Museums, Archives & Heritage

Tin Trunks and Other Archives of Trauma

This piece accompanies Rose Miyonga’s article ‘We Kept Them to Remember: Tin Trunk Archives and the Emotional History of the Mau Mau War’, recently published in History Workshop Journal 96.

How do people make sense of a traumatic past when they are not given the public space to do so, and when the evidence of violence against them to them is actively stolen and destroyed? This is the central question of my article ‘We Kept Them to Remember: Tin Trunk Archives and the Emotional History of the Mau Mau War’, which explores how, sixty years on, survivors of the Mau Mau war have preserved the material archives of their histories in personal collections. Like individuals, societies handle the past in different ways. In the case of the Mau Mau war, both British and the Kenyan states opted to avoid it, destroying and obscuring the archive of atrocities, and silencing dissenting voices. The most infamous manifestation of this was the process nicknamed ‘Operation Legacy’, whereby thousands of archival documents, including evidence of torture, sexual violence and murder, were destroyed or stolen and taken to Britain at the dawn of Kenyan independence. The combination of the British archival theft and destruction, and the post-independence Kenyan government’s reluctance to revisit the wounds of the past, meant that for decades Mau Mau histories went underground, sometimes very literally as the bodies of thousands killed and buried in mass graves during the war have not been identified or exhumed.

In 2011, the British government declassified a group of files under the name FCO 141. This release was the product of a freedom of information request as part of legal proceedings when Mau Mau survivors took the British government to court over the atrocities it had committed during its brutal counterinsurgency against the Mau Mau movement in Kenya in the 1950s. This was a moment of triumph and of reckoning for the survivors of Mau Mau torture and detention, and for the archivists and historians who had worked tirelessly for fifty years to recover the ‘lost’ evidence of these atrocities. And it was also a moment of scandal, which revealed the vast scale of the British government’s deliberate obstruction of the evidence of its violent imperialist rule.

Post-2011, much of the scholarship on Mau Mau has drawn on the so-called ‘migrated archives’, discussing its content, and its significance to the wider field of archival studies. Ground-breaking as it was, however, the declassification of FCO 141 did not spell justice for Mau Mau survivors, who continue to face barriers in accessing the official archive. My research came from a frustration with the existing colonial archive, both its inaccessibility and its inability to speak to the experience of Kenyans who lived though the Mau Mau period. Recognising that the colonial state cannot be relied upon to be an accurate source on colonial injustice, I turned to oral histories in search of a more humanising kind of scholarship, seeking to understand how national and international silence had made space for community memory to thrive in the six decades since the end of the war.

What I found was remarkable: in boxes under people’s beds, hanging on their walls, stuffed into drawers and stacked on bookshelves was a material archive of the Mau Mau war as told from below, carefully curated and kept by the survivors. From those who had kept their official documentation to those who had treasured photographs of their loved ones from the Mau Mau era, I came to understand that where the official state archive of Mau Mau had failed, a new one had emerged, far closer to home, and much more connected to the lived experience of the war. In my article, I use the idea of ‘tin trunk archives’ – borrowing from Karin Barber’s work on what she calls the ‘tin trunk texts’ of everyday literacy in Africa – to explore one dimension of this community-history making. This is not a novel idea, family historians and archivists are very familiar with these emotionally-rich kinds of record-keeping. They speak to the kinds of personal histories that can rarely emerge from the cold shelves of the archive and they make the past make sense in new and exciting ways. My article emphasises the importance of taking such forms of record-keeping seriously as an important part of the archival network. Sometimes, too, they offer up new sets of questions, as for example when various family members disagree on the origins of a photograph or the identities of the people it depicts. This, too is insight into the complex and contested nature of community history-making, and of history itself.

Ndegwa’s passbook, Mukuruwe-ini, 2022. Photo courtesy Rose Miyonga.

Revisiting the piece now, it is impossible not to think about Palestine, about yet another horrifying war against a people attempting to preserve their lives, their histories and their futures, against the violence of a settler-colonial apartheid state. Could we rely on Israel to be an accurate producer and preserver of the history of this war? Archivists and activists in Palestine and across the globe are working on this exact issue and fighting to preserve past and present histories of Palestine amid the horrific loss and devastation. And it is understood that grassroots and community archiving practices will have to write into the gaps of the official archive. Projects such as the Palestine Land Studies Center understand the fundamental importance of archives in the pursuit of justice, and are determined to preserve grassroots histories and records of Palestine amid the devastation of the ongoing war and occupation. Despite all attempts to silence and suppress them, like Mau Mau survivors, Palestinians continue to find ways to preserve and record their histories. These acts of preservation are a fundamental part of history-making ‘from below’, and speak to a revolutionary defiance in the face of the worst forms of state violence and brutality.

In post-Mau Mau Kenya, in Palestine, and in countless other contexts, survivors of violent oppression have not just sat and waited meekly to have the colonial narratives of their histories handed back to them. Rather, they have taken matters into their own hands, using grassroots archiving practices to record histories of daily life and the struggle against oppression that might otherwise be lost.

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