pondering photographs

A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.

In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?

I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.

It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.

But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?

Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.

Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.

Instant ancestors, indeed.

[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]

References

Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.

Advertisements

Against KonMari: A Plea for Packrattery

Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.

But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?

And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.

Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.

That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.

PANO_20140904_160149

No longer in grade 2. But still a nest on the coffee table.

So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.

Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).

18510_10152981417959272_9131640382807622674_n

Look! It’s genetic. I’ve passed it on to my kids, too.

Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…

For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.

The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).

The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?

The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).

The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.

10252014_10152232528984272_5411641403291923012_n

The funniest thing about this picture? It was only after I took it that I discovered the screwdriver that we’d been looking for for months. Magpie kid had absconded with it…

The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.

The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.

This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.

This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.

IMG_3850

the back side of my attempts at embroidery. pretty sure it’s not suppose to look like this…

One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.

IMG_4693

organized boxes filled with treasures… Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

IMG_4939

Ship’s Logs, ca. 1870-1880. Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.

How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?

This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.

It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.

It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.

It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.

It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.

But what about their daily lives? What were those like?

What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?

What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?

What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?

When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.

But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.

A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.

The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.

But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.

No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.

IMG_1122

food porn gone wrong. I think it was supposed to be tofu curry.

IMG_0911

recipes escaping their cookbook!

IMG_0889

A tangle of shovels, tossed willy nilly by the house.

This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.

IMG_1558

somewhere near the PowerPlex in St. John’s, sometime in early spring.

It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.

Life is #messy.
It’s #chaotic.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.

And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.

Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.

Doodle.

Keep every scrap of paper.

Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.

Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.

Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.

This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.

IMG_1568

With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.

sketch v

When I find one of Shanawdithit’s archived drawings I experience a necessary discomfort.

I go back to my childhood.

All my young life I hear the mythologizing, how she was the last of the Beothuk people. Ten minutes outside my hometown, the provincial Beothuk Interpretation Centre is a place I visit quite frequently as a child. There’s a walking trail, on which I come across a statue of Shanawdithit and the remnants of a 300-year-old settlement. There are crosses that mark graves. My parents teach me that history shouldn’t have been written “this way.”

shanawdithit-sketch-5-woman-killed-at-exploits-river

“Killing of a Beothuk woman at the Exploits River,” by Shanawdithit, 1829. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Newfoundland Images. http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_images/id/71/rec/26

From this drawing I read memories, encounters, connections to place. I read loss and resistance. I do not read silence.

I know that mythology is also about evolvement – how we get to here from there.

As she “transferred her talent for constructing detailed patterns on bone and bark to the European medium of paper,” (Polack 2013: para 9) Shanawdithit’s drawings opened up a past that cannot be erased, and none of us can overlook or forget colonial encounters and mediations in Newfoundland and Labrador because of them.

Reference

Polack, Fiona. 2013. “Reading Shanawdithit’s Drawings: Transcultural Texts in the North American Colonial World,” In Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 14 (3). DOI: 10.1353/cch.2013.0035.

going home

Between 1916 and 1975, all the colonial archives in Suriname were brought to The Netherlands. This material included materials  from 1667, when the Dutch and the English signed the Treaty of Breda, granting the Dutch Suriname and the British New York, right through to 1975, when Suriname became an independent country. This week, on 19 January 2017, the final boxes will be returned to Suriname.

As part of the project, the Dutch National Archives scanned and digitalized some 5.5 million pages, all of which can be accessed via the archives website: gahetnal.nl.

I’ve worked in both Dutch and Surinamese archives. Each has its own personality; each has its own processes, its own rhythms (which I wrote about here). The cities, too, have their own personalities. The Hague feels like a seat of government; it is a bureaucratic city organized by its political function. Paramaribo moves to a different rhythm. Still a national capital, it’s nonetheless shaped by South American heat and humidity and a Caribbean sensibility. Time is more fluid.

While the documents themselves haven’t changed as a result of their oceanic crossings, the way we read them just might.

img_7916

Slavenregistern Inv. nr. 33, Plantage Sarah. Nationaal Archief Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

 

Minding the Gaps: Reading for Refusal

While the funding for this project officially began in 2015, the thinking and preliminary groundwork began much earlier, with seeds being sown in Fall 2013. It was just a glimmer, then. A hint of a possibility.

But here we are. I spent Friday organizing all my computer files, Saturday making notes, and Sunday labeling and organizing 35 moleskine notebooks.

img_0643-001

It all looks neat and tidy. This matters because I am, at heart, a spreader. Tidy is not usually a word in my vocabulary, as you might gather from the photo below, a real live picture of my desk taken a couple of years ago.

10942582_10152973802814272_4665636207090147839_n

Right now, everything  feels fresh and new.

But part of me wonders if what I actually engaged in was a form of procrastination, if this was nothing more than busy work distracting me from the bigger picture. I had a friend who used to wash her shower curtain and alphabetize her canned goods when she needed to procrastinate. Another is really good at baking (I’ve used this approach to good effect as well).

So was it just busy work to make it seem as if I’m progressing, when I’m actually not getting very far at all? It’s a fair question. And perhaps, there’s something to it.

But I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking.

All this

stuff

All of my reading, my writing, my analyzing, my walking, my travelling. What am I going to do with it now? How do I best represent the journey that is this research? What responsibilities do I hold in relation to those whose stories are only available in the crumbling pages of colonial records? How will I tell the stories of shadows, of hauntings …. How will I tell the stories, yes, of glimmers that have never fully flared into light?

ckrabfrvaaew7md-jpg-large

I’ve been reading Jennifer Sinor’s The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary in preparation for next month’s #storypast Twitter discussion. As with other #storypast books, it’s arrived at just the right time, and it’s given me much to think about. Sinor’s book is about the diary kept by her great-great-great aunt, Annie Ray, a diary that she struggled to work with, struggled to make sense of, struggled, as she put it, to story. The problem, she found, is that the diary is not extraordinary writing, it is ordinary writing, and, as she puts it:

I want to suggest that what separates ordinary writing from the other (more valued) writing is largely the fact that it does not story, meaning it does not tell a story. Because it is unremarkable – does not mark an event or narrate an idea – it also remains unmarked, unnoticed. (6)

For Sinor, the value of Annie Ray’s diary comes from its “dailiness” – from “the act of writing in the days rather than of the days” (17). Indeed, diaries, she observes, are fundamentally open-ended. They don’t – they can’t – have a narrative arc because they have no beginning and the author doesn’t know if they’ll have an end.

Sinor’s book (and I’ll admit I haven’t yet finished reading it) has made me think a lot about the kinds of stories we leave behind, and how those that come after us will interpret them. But it’s also made me think a lot about the stories we don’t leave behind. The stories we choose not to leave traces of. The stories we choose to destroy. The stories we aren’t allowed to tell. The stories we are forced to tell. The stories that nobody wants to listen to at all. The ones that people throw away, burn, and otherwise destroy. The silences. The absences.

And it’s made me think about how I, as a contemporary teller of stories, might approach the complexities of the past, and not just of ‘The Past’ generally speaking, but my pasts. Because this current research project is not only about mouldering archives of random individuals who lived one, two, three centuries ago, it is about my past. And because of this, it’s also about my present. And my future.

I don’t have ordinary writing to work with. If my ancestors left any writing of their own, it’s long gone. And so I am left only with the colonial archive, and the violence that it enacts. And there’s the rub: how can I research in and write about colonial archives – whose contents include the stories of my own ancestors – without contributing to and/or perpetuating the violence that they enact?

Dutch colonial archives relating to the Indian indenture period in Suriname (ca. 1873-ca.1916) include details about indentured labourers’ bodies, enumerating not only the expected – although contested – categories of age, sex, and place of birth, but also such categories as skin colour, bodily markings, and scars. These are often the only records that remain of those who travelled more than halfway around the world to work on contract in colonial sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations; they are the only stories on which families and researchers might draw in order to recover their histories. And yet, read as a unit, these records can contribute to a dismembering – and, indeed, dehumanizing – of colonized bodies. Is it possible to re-member the past differently? More provocative still: although some of these records concern my own family histories, what right do I have to tell these stories, even if they are the “very [me] of [me]” (Tuck & Yang, 234)?

Not all stories, Tuck & Yang argue, should be told. Not all stories have a right to be told.

“Tissue samples, blood draws, and cheek swabs are not only our own; the DNA contained in them is share by our relatives, our ancestors, our future generations ….This is equally true of stories” (Tuck & Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research,” 233-4)

And they are right. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s yours to share. Just because you’ve lived something doesn’t mean that the story is your own. Stories are webs. And jiggling one side of the web can – and will – affect all other parts of the web. As my father used to say, you can’t just pee in one side of the pool. Sooner or later, the whole pool will be affected.

But if, as Saidiya Hartman has argued, stories might be understood as “a form of compensation or even as reparation” (4), then how do we tell such stories? How do we approach the archive differently, when archival fragments are the only bits that remain? What other stories can these materials tell, and how might we equip ourselves to listen for them?

As Hartman asks, “…how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?” (Hartman, 3)

Tuck & Yang offer a model of ethnographic refusal, an approach to writing and researching that, in their words, “shifts the gaze from the violated body to the violating instruments …. Thus, refusal helps move us away from thinking of violence as an event and toward and analysis of it as structure” (Tuck & Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research” 241). They offer Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Erased Lynchings”  series as a model for how such an approach might work. In this collection of historical photos of lynchings, Gonzales-Day writes that he has:

“removed the lynching victim and the rope from each image … [in order to] redirect the viewers attention away from the lifeless body of lynch victim and towards the mechanisms of lynching and lynching photography, to allow viewers to see the crowd, the mechanisms of the spectacle, the role of the photographer, and even the impact of flash photography, and their various influences on our understanding of this dismal past.” (http://kengonzalesday.com/erased-lynchings/)

Canadian writer and actor, Lorena Gale, performed a similar act in her acclaimed autobiographical dramatic monologue, Je me souviens. Confronted by the spectacle of lynching while browsing in a Montreal bookstore, she focuses first not on the lynching victim, but rather on the celebratory atmosphere and all the people who came to watch:

“It’s not the smouldering remains of what had been a man that shocks me. His once-Black features charred beyond recognition. It is the twenty or thirty White men that stand behind their pyre, proudly arranged like graduates for a class picture …. Their triumphant smiles Their self-satisfied demeanour. Their total unconcern for the life they took, for that life was of no value to them except in macabre sport. Their shameless hatred. They didn’t even bother to wear their hoods or robes.” (43-4)

The Caribbean poet, writer, and essayist, M. NourbeSe Philip, undoes the logic of colonial language in all of her writing. In her poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language” (1993), she tangles her tongue in the words, moving from language to anguish. In its structure, too, the poem resists logic. There is no narrative, no clear move from A to B, beginning to end. There are only fragments across four pages of text. The poem has no clear beginning and no clear end. Any fragment can follow any other fragment. And in each reading, each telling, the tongue tangles and struggles.

 

She takes these ideas even further in her work, Zong!, her re-writing of the Gregson v. Gilbert court case, the only written document pertaining to the killing of around 150 enslaved Africans, who were ordered to be thrown overboard from the Zong for insurance monies.

“There is,” NourbeSe Philip writes, “no telling this story” (196).

And so instead, she undoes the story, reducing the violence of the colonial text to sounds, rhythms, spaces. Staging the fragments across the page, she’s imagined waves and oceans, the individual bits and pieces floating against, beyond, and through one another in the carnage of transatlantic slavery.

“I deeply distrust this tool I work with – language. It is a distrust rooted in certain historical events that are all of a piece with the events that took place on the Zong. The language in which those events took place promulgated the non-being of African peoples, and I distrust its order, which hides disorder; its logic hiding the illogic and its rationality, which is simultaneously irrational.” (197)

Like Tuck and Yang, NourbeSe Philip performs refusal. She will not tell the story that the court case determined for her; rather, she will engage in a much more subversive project, a ‘not-telling’ that, in its telling, challenges the very nature of logic itself:

“The not-telling of this particular story is in the fragmentation and mutilation of the text, forcing the eye to track across the page in an attempt to wrest meaning from words gone astray….the resulting abbreviated, disjunctive, almost non-sensical style of the poems demands a corresponding effort on the part of the reader to ‘make sense’ of an event that eludes understanding, perhaps permanently …. In the discomfort and disturbance created by the poetic text, I am forced to make meaning from apparently disparate elements – in so doing I implicate myself. The risk – of contamination – lies in piecing together the story that cannot be told. And since we have to work to complete the events, we all become implicated in, if not contaminated by, this activity.” (198)

NourbeSe Philip suggests that none of us is innocent, that we are all implicated in the violence that begot the massacre on the Zong. As soon as we engage with the text, as soon as we struggle with it, we become part of it. There is no escape.

 

And so, as I muddle my way through my notebooks, my photographs, and my random jottings, I think of the stories that need telling. I think of the silences that need preserving. I think of the stories that are my past, my present, my future, and of the way such stories link me, inevitably, to others. And then I think of the archives and how I might read them differently.

 

References

Gale, Lorena. Je me souviens. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2001.

Hartman, Saidiya, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1-14.

NourbeSe Philip, M. Zong! Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

NourbeSe Philip, M. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1993.

Sinor, Jennifer. The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.

 

With thanks to my colleague, Max Liboiron, who, during a talk entitled “How to Titrate Like a Feminist,” introduced me to the work of ethnographic refusal.

 

Photographs and text © Sonja Boon, 2017. (sboon @ mun.ca)

Numbers

fortzeelandia3

Fort Zeelandia, Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo credit: Sonja Boon

I’m a story person. I love narrative. I love reading voices and imagining the people behind them. It comes as no surprise, then, that I’m struggling with colonial archives of slavery and indenture. There are few conventional ‘stories’ here; rather, most of the stories remain are told only in charts.

Charts tell me how many people were enslaved at individual plantations.
Charts tell me when the enslaved were born and when they died.
Charts can allow me build odd family trees through the maternal line.

Charts tell me how many indentured labourers came on ships and how many were born or died on the journey.
Charts tell me how many of them had sexually transmitted diseases and how long they were hospitalized.
Charts follow the progress of new immigrants through indenture, detailing criminal cases, reproduction, death, cohabitation, and official immigration.

Charts tell me how much the government spent on provisioning the “koelie depot” and how much they spent on medical care.

ng-1994-65-5-28-1

Contractarbeiders uit Brits-Indie in het zgn. koeliedepot te Paramaribo. Onderdeel van het fotoalbum Souvenir de Voyage (deel 5), over het leven van de familie Dooyer in en rond de plantage Ma Retraite in Suriname in de jaren 1906-1913. Public Domain. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.490031.

Charts list names.
Charts list villages of origin.
Charts list bodily markings – scars, burns, birth marks.

It’s all interesting information but there is so much about this that is frustratingly impersonal. And thisi is how it’s meant to be. The colonial officials didn’t care about these people as individuals. All they were interested in was labour and how that labour would benefit the wealth of the colony, and from there, the wealth of the motherland.

And so, I’ve had to read between the lines, finding stories from the gaps and silences, from the details that don’t seem to fit the conventional narratives.

If the average enslaved woman had four children, then what do we make of enslaved women with nine or ten? How do we reconcile those who had none?

Why did so many men try to escape from one plantation, while a neighbouring plantation recorded no escapes at all?

Even here, however, the personal eludes me. The enslaved and the indentured remain nothing more than numbers on a page. I can’t learn about their loves, passions, desires, joys, griefs, sorrows, angers, and frustrations here. And for a scholar of life writing, this has been and continues to be a challenge.

But there are some records that gave me pause.

For colonial record keepers, numbers needed to provide certainty; they needed to be clear and unambiguous. And this is why I was struck by numerical discrepancies in the logbook of the Medea, a ship that travelled from Calcutta to Paramaribo in 1873.

The Medea’s logbook is a large, mouldy document that is designed to record extensive detail about all the incoming “agricultural workers.” The different columns require information about the following: last name, first name, mother’s name, gender, age, religion or caste, region of origin, city of origin, village of origin, height, and any bodily markings. Each of these columns is carefully filled in with fine black ink. The original bureaucrat also took care to mark out families, bracketing units together.

At some point after the labourers’ arrival in Paramaribo, another colonial official added new markings. Using a thicker blue or red pencil, this individual assigned the emigrants to their various plantations, according to the plantation requests that had been received by the colonial office.

But there is also a third set of annotations, added in pencil. These annotations translate heights from imperial to metric, add data about skin colour, and, in some cases, add extra information about bodily markings.

But in some cases, the unknown official has changed some of the ages originally marked in the logbook.

On the surface, this isn’t necessarily surprising; after all, it’s not uncommon to find that numbers have been incorrectly transcribed and need adjustment.

But these adjustments are not minor ones: sometimes it’s a matter of a decade or two.

Thus, for example, Goolam Daibee, a Hindu man indentured at the combined Leasowes-Sarah plantation along with his wife and two daughters, is originally listed as being 28 years old.  The penciled marking, however, lists him as 45.

Doorjun Gungoo, sent to Zorg en Hoop with his family, was also originally listed as 28 years old. By the time he arrived in Paramaribo, however, his age had changed – to 38.

More striking is the record of one Rampersad (last name unclear), who arrived with his wife and two sons, all of whom went to Groot Chatillon plantation. Originally, he’s listed as 36. His revised age? 60.

How can there be such great chasms in the records? What happened in those spaces between 36 and 60, 28 and 38, 28 and 45? How could the record keepers have gotten things so very wrong?

What I do know is this: such annotations mark complicated encounters between emigrants and colonial officials. They mark points at which the colonial bureaucracy broken down, points where the colonial drive for transparency, clarity, and certainty couldn’t be guaranteed; indeed, where this drive was fundamentally undermined.

Perhaps translation failed.
Perhaps stories changed.
Perhaps birth records went missing.
Perhaps they never existed to begin with.

How was age determined? Who decided how old a labourer was?
Perhaps these are the wrong questions; I’ll never be able to trace back exactly what happened.

More important is that something went awry. Something didn’t make sense. Something didn’t work within the metrics of colonialism. It’s in these cracks – in that space between 36 and 60 – that new questions might emerge, new stories might be told.

photo-2015-02-09-2-34-57-pm

Nineteenth-century officers’ residence. Fort Zeelandia, Paramaribo. February 2015. Photo credit: Sonja Boon

References

Scheepslijsten: Medea (1873), Agent Generaal (Immigratie Departement) 1853-1946. Inv. Nr. 616A Nationaal Archief Suriname.

 

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @ mun.ca)

They Look Like Dutch Women

I spent some time this weekend looking at the online digital archives of the New York Public Library, and the British Library. I love that more archives and collections are being uploaded, and available as public domain. I searched under the keyword of ‘Suriname’ and found some very interesting images in both collections, some of which I will use at a later date, but I found one this past weekend that I could not get out of my mind.

It is an image of two women walking down a path in light dresses, and holding a parasol. The woman closest to the camera looks a little affronted, or taken aback by having her picture taken, while the woman holding the parasol looks like she is smiling, or proud of being the focus of attention.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47dd-fb44-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

Schomberg Centre for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, from the New York Public Library. “The Women Look Like Dutch Women Turned Black.”  The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1915. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-fb44-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

I could not stop thinking about the caption for this image: The Women Look Like Dutch Women Turned Black. The image is from a book called Isles of Spice and Palm, and it is written by Alpheus Hyatt Verrill, a zoologist, archeologist, and adventure writer of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Verrill traveled through the Americas (South, Central, and North) taking part in archeological excavations.

Maybe I was intrigued by this image because I have been reading and hearing the phrase ‘like a man’ so much the past week. Researching women in visual art will eventually lead to seeing the phrase ‘she paints like a man’, and it is meant to be a compliment (Heartney, 2013). I have also seen a lot of news articles about Olympic athletes who are women who ‘swim like men’, or ‘run like men'(here and here).

It is strange to see the comparison between the marginalized and the dominant over the course of a hundred years, and still have some people see it as a compliment. Even though Verrill describes the costumes of the women in Suriname as ‘bright and gaudy’ (Verrill, 1915: 219), he also illustrates the people and the place of Suriname as ‘quaint’, ‘enchanting’, and possibly the most interesting city in the world. He considers that he is writing about his experiences in a positive manner.

I have been thinking about these women, and how they would feel being compared to Dutch women, to be told that they are ‘enchanting’, but ‘gaudy’. I especially think of the woman who looks smiling, and proud. I think about the colonized people, the women artists, and the women athletes, and I wonder why we still consider a backhanded compliment, a compliment.

Heartney, Eleanor, et al. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Munich: Prestel, 2013.

Verrill, Alpheus Hyatt. Isles of Spice and Palm. New York; London: D. Appleton and Co., 1915.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca), 2016