Collecting Archival Material: a Conversation with Historian Karin Pallaver

Maria Mwaipopo Fibæk talks to Karin Pallaver, a member of AFLIT and an Associate Professor of African History in the Department of History and Cultures at the University of Bologna. Karin’s research draws on a multitude of historical sources of which many were collected at national archives in United Kingdom and East Africa and the two discuss the collection of archival material for research.

Karin has a longstanding interest in African history and she has been part of a ‘Money in Africa’ project based at the British Museum. She has published work on the long history of changing currency regimes and money circulation in East Africa. Apart from contributing to a monetary history of Africa, her work has also shed light on critical topics such as pre-colonial commercial expansion, wealth and power imbalances, the use of money by the ‘ordinary’ African citizen, and the transitions to colonial currencies where African agency played a critical role in how the colonial currencies were introduced. For AFLIT, Karin is working on producing social tables for the two island economies Mauritius and Zanzibar.

Q: Karin for your research you have collected colonial material from the National Archives in the United Kingdom yet you have also been a frequent user of the national archives in East Africa. Can you tell us about your experience from collecting archival material in these places? For instance, are there are any differences in the material that is available in the United Kingdom compared to what can be found at the national archives of the former colonies?

A: Contrary to common assumptions that tend to represent archives in African countries as poorly catalogued and difficult to access, both the Kenya National Archives (KNA) and the Zanzibar National Archives (ZNA) are well organised, with detailed paper catalogues and, in the case of the KNA, a computer database. Clearly, you would need a few days to understand how the archives are organized, where the information you are looking for is located, and so on. However this is, I believe, valid for all archives, not only those in Africa.

The perspective you can get from these documents is rather different from that obtainable from material collected at The National Archives in the United Kingdom. For example, in Kenya local district and province administrators sent regular reports to the central administration of the colony – first located in Mombasa and later in Nairobi. Parts of these reports were then used to write general annual reports on the colony, which were then sent to London. Therefore, documents collected at KNA usually give much more in depth information on what was going on in the colony compared to the material available at the National Archives in London, that are summaries of the local reports.

Zanzibar was in the early colonial period the most important centre of the British administration in East Africa. For this reason, in the late 19th-early 20th century, reports from the East Africa Protectorate and Uganda were all sent to Zanzibar. Thus, the material in the ZNA allows researchers to get more precise information on what was going on in the region compared to the reports to the Foreign Office that were sent to London (and are today housed in The National Archives in the United Kingdom).

Q: Could you take us back to some of your early visits to the national archives, how would you usually prepare for a trip and how long would you stay at a time?

A: My first visit to an archive in East Africa was in 2005, when I did research in the Tanzania National Archives (TNA) in Dar es Salaam for my PhD thesis. To access the TNA (and in general for doing research in Tanzania) you need a special research permit from the Tanzanian government called a ‘COSTECH Research Clearance’ as well as a special one-year visa for researchers. As it might take some time to get the COSTECH Research Clearance (on their website they advise that it can take several months), I had to prepare my visit and relevant documentation well in advance. Usually, you need to find a host institution such as a university department or research institute and their details would need to be included in the COSTECH application form.

For doing research in the ZNA, at the time there was no need to apply for the COSTECH research clearance needed on mainland. At the time, however, you still needed to submit a research application to a local office and that process would take between two and three weeks to be approved. You also had to pay a fee that depends on the amount of time you intended to spend in the archives.

Doing research in the KNA is much more straightforward. You can just go to the archive reading room, bring a passport size picture and a reference of an academic sponsor based in Kenya, and then pay a small fee to become a member.

Before my first visits to these archives, I read the paper catalogues that are available in some libraries in Europe, for instance at SOAS Library in London. For example, a catalogue of the “German Records” at the TNA was compiled in 1973 and one of the KNA in 1968. Unfortunately, no comprehensive online catalogues are available, with the exception of the catalogues of some microfilmed material that is collected at some American universities, such as Syracuse University. Moreover, there are various articles written by scholars who report their experience with doing research in these archives, that I always found very helpful.

The length of stay depends on the research you need to do and the availability of material. But also on all your other commitments. For instance, it was easier for me to spend longer periods in the archives during my PhD when I did not have the administrative or teaching duties that I have now! But at the same time, over the years I have built a database with pictures of many documents from various archives, that I do integrate with new data and sources that I can collect during visits of three to four weeks.

Q: In your work, you often integrate various historical sources. For instance in your paper published in 2019 on the East African rupee crisis 1919-1923, you use an impressive variety of colonial sources such as formal colonial documents including districts’ annual reports, correspondence between colonial officers, and minutes from meetings. This material you integrate with historical newspapers and missionary sources. Could you tell us more about your efforts to integrate various historical sources? How do you find the material?

A: As all Africanists know, one common problem for reconstructing African history is the lack of sources. For this reason, I have been taught by my PhD supervisor to consult and use as many different archives as possible. For example, European colonial sources were framed by their writers’ assumptions about African societies and economic practices, but nonetheless they are often the most substantial source of evidence available.

For my study of the history of currency, missionary sources have revealed themselves as extremely valuable, as missionaries meticulously recorded the wages paid to their labourers, church offerings and prices on the local markets, as well as bridewealth payments in commodity currencies and in coins. Newspapers written during the colonial period by some groups and associations (for example the newspapers of the Indian community in Kenya (that I have used for the mentioned article on the East African rupee crisis) provide a different perspective from that offered by the European administrative sources on the events taking place in the colony. So my research practice is generally to scrutinize different possible sources and then carefully conduct archival work in as many archives as possible. Sources can then be compared to each other to provide different data as well as perspectives on the topics and events I do research on.

Q: Among the contemporary African Economic Historians, you are one of few researchers who have published work on the African precolonial era. To give an example, a paper of yours traces the use of currency transitions in Buganda (later known as Uganda) as far back as the 18th century. The reason why many scholars within African Economic History steer away from the pre-colonial era is probably the lack of archival material from the era. How and where did you find material from the period?

A: Sources on the precolonial period are not easy to find, but still some of them are there, and include early administrative records, missionary sources, travel accounts, commercial companies’ records, ship logs, personal papers and early ethnographies. The information is scattered across different types of archives and institutions, but when it is put together, it allows you to build a critical mass of sources. In my case, this has allowed me to get enough data to reconstruct the history of currency in precolonial East Africa, or at least a part of it. To this, we can add that interdisciplinary research has always been the matrix of the field of African history, especially when studying the precolonial past. Research in archaeology and historical linguistics has for a long time laid the foundations upon which scholars have studied later periods.

Scholars of Africa’s precolonial past, in particular, have a long history of interdisciplinary collaboration beginning with the birth of the field in the 1960s, when their intense collaboration combined archaeological, historical and linguistic sources to reconstruct an original and independent precolonial past, that was ‘usable’ to fill the artificial colonial borders with a national history the roots of which extended well beyond colonial rule. Interdisciplinary sources not only add information, but they actually complement and enhance each other while revealing their respective contradictions and inconsistencies.

Q: Apart from national archives, several other institutions house historical material. For instance for my research on post-independence Kenya, I have used the libraries of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and the London School of Economics. Moreover, during a stay in Oxford, I found the library at the Oxford Centre for Economic and Social History very useful and I know many historians also use the Rhodes House Library in Oxford. Do you have any experience collecting material from other places than national archives?

A: We have already mentioned missionary archives. I did research in the White Fathers Archive in Rome, in the Church Missionary Archive in Birmingham, in the Mill Hill Missionary Archive in Freshfield, Liverpool and in the London Missionary Archive in London. For the study of the colonial period in Kenya, I found the sources collected at the Bodleian Library in Oxford very useful. The Library holds many personal papers of British settlers, their associations, and British administrators in Kenya. For example, for my paper on the East African rupee crisis, I located the names of the administrators who were critical in the decisions and discussions of the time. This I could do thanks to their signatures in the official correspondence in the national archives. I also looked for their personal papers in the Bodleian library. Often the “official” perspective is quite different from the “personal” one.

Finally, doing research on the history of money, I worked in numismatic collections, especially in the Coins and Medals Department of the British Museum. The study of the materiality of coin objects (their material, form and design) is extremely useful in understanding why certain coins were accepted by colonial societies whereas some other were not; but also to provide information on through which symbols the colonial state wanted to represent itself on coins and banknotes.

Q: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming work for AFLIT. I know that you and Ellen Hillbom are working on producing social tables for Mauritius and Zanzibar. How is the work coming along and what type of historical material/sources will you draw on?

A: During a talk at the World Economic History Conference in Boston, some years ago, Ellen and I started to discuss the possibility of comparing the history of inequality in Mauritius and Zanzibar. The idea started from the fact that the two places share some significant similarities. Differently from the large land masses of many of the mainland colonies, they were smaller islands in the Western Indian Ocean, and because of their location, they had long histories of being hubs for valuable international trade, for example in spices. In parallel with trade, they both developed into plantation economies (in the case of Zanzibar cloves, in the case of Mauritius sugar cane). They were both occupied by the British in the 19th century and remained under British control until the 1960s and they were both the destination of substantial flows of migrant labourers. Nevertheless, they also had important differences, for example, Zanzibar employed enslaved labourers in the 19th century, and migrant labourers during the British colonial period, whereas the labourers in Mauritius were for the majority indentured labourers from India.

We feel that the history of these small islands is rarely told within African Economic History compared to more well known countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, or Kenya. We want to add these country cases to the history of the region. What were the consequences of their similarities and differences on inequality over the long term? Can we identify patterns that they shared with mainland colonies? We have almost completed the collection of sources such as censuses and various statistical reports in the archives in Zanzibar and Mauritius. We will soon start digitising the data and discussing on how to best frame this case study.

Notes to the blog:

Notes to the national archives mentioned are posted below.

The Kenya National Archives are located on Moi Avenue in Nairobi, Kenya. The opening hours are 8 am to 5 pm. See here, for more information on availability, categorisation, and condition of material available at the archives. At the time of writing, no research permit was required to access the archives.

The Tanzania National Archives are located on Vijibweni Street in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The opening hours are 8.30 am to 6 pm. See here, for more information on availability, categorisation, and condition of material available at the archives. At the time of writing a research clearance from COSTECH is needed to access the archives.

The Zanzibar National Archives are located on Zanzibar in Kilimani, about 1.5km from the centre of Stone Town in Tanzania. The opening hours are 8.30 am to 6 pm. See here, for more information on availability, categorisation, and condition of material available at the archives. As of March 2018, researchers must submit two separate applications to conduct research in Zanzibar: one to the Research Committee in the Office of the Second Vice President and another to the Office of the Chief Statistician. The first application must be approved before the second can be submitted. However, there is only one research permit fee.

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