Category Archives: Archives

Whose postcolonialism? The French and their colonial past.

Dr. Emile Chabal will be speaking in a joint event on Wednesday 7 October, co-sponsored by the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Here he blogs on some of the themes to be discussed at this week’s seminar, in the first of a series of occasional guest pieces by visiting speakers and contributing historians around the world.


Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Memorial to French dead in Algerian War of Independence, Sète, France. Photo by Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.

Emile Chabal, University of Edinburgh

In my recent book, I place postcolonial questions at the heart of contemporary French politics. I argue that apparently insular debates about citizenship and the nation are, in fact, closely tied to France’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. I also argue that it is impossible to analyse the key dividing lines in French politics without understanding the attitudes of political actors to France’s colonial project.

Yet, over the course of my research, I have discovered just how nationally – and linguistically – bounded postcolonialism really is. There is a common misconception that France has not “dealt with” its colonial past and that French academia has been extremely hostile to postcolonial theory. To some extent this is true. Postcolonial studies courses, for instance, are still a rarity in university literature departments in France.

But this is hardly the whole story. In fact, one could easily argue that France has had a much more vigorous debate about its colonial past than almost any other country in Europe, especially the UK. Since the late 1990s, issues like colonial violence, torture and the relationship between Islam and the French colonial project have been at the forefront of public debate. Even if we go further back into the 1970s and 80s, postcolonial questions were clearly visible in the identity politics of France’s substantial pied-noir community.

So what’s the problem? Why do British and American scholars of France maintain that France has failed to come to terms with its colonial past?

The difficulty, it seems to me, is one of definition. Most people would accept that, in North America, the UK and South Asia, discussions of postcolonialism emerged from the disciplines of literary criticism and social theory through the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and others.[1] By contrast, the genealogy of postcolonialism is quite distinct in France, where it has been local politicians, activists and non-governmental organisations who have grappled with colonialism and its legacy.

This means that, while much of the debate surrounding postcolonialism in the English-speaking world has focused on “texts” and “representations”, in France it has focused on street names, memorials, museums, parliamentary laws and issues of historical memory.

One of the consequences of this is that postcolonialism has had a much wider reach in France than elsewhere. Instead of being confined to university departments and research seminars, the question of how colonialism should be remembered, what its impact was and what sort of legacy it has left is one that is fought out in the public sphere.

There are few better examples of this than a 2005 legislative package which included a clause to ensure that French schools teach the “positive” aspects of colonisation. Predictably, this caused huge controversy. Pied-noir organisations, who had been the driving-force behind the legislation came out strongly in favour of it, while historians and left-wing political organisations lined up to criticise it. Eventually, the offending clause was removed from the legislation by presidential decree, but this did little to stop a far-reaching discussion of French colonialism in every major press and media outlet.

The whole affair was a stark reminder that, even though the development of postcolonial ‘theory’ was a distinctly Anglophone phenomenon, the French have been no less engaged with their colonial heritage. It is simply that, as with so many other things in France, the political and partisan aspects of postcolonialism have always been much more prominent than its academic manifestations.


[1] It is worth noting, however, that there have been many distinguished Francophone theorists of colonialism (including Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon), and that many Anglophone postcolonial theorists were inspired by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida. So, even in this strictly theoretical definition of postcolonialism, the French are present.

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Autumn 2015 Week 2 Seminar: Vincent Hiribarren (KCL) & Emile Chabal (Edinburgh): Hiding the Past, Shaping the Future: the Politics of Archives, Citizenship, and Belonging in the ‘Postcolonial’ Present

HiriChabal copy

The Week 2 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 7 October 2015, at 16:30h in the Danford Room (Arts Building, 2nd Floor) (note change from usual time). We are delighted that it is organized in conjunction with DASA Africa Talks and will be delivered by: Vincent Hiribarren and Emile Chabal, with comments from Berny Sebe. All our welcome and there will be drinks afterwards.

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Week 10 Seminar: Lucie Ryzova – Love in a Box.

 The Week 10 Modern & Contemporary Research Seminar is by our own

Lucie Ryzova

Aperçu de « Microsoft Word - Ryzova ¨Poster.docx »All are welcome, and there will be drinks.

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Emphasis is placed upon destruction

Quai d'Orsay

The French foreign ministry building on the Quai d’Orsay

There are sensible times to destroy archives. In 1940, for example, the German army was advancing on Paris, the secretary-general of the French foreign ministry, Alexis Léger*, had all the ministry’s current records burned. This creates a bit of a problem for me, as a historian of French mandate Syria, because it means all the records of the 1930s negotiations in Paris between the French government and Syrian nationalists over Syrian independence are missing—but I can see that it made sense at the time. The war ministry took no such action (I wonder if this is because the general staff was packed with collaborationists-in-waiting, while Léger was a known anti-Nazi whose French citizenship would be revoked by the Vichy government); as a result, it saw its archives looted by the Germans, who carted vast quantities of militarily sensitive documentation back to Berlin, from where the Red Army looted it in 1945. Forty thousand boxes of material were returned in the 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, but an unknown quantity remains in Russia.

Chateau de Vincennes

The Château de Vincennes, Paris, HQ during the 1940 campaign and site of the defence ministry archives today

Britain had different reasons for destroying archives. The policy of archive destruction that was implemented extensively across British colonies as they approached independence, in the period after 1945 , aimed to whitewash the historical record, to ensure that anything that might like the retiring colonial master look bad (and there was plenty of it) shouldn’t fall into any, well, black hands. Or those of future historians. Plenty more material—1.2 million files—was repatriated, but withheld from the national archives.

There’s an article about it in yesterday’s Guardian, and a slightly earlier comment piece that’s worth reading by Richard Drayton.


*Under the pseudonym St-John Perse, Léger also wrote poetry: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1960.

Click images for source

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Farewell Topkapi

The Ottoman empire began life as a frontier principality in northwestern Anatolia in the fourteenth century, on the fringes of the Christian Byzantine empire and the lands of Islam. It survived an early setback in 1402, when the extremely scary Timur defeated and captured the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I; by 1452, the Ottomans had conquered Byzantium and made it their own capital. For the next couple of hundred years the Osmanlı devlet was one of the most formidable states in Eurasia, and even after its military expansion ceased—towards the end of the seventeenth century—and the empire began to contract, it proved remarkably durable. The notion of Ottoman decline was an idée reçue with a pedigree long before it became a commonplace of European diplomacy in the nineteenth century: it had its roots, ironically, in the works of Ottoman historians, writing when the empire was approaching its zenith, who were uneasy with the inevitable shifting and settling of political institutions in an increasingly established and powerful state. The idea proved oddly resilient, and more recent historians have had a lot of fun in the last couple of decades pointing out that if a state in inevitable decline manages to stick it out for another three hundred years, we may need to revise our definition of ‘decline’. The empire lasted until the first world war and beyond, signing an armistice rather than collapsing in revolution and crashing out of the war (like its old rival to the north, the Romanov empire) and breaking up under pressure of foreign occupation—the Ottomans managed to outlast the Habsburgs too. What really finished the dynasty off was the rise of a Turkish nationalist movement that viewed their acceptance of Allied occupation as a betrayal; but the swiftness with which Mustafa Kemal chucked them overboard was, and still is, shocking. Here’s the last Sultan leaving the Dolmabahçe palace in 1922, a few days before he was deposed:

Sultan Vahideddin

I remember being told as an undergraduate that the Ottoman state archives contained riches of which Europeanists could only dream—except that Europeanists wouldn’t bother dreaming of them, because they were blithely ignorant of the history of the empire, repeating a few tired clichés of nineteenth-century historiography instead of learning something about the state which perhaps more than any other is responsible for ‘Europe’ actually being a thing.* (This still goes on: ‘Five centuries of Turkish wars against Europe’, yelled the cover story of a French popular history magazine I saw on newsstands in Paris a few years back.)

At that time, and until very recently, the Ottoman archives—inherited by the Turkish Republic that had abolished the Ottoman state—were housed inside the Topkapı palace in Istanbul, where the dynasty resided for much of the empire’s history. The internet provides this touristy picture of it, on the promontory overlooking the Golden Horn (foreground) and the Bosphorus (background):

Topkapı palace

Over the last twenty years or so, a combination of factors (among them the end of the cold war, political liberalization in Turkey, and the increasing ‘critical mass’ of Ottoman studies as a field both outside and to an extent inside Turkey) has meant that the riches of these archives have begun to be exploited. Historians working on parts of the world that were under Ottoman rule for centuries have started using the Ottoman archives to understand that period—heck, it only took about eighty years of crass nationalist historiography to make it seem worthwhile—and, perhaps because they got talking to each other in the reading rooms at the archives, started thinking about the Ottoman experience as a whole rather than as a series of unrelated regional histories. My own attempts to acquire some Turkish in recent years, stalled since I got a proper academic job, were intended to work up from modern Turkish to Ottoman so I could work my way back from 1919—my rough ‘starting point’ as a researcher—into the late Ottoman period, so I could get in on some of this action.

I still hope to get my Turkish up to scratch one day, modern and Ottoman. But I won’t be doing any research trips to the Topkapı palace grounds: as of last month, the Ottoman archives have been moved out to a charmless new facility next to a freeway in Kağıthane a few miles to the north beyond the head of the Golden Horn:

İmrahor Caddesi, 34400, Gürsel Mh., Kağıthane, Istanbul, Turkey

Kağıthane, incidentally, means ‘paperhouse’, which I’m sure is pure coincidence. Click on the image for the full google map, and zoom out to see where it is relative to the old city.

Although the new building is certainly bigger and more suitable for the increasingly heavy use the archives are getting, the move hasn’t been terribly well planned: it wasn’t until February that researchers in the archives—and for that matter the staff—were told the old reading room would close in mid-March, and while the new reading room is open, only material that had already been digitized is currently accessible there. It’ll be months before the physical archives are relocated and made available again. And the new reading rooms are hard to get to. This article on Jadaliyya gives a rundown of the pluses and minuses of the new site, along with a nostalgic look back at the old one—as well as links to some useful practical details that researchers have already assembled, including a google map showing where you can find public transport links. But don’t plan your trip anytime soon.

*I would have put in a prudent ‘arguably’ here, but I’ve just been telling my students to state an argument in their exam essays instead of hedging their bets, so.

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Scraps of Paper

Writing a PhD on the French mandate in Syria, I often ran into the problem of missing archives. As German tanks approached Paris in the early summer of 1940, the secretary-general of the foreign ministry Alexis Léger* had his staff burn all current political records: this was a wise move, but it meant that all the documents on the ministry’s negotiations with Syrian nationalists in the 1930s were destroyed. Copies of much of this material might have been kept at the French mission in Damascus, but there it was the approach of a British/Free French invasion force in 1941 that provoked a Vichy official to burn the sensitive political paperwork. When France grudgingly (and hastily) left Syria and Lebanon after the war, meanwhile, shifting thousands of boxes of documents wasn’t the top priority: among the things that appear to have been mislaid in the rush for the exit is the entire documentary record of the Hygiene and Public Assistance Service, a mandatory agency that dealt with everything from planning sanitation in towns and cities to running refugee camps (what I’m working on now) and anti-malaria campaigns. This may be gone forever, or it may turn up one day in a warehouse outside Marseilles or Toulon.

Wikimedia, General Gouraud in Aleppo, 1920

Turning to the Syrian archives, even when I was doing my research in Damascus between 2003 and 2007 the surviving material from the mandate period was exceedingly patchy. At that time the handwritten inventories of the markaz al-watha’iq al-tarikhiyya, the Historic Documents Centre, were remarkably complete for the Ottoman period, very patchy for the mandate, relatively rich for the early independence period (from 1946), and stopped completely with the Baath takeover in 1963. What the state of the archives is now, I have no idea: it’s almost a year since I heard from a friend who worked there. (Update: a well-informed friend tells me that that part of Damascus, as a regime stronghold, has not yet witnessed serious destruction—but it’s “only a matter of time”.) Syrians have more pressing things to worry about than the fate of their national archives, but if they’re destroyed they would be a significant casualty: recovering from the intense divisions of the present will be all the more difficult if the documentary record of a shared past has been lost.

Historic Documents Centre, Damascus, lintel

Historians need archives. So it was dismaying to read this post on the History Workshop Journal website about the destruction of significant archives in the UK: not because there are Panzer divisions sweeping towards them, or Syrian airforce jets bombing rebel-held areas nearby, but simply because the institutions that hold them can’t afford—or, worse, simply can’t be bothered—to protect them.

Are they worth keeping? Or are they just scraps of paper?

*Léger, who was not only dismissed from his post but also stripped of French nationality by the Vichy government, spent the next quarter of a century in the USA. He’s better known to posterity as the Nobel prize-winning poet Saint-John Perse: as you can see from his Wikipedia page, he knew how to rock a polka-dot bow tie.

Save the Children, sue Ken Loach

A guest post from Matthew Hilton, ahead of our forthcoming round table on ‘imperial humanitarianism’ (brief details here, more details to follow, but keep the afternoon of Friday 1 March free):

In the run-up to its fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1969, the humanitarian agency Save the Children (SCF) commissioned a film. Surprisingly for this rather conservative charity, it approached the overtly left-leaning film-maker, Ken Loach, fresh from the success he had had in highlighting the plight of the homeless in Cathy Come Home.

Loach was given free reign by SCF to make the film that he wanted. He picked on some surprising themes. Focusing first on a children’s home run by SCF in the UK, he depicted the staff as extolling all the worst patrician aspects of Victorian philanthropists. Turning to the fund’s work in Kenya, he implicated SCF in a system of neo-colonialist exploitation symbolised by its creation of what effectively amounted to an English public school in Nairobi. Warming to his theme, Loach then forgot about the SCF altogether and chose instead to undertake a wholesale attack on the very principles of charity. Linking the causes of poverty around the world, the film ends with a call for a global socialist agenda.



To suggest that SCF didn’t like the film would be to put it mildly. Senior executives and trustees were appalled at the private screening. But the lengths they then went to to bury the film were quite extraordinary. Loach and his film company were sued, and the film was eventually deposited at the British Film Institute on the understanding that no one could view it. Only in 2011 did the SCF finally permit a public screening.

Thanks to a deposition of the archives of SCF at the University of Birmingham, Loach’s accusations can now be tested. Researchers can explore the hundreds of boxes of material to see whether Loach was correct to argue that SCF was overly paternalist, too politically moderate, too connected with political and social elites to be able to offer an alternative point of view, and too hand in glove with governments to be able to speak truth to power.

Ken Loach


Have things changed since? Certainly the organization’s CEO thinks it took a while. At the screening of the film in 2011 he made the extraordinary claim that from the 1960s to the 1980s aid did ‘more harm than good’. Unfortunately, we are not yet in a position to ask this of the SCF. Although the papers reside in the Cadbury Research Library, the NGO’s lawyers have blocked access to any papers after 1972. It is to be hoped that this decision will be changed soon and SCF’s archives will be made available to researchers, like those of Christian Aid, War on Want, the Red Cross, and Oxfam (from 2014).

The Save the Children Fund archives are held at the Cadbury Research LibraryThe available inventories aren’t complete, but you can get a preliminary look by searching for ‘SCF’ in the catalogue. (At least one third-year Birmingham undergraduate is already writing her dissertation using earlier material from these archives.)

Archival soft furnishings

Document rests

Ideal for snoozing on, too.

This three-part kit of bolster, rolled-up blanket, and a miniature draught excluder actually adds up to a very neat document rest, ideal for holding open a  bound volume of papers from the 1930s, or the kind of creaking, smelly leather-bound ledgers of regimental ordres du jour that once gave me a wicked allergic reaction in the French military archives at Vincennes. (I wasn’t even looking at them myself—it was the person next to me.)

Document rests


The ones I was using this week were marked with a brownish-yellow dust down their centre, where the spine of a bound volume lies—possibly crumbling paper*, more likely dried-out and decaying glue.

They also—and this is why I’m actually posting about them—looked just like bits of soft furnishings from a 1970s caravan, especially under the fluorescent desk lamp. They triggered a kind of reverse Proustian reaction where I could almost smell the damp grass, aluminium, and primus stove of childhood holidays. For a while, I was lost in memories of swingball and travel sickness and all the other things that made caravan holidays so er memorable.

*For more information about paper decay than you will ever need (unless you’re a professional archivist), check out this page from the Library of Congress and this one from a company that makes archival materials—and has, appropriately, retained a ‘1998’ look worthy of the Internet Archive for its own website. There’s also Wikipedia, of course.

A scandal in Tripoli

The best bit about being in the archives is that you stumble on all kinds of stuff that you weren’t looking for: the ‘pleasure of learning singular things‘.

Today, for example, at the end of the afternoon, I was looking through an entire microfilmed volume of bound archival documents for what proved to be a single uninformative letter about refugees in French mandate Syria. To find it I spooled through document after document, pausing just long enough on the first page of each to check the bit on the left-hand side saying ‘A/S.’, for au sujet de, or ‘Re:’, and telling you what’s there. When I found myself looking at a letter about un scandale tripolitain—a scandal in Tripoli, Lebanon—I had to read through the whole thing, and the attached cutting from a Tripoli newspaper. I was richly rewarded.

Re: Scandal in Tripoli

The author of the letter is the French High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon, Damien de Martel—a shrewd operator with a dry sense of humour who’d served everywhere from Washington to Siberia. The background to the scandal is that the Greek Orthodox community in Tripoli, and indeed Syria and Lebanon as a whole, had recently undergone a bitter near-schism over a disputed patriarchal succession. (The Syrian jurist and politician Yusuf al-Hakim mentions in his memoirs that the dispute wrecked his mother’s funeral: when he and the other mourners arrived at the cemetery with the cortège, they found a couple of boozed-up partisans of the other side had locked them out of the graveyard and were singing rowdy songs inside.)

There’s the context—here’s the scandal:

There has just occurred at Tripoli a scandal which part of the Greek Orthodox community has, unfortunately, seized on as a reason to rebel against their bishop, who is reproached with having compromised the dignity of the church in an adventure of a very particular character.

Monsignor Geha had been linked in a very warm friendship, whose purity some doubted, with a young man of the town whose reputation—rather like that of the prelate himself—is already well established. The public would surely not have concerned itself with these practices, which are common currency […], if the young Levite in question, probably anxious to draw a profit from these relations, on the nature of which I won’t venture to comment, had not suddenly feigned a virtuous indignation, proclaiming that his pastor had attempted to interfere with his innocence and showing off a jar filled with alcohol which contained a piece of ‘that part which is bound to chastity’, as a local journalist put it—a piece seemingly detached by way of an exhibit for the prosecution.

Emotion in the city was extreme: the bishop was a protégé of the current patriarch, and they and their followers had a hard time responding to adversaries who were waving evidence like that. In the end the bishop ‘was obliged to submit to a medical exam, appearing before three doctors of different denominations who were invited to inspect the object of the dispute from a great distance. Their certification, however ill-founded it may be, will I hope lead to a calming of the spirits.’

De Martel’s own unillusioned opinion was that the whole business smelled of ‘blackmail and machination’, but that the bishop’s ‘dangerous frolics’ were a gift to his enemies—who weren’t philosophical enough simply to observe, with the High Commissionner, that ‘sinners cover the earth’.

The internet tells me that he’s quoting Racine, in Athalie:

Mon Dieu, qu’une vertu naissante
Parmi tant de périls marche à pas incertains !
Qu’une âme qui te cherche et veut être innocente
Trouve d’obstacle à ses desseins !
Que d’ennemis lui font la guerre !
Où se, peuvent cacher tes saints ?
Les pécheurs couvrent la terre.

The document, and the newspaper cutting that went with it—apparently written
by the brother of the Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut!—
are in the French foreign ministry archives, La Courneuve:
Correspondance politique et commerciale, Série E—Levant, 1918–1940, volume 512, documents 149–152:
letter from de Martel to Foreign Ministry (9 Nov 1934) and enclosure. 

Affaires étrangères

Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Archives diplomatiques, La Courneuve

Ceci n’est pas une archive

The French foreign ministry archives used to be in the ministry building itself, at the fabled Quai d’Orsay. This meant that the security procedures were more intensive than for getting into most reading rooms: the first appointment had to be booked three weeks in advance (they were grudgingly flexible towards researchers from outside France), and readers were only allowed in once an hour on the hour. French PhD students would shudder, too, and tell dark stories of the reading room staff. I only went once, and that was for a meeting with the (very nice) archivist who looked after the image collections—he happened to have written his thesis on French mandate Syria, which is what I was doing at the time, so he just let me work away for a few hours in a high-ceilinged room full of photos, artworks, and, well, diplomatic junk. It was on the fourth floor, I think, but felt like a cellar because the windows were blacked out.

Those days are gone, though. In 2009 the archives moved into new, purpose-built premises tucked just inside the RER B line north of Paris, at La Courneuve. This is ‘north of Paris’ in the French sense, which considers anywhere beyond the inner ring road, the périph’, to be a grimy, distant no-man’s-land. (The relationship between Manhattan and the outer boroughs of New York City is comparable, but at least Manhattan is actually an island.) La Courneuve is no further from central Paris than Hackney is from central London, which I suppose means a very long way indeed, psychologically. It’s two stops north of Gare du Nord, if the train stops, which it often doesn’t. They’re rebuilding the station at the moment, and have been for months—there doesn’t seem to be much change from when I was here at the end of the summer. There are bright, cheerful posters up all over the hoardings showing what the rebuilt station will look like, and they’re populated almost entirely by bright, cheerful white people: a vision for the station’s future that doesn’t involve most of the people who currently use it.

At the archives, you no longer have to wait for a turnstile to open once an hour on the hour, but security is still pretty tight. The new building, which is also used as a training centre for diplomats, is part of a wider redevelopment programme for that bit of La Courneuve that also includes a new school, a sports centre—and flats that are obviously aimed at young professionals, a few storeys high with balconies and wooden bits: no risk that they could be mistaken for the social housing just across the railway line in the blocks of the Cité des 4000 that haven’t been demolished yet. For the time being, though, the archives still give the impression of being a fortified encampment in enemy territory. This is how French state institutions and their staff seem to feel when they’re in parts of France like La Courneuve.

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