is too easy to think of the archive as, in the historian Stephanie Smallwood’s words, ‘merely a repository of free-floating empirical facts to be lifted off the page by the researcher’. Poststructuralists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, among others, recognised that the creation of an archive is a process: that archivisation ‘produces as much as it records the event’.

This was sometimes consciously done: instructions were issued by the British Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod in 1961 that colonial government records that ‘might embarrass Her Majesty’s government’ or that might ‘be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias’ should be deliberately and thoroughly destroyed as each colony was handed over. It was codenamed, presumably without irony, Operation Legacy. (It is, however, ironic that the logic for destruction maps rather neatly onto that which motivated the removers of the statues.)

But, even when the erasure of history is not so blatant, there is nonetheless what has been termed an ‘epistemic violence’ in the archives. From slave trade ledgers that leave enslaved peoples nameless and record them only as ‘commodities and corpses’ to the censored records of the colonial jute mills of Bengal that, in the circumstances of their creation, ensured the suppression of worker rights, what survives in the archives has often arrived there by violence. The archives are not a reliable record of history; the archives are a site of power. We tell stories about the rich and the powerful, monarchs and the titled, because those are the people who leave the greatest imprint on the records and the records they produced tell ‘narratives that justify their power’, according to Seth Moglen. 

Many other people are the dispossessed of history: the peasants, the illiterate mothers, the enslaved, the prostitutes. Their stories are, as the writer and academic Saidiya Hartman notes, ‘obscured or erased in the archive’. We see them in the gaps and the silences; in indirect, mediated sources; in fragments, scraps and anecdotes – if we see them at all. 

And here comes the twist. The sort of history you can write from scraps and fragments, from anecdote and silence, has not traditionally been seen as proper history. The records of these lives are too few and too problematic, the individuals too nameless. There is a lack of collaborative sources in multiple documents. The sample sizes are too small. It is impossible to chart change over time from anecdote. You can’t quantify the evidence or demonstrate its typicality. If one plays by the conventional rules of the historical discipline, these stories can never be told and that means that historians become collusive in dispossessing the powerless from posterity. We erase lives from history not by rewriting history, but by failing to rewrite it.

But there is hope. Remarkable historians – including those mentioned above – have turned away from a focus on hegemonic history and found brave new ways to engage with the lacuna and lies of the archive. Among them, Black feminist scholars are leading the way in recuperating the lost lives of the past and, in so doing, are redefining the study of history. We may have to re-envision the very discipline if we want to see beneath the upper crust of the past. 

The novelist and historian Onyeka Nubia writes: ‘History includes, but is not only, the record of powerful-rich-heterosexual, upper-class-white men that are adept at killing people. His is not the last word in history: story is. So let’s get excited.’

Suzannah Lipscomb is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton and author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford, 2019).