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Silence, Accessibility, and Reading Against the Grain:. Examining Voices of the Marginalized in the India Office Records. Nathan Sowry University of Wisconsin-Madison. British East India Company in Southeast Asia. Section one. What the Archives Tell Us:

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silence accessibility and reading against the grain

Silence, Accessibility, and Reading Against the Grain:

Examining Voices of the Marginalized in the India Office Records

Nathan Sowry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

section one
Section one

What the Archives Tell Us:

An Attempted Mutiny

and an Incomplete History

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

british views of bengali sepoy life in java

The Bengali sepoy garrisons are “but scantily supplied with necessaries and ill-equipped for such lengthy tours of duty.”

    • - Journal of Colonel Colin Mackenzie, 1812
  • “The severity of the discipline, the continued drill, and the breach of promise made to them in detaining them so long in Java” have led to a “disaffected spirit” among the troops.
    • - Journal of Thomas Otho Travers, 1814
British views of Bengali sepoy life in Java:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

according to michel rolph trouillot

“The production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production.”

  • “At best, history is a story about power, a story about those who won.”
    • - Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 1995
According to Michel-Rolph Trouillot:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

questions about historical completeness and power

How accurate are archival records when they only represent the views of the powerful?

  • Is it possible or realistic to strive for a “complete” historical record?
  • How have the voices of the “Other” become silenced and forgotten?
  • Why were certain voices considered more worthy of remembrance?
Questions about Historical “Completeness” and Power:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

section two
Section two

Reading Records Against the Grain:

Recovering the Voices of the Marginalized

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

reading colonial records against the grain

Ann Laura Stoler utilized this method to listen for voices of resistance within nineteenth-century colonial reports in Sumatra.

  • For Stoler, “This upside-down reading goes against the colonial conventions and records of imperial history, empire builders, and the priorities and perceptions of those who wrote them .”
    • - Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, 2009
Reading Colonial Records “Against the Grain”:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

changing responsibilities of archivists

No longer are archivists “impartial custodians.”

  • We must recognize and accept our own “biased and political” nature.
  • We have a responsibility to present the many varying perspectives contained within the archives.
Changing Responsibilities of Archivists:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

concerns and caveats of postcolonial theory

“Can the subaltern speak?” – Is it possible to recover the voice of the marginalized?

  • We must recognize that we cannot have direct access into the minds of the creator and subject – we are essentially outsiders.
  • We must avoid “speaking for” and “romanticizing” the marginalized.
Concerns and Caveats of Postcolonial Theory:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

section three
Section three

Transnational Records:

Access, Digitization, and the Future of Archives

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry


#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

voc archives documents
VOC Archives Documents

All images from

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry


Some Final Thoughts . . .

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

according to jenkinson

“The archivist’s career . . . is one of service.”

  • “The archivist exists in order to make other people’s work possible.”
    • - The English Archivist: A New Profession, 1948
According to Jenkinson:

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

we can go further

Actively seek out and include the voices of the marginalized.

  • Interpret and re-read current records to uncover silenced voices.
  • Digitize and make accessible the records in our care to make them available to a wider public.
  • Work cooperatively and internationally with other archives, libraries, and institutions of learning.
We can go further . . .

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry

thank you
Thank you

#SAA12 Session 502-Sowry