Back in 2011, the British government admitted to removing thousands of files from the administrative offices of its 37 former colonies. What prompted that admission was legal action by five survivors of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Among the files removed from Kenya was documentation of the abuse the survivors had suffered at the hands of British forces – documentation whose existence the British government initially denied. What the case made clear was that removing documents containing anything that might be construed as remotely inflammatory was the rule, not the exception, a routine element of the decolonising process.

Those revelations have given rise to a new scholarly literature on so-called migrated archives, a literature that is the point of departure for two articles in the latest issue of History Workshop Journal. Jon Piccini’s piece “‘Thinking in Papua New Guinean Terms’: the Sensitive Files Case of 1972 and Australia’s Migrated Archive” explores the story of Papua New Guinea, where an attempt by its Australian former colonial governors to weed out from its archives what were deemed “sensitive” materials was met with fierce opposition from archivists in Papua New Guinea itself. Rose Miyonga’s article “‘We Kept them to Remember’: Tin Trunk Archives and the Emotional History of the Mau Mau War” looks at the oral and material memories held by Kenya’s Mau Mau survivors, who have countered the British government’s erasure of a brutal and traumatic history with their own personal archives of resistance. Together these two pieces ask critical questions: about what makes for an archive, what archives are for, and the relation between archival practices and the making of historical knowledge.

In this episode of the podcast, our final for 2023, Jon Piccini and Rose Miyonga join Marybeth Hamilton to talk about their two articles: the points of connection, the points of contrast, and where discussions of decolonizing archives can lead.

Gathogo Ndegwa’s personal archive. Photo courtesy Rose Miyonga and Gathogo Ndegwa.
Jenny Scott, National Archives of the Solomon Islands, CC-BY 2.0

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