back to home

The allure of the archive

written by John Nott
28/06/18

It was only recently that another historian working in Ghana’s state archive introduced me to Arlette Fage’s classic work on historical methodology, The Allure of the Archive. Obviously, having not read it, I hadn’t then realised it was a classic. But, looking over it now, Farge beautifully captures the pleasure of archival research. She details the weight of paper – and the tedium which can come from leafing through it – as well as joys of discovery. For me, as it also seems to be for Farge, it is the material that is out of place which can bring the greatest pleasure. Tucked in the back of innocuous files or clipped to unlikely documents, these often come as sensory respites from the monotony. They offer a tactile or visual escape while at the same time drawing you further into the piles of paper.

Over the last few months, I have been doing some initial archival research for the Ghanaian part of our study. At the archives of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are the personal papers of Dr John Macfie. Obliged to quality with a certificate in tropical medicine before any official commission, the School held a monopoly on the education of would-be colonial doctors. A deeply troubled and troubling individual with a penchant for poetry and prose, Macfie seems to have been unhappy with his lot – there is a particularly worrying short-story in which a white doctor is murdered by a mob of Nigerians. As with many colonial doctors, he was also something of an amateur anthropologist. Coming upon a Yorobua tattooer, he apparently obtained a knife usually used in the process, as well as drawings of the tattoos which might be offered: a leopard, scorpion, scorpion side view, crocodile and monkey. Interestingly, he had the artist draw on the back of a full-page portrait of Lieut-General Sir Reginald Clare Hart, ‘South Africa’s new Commander-in-Chief’, ripped from the March 1912 edition of The African World.

Farge primarily works with Eighteenth-Century French judicial records, but archives in Africa offer additional sensory allure. The heat makes long days exhausting and the dust gets in your lungs and under your fingernails. But it is never boring. At the Tamale state archive, my constant companion and primary overseer in the reading room was this antelope. On an invitation to ‘the archive’ of a hospital in the far north-east, I spent a long day sifting through the records kept in what a younger colleague perhaps more accurately described as ‘the dusty place.’ Short of time, money and inclination, there is little reason to keep what is no longer relevant to the everyday workings of the hospital. Finding a pile of documents like this is well worth the dust, while the dust just adds to the allure.

The reading room at PRAAD Tamale