This piece accompanies Jon Piccini’s article “‘Thinking in Papua New Guinean Terms’: the Sensitive Files Case of 1972 and Australia’s Migrated Archive‘” recently published in History Workshop Journal 96.
What does it mean to ‘decolonise’ the archive? European empires collected a massive paper trail about, but without the consent of, their colonial subjects. 2011’s well-publicised revelations of Britain’s ‘migrated archive’ – records removed from colonies prior to independence – posed these questions in a direct way: how can one decolonise an archive which no longer resides in its place of origin? My article in the latest History Workshop Journal explores how questions of archival ownership and post-colonial sovereignty were considered and debated in 1972, as the people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) geared up for elections to what would become the new nation’s first independent parliament.
In February of that year, employees of the Commonwealth Archives Office (now the National Archives of Australia) were dispatched by Minister for External Territories, Charles Barnes, to “complet[e] Australia’s record” of its colonial administration. Files judged “sensitive” – containing information that might be damaging Australia’s future relations with its former colony – were marked for removal to Canberra. Historian Timothy Livsey describes British removals as an “open secret”: representatives of the dozens of states across Africa, Asia and the Pacific who were effected have have long and unsuccessfully campaigned for their return. My article tells a different story: how an alliance of librarians, academics and nationalist politicians succeeded, as the Territory’s chief archivist put it, “in preventing (or at least lessening considerably) the removal of records”.
PNG was Australia’s largest overseas colony. Technically two territories, Papua and New Guinea – the latter a former German possession – were united in “administrative union” in 1949. This created a central bureaucracy in the Department of External Territories, and an Administration – staffed overwhelmingly by Australians – tasked by the United Nations with preparing the territories for independence. Records produced by the Administration were placed under the control of a locally elected parliament in 1970 amidst calls for home role led by the nationalist Pangu (Papua and New Guinea Union) party.
The decision to remove records was made a year later, amidst a flurry of bureaucratic anxiety. Riley Linebaugh’s work on Britain’s migrated archive reveals the power of “colonial fragility” and possessiveness in the desire to save face amidst empire’s end. Since the 1950s, Australia had invested heavily in the preparation of PNG for independence. Canberra wanted to be seen as a ‘good coloniser’. This rapid development saw tens of thousands of Australians serve in the territory across a huge range of roles, on account of the colony’s incredibly poor rates of educational attainment. A national university was established only in 1966. One of that institutions’ founding staff, Sydney-born librarian Nancy Lutton, was to play a significant role in the subsequent campaign.
Lutton, who worked at the House of Assembly library in the capital, Port Moresby, was also secretary of the local branch of the Library Association of Australia. A hastily-convened branch meeting had “unanimously deplored any removal of documents”, and prepared a statement that was distributed to newspapers across Australia. Drawing on then-emerging ideas of archival integrity, the branch’s statement protested that documents produced in PNG “belong more to this country than to Australia”, and their dispersal would be gravely damaging. The Pangu Party communicated the librarian’s protest letter alongside their own petition to the UN Trusteeship Council, denouncing the Australian government’s “callous disregard of the interests of the indigenous people of this country”. A motion passed by a staff-student meeting at the University of Papua New Guinea did not mince words either: the removals “can only mean that Canberra is trying to cover up past mistakes.”
The significance of these protests does not reside in their singularity. We know that archivists in Kenya, for instance, began seeking the return of ‘migrated’ records almost immediately after independence. Rather, it was the effectiveness of the public outcry in at least dramatically limiting the removal of records that stands out. My research points to three key reasons why the newly installed Minister for External Territories Andrew Peacock made a U-turn on the removals policy. One was an awareness in his department that the archives were no longer Commonwealth property, for responsibility had been invested with emerging organs of PNG self-government. Frustrated statements by some bureaucrats that “we must regain the sensitive files whether the law is on our side or not” were not politically palatable after the removals process became public.
That the outrage was widely shared also proved powerful. Expatriate librarians were forced, in Lutton’s words, “to think in Papua New Guinean rather than Australian terms”, working directly with the nationalist elites in Pangu. Decolonisation created unlikely alliances between metropole and periphery, as argued in the British context by Priyamvada Gopal. Equally, that senior figures within the Australian administration and even the Vice Chancellor of UPNG, historian Ken Inglis, joined the chorus of criticism made it difficult to ignore. Lastly, the agency of the new minister himself was pivotal. An ambitious politician, the case served to demonstrate Peacock’s capacity as a diplomat, and to distance himself from an ineffectual predecessor. All this ensured that blowback from any large-scale removal of ‘sensitive’ files was a larger liability for Australia than whatever diplomatic damage might have resulted from their possession by a hostile post-independence government.
Today, PNG’s archives remain accessible to her people largely intact, unlike those of many other Pacific nations. These including the vital documents produced by Australian kiaps (patrol officers), which are often used in property disputes. Much as with other archives across the global south, though, they are in a state of disrepair: deposited in brick outhouses, subject to the weather and a large population of snakes. One upshot from the ‘sensitive files’ case was a commitment by Australia to ensure the completeness of PNG’s own records, particularly those from before the Second World War. Having ensured, in the words of Minister Peacock, that the archives would remain “the heritage of the new nation”, the least Canberra could do today would be ensure that sufficient funding is available to maintain them into the future.