Friday, 14 October 2011

Lessons from the archives

So it’s been a while since I last blogged. I have been pretty busy, camped in archives and more recently moving universities and acquiring a couple of seminar groups.

Much of my archive work has been a straightforward case of identifying relevant sources from obvious places (papers of commissions etc).  It has not all been plain sailing, however.  Overall command of (most) coaling stations seems to be with the Admiralty. However, the War Office was responsible for the defence of Imperial fortresses (Malta, Gibraltar, Bermuda and Halifax (Nova Scotia)), and thus they are bizarrely left out of many of the discussions on empire-wide defence strategies for coaling stations. Furthermore, the garrisons for all the coaling stations were the responsibility of the army, whilst sea defence was in the charge of the Admiralty. Supply of coal was the responsibility of the naval supplies branch of the Admiralty, but this was subcontracted out to agents in the vicinity of coal exporting ports, and the accounts had to be verified by the Treasury.  It is not difficult, therefore to see why some sources are difficult to find, and why some turn up in places I would have never had expected.  The difficulty in finding evidence of contracts is further compounded by the Admiralty’s indifferent attitude to saving records for historians.

In a way, however, there is much to learn from these gripes, and for me there are two major things to be taken from this.

First is how the confusion I felt as a researcher can also be found in some of the sources. On cabinet notes, passed around the various Secretary of States and Commissions, there are often handwritten scribbles such as ‘should this go to the War Office?’ or ‘do we need to ratify this with the Treasury?’ Moreover, things that seem odd today, such as the use of army garrisons, rather than marines when the defences are under the command of the Navy, were equally strange to contemporaries, and the issue was repeatedly brought up in Parliament.

The second point is that the destruction of most of the supply contracts and records suggests that by this period (1870-1914) it was black boxed, and the only time it became noteworthy was when it failed (although these instances seem few and far between. In this way, it replicates every successful piece of infrastructure, and thus, as Bruno Latour suggests, ‘is made invisible by its own success’.1

1Bruno Latour (1999). Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.






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