Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism – Part 1: The Power of the Archive

Can the Subaltern speak in the digital archive? This is the first of two blog posts which follows on a recent discussion on about silence in the archives regarding gender and minorities. Readers may be interested in reading Natalia Cecire’s storify of the conversation over twitter and blog posts by Roger Whitson and Katherine Harris to follow up on the discussion.

These two posts are concerned with a more specific silence—on race and colonialism in the nineteenth century archive, and how one of my new digital projects, Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen,’ attempts to counteract this silence. To date, despite the explosion of digital work on nineteenth century writers and culture, there are no existing digital projects that specifically deal with the impact of British imperialism in the Victorian era. This neglect is surprising, given that by the start of the twentieth century, England’s political reach spanned the majority of the globe. To exclude British imperialism from digital Victorian studies is thus a serious gap that Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ tries to address.

In this first post, I describe the power of the archive, and my rationale for creating Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen.’ In my second post, I follow up on how Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ attempts to deal with the logics of archival power.

The Power of the Archive

Many have noted that the archive is not a static repository but a form in which knowledge is made legible by modes of power.  Through the ways in which they organize information, archives create what is knowable and unknowable about a given historical moment and a group of people. For example, in the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault argued that the ways in which objects are presented in the archive follow certain rules, and that these rules in turn represent the limits and possibilities to the creation of this knowledge. An archive thus creates the rules of possibility of thought and utterance, and sets the outline of a discursive formation, or an archaeology. Derrida calls this vested power of the archive an “achrontic power,” or a type of power that calls things into being; one which makes and commands the meaning of what happened at a certain place and a certain time. Derrida also notes that the archive conceals its possession of this power while asserting it.

An overview of the nineteenth century digital archive as it stands today reveals some of the rules of archival discourse. One of the existing “rules” that the digital nineteenth century archive presently demonstrates is that colonialism did not have a great impact on British culture itself. For example, England and its Empire are treated as separate entities—through the lack of projects problematizing England’s imperial history with places such as Australia, Africa and Southeast Asia. There are two exception⁠s to this—the Colonial Despatches of British Columbia and Vancouver Island DH project, which digitizes the correspondence between Canada and the British home office, and the Victorian Web project, which mentions the history of Empire. However, full websites on empire and Victorian studies still do not exist.

Author’s note: Since I published this post, Francesca Benatti has brought Making Britain: Discovering How South Asians Shaped the Nation” to my attention. This resource is another excellent method from which to begin connecting the Victorian period to the history of empire.

Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’

Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is an electronic project that aims to create these kinds of connections between the digital humanities and Victorian Studies. The project tries to give voice and representation to formerly colonized subjects, and to work against the “imperial meaning-making” of the archive by implementing new types of reading and commenting technologies that disrupt the idea of dominant and subjugated knowledges.

The term “Chinese Englishmen” refers to a particular segment of the Anglophone Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, located specifically in Singapore and Malaysia. Under British colonialism, this group of Chinese subjects experienced the tensions of being torn between the Qing Empire and their desire to be British subjects. When the British established a system of “indirect rule” over Malaya In 1874, they created a privileged class of non-Europeans who would serve as intermediaries between the British and the general masses. The British found this privileged class both in the “Straits Chinese”, and in local Malay nobility. The “Straits Chinese” were ideally suited to function as a “comprador class” because they had developed a separate culture and identity from the local Malay inhabitants, and new immigrants to the region from China and India. As a class they enjoyed access to English education and positions within the new British civil service.

Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’  focuses on how this group of intermediaries negotiated these tensions in The Straits Chinese Magazine, a journal that appeared in Singapore from the late nineteenth century and which contained a mixture of news, editorials, essays and short stories. The magazine was modeled after the British periodicals Blackwoods and Macmillians. The Straits Chinese Magazine sought to give a voice to the Chinese inhabitants of British Malaya, and was edited by two prominent young Malayan Chinese men who had recently returned from studying in England, Song Ong Siang and Lim Boon Keng.

Many of the essays and short stories in the Straits Chinese Magazine demonstrate how these hybrid, ethnic subjects found themselves torn between wanting to claim access to forms of Englishness, but to still assert a form of ethnic Chinese identity. One of its main editors, Lim Boon Keng, was heavily influenced by the “Self-Strengthening Movement” in mainland China, which sought to modernize using Western technology but to maintain Chinese cultural identity through the term Zhongxue weiti, xixue weiyong 中學為體,西學為用 or, “Chinese learning as the essence, and Western learning for application.”

One short story, ‘A Victim of Chap-Ji-Ki’ by Lew See Fah (Vol. 2, no #6, pg 70), is a morality tale of how gambling (chap-ji-ki) can lead to insanity and death. Gambling is correlated with ill-discipline, a moral sin in relation to Victorian ideals of self-restraint. At the same time, many narratives rely on British notions of sports and manliness to establish credibility; in a news story on ‘Chinese Athleticism,’ (Vol 1. Pg 29), for example, the editors urge the colonial government to grant them a piece of land for “athletic games and sports generally” which emphasize their cohesion with Victorian norms.

To see how Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ attempts to deal with the logics of archival power, see part 2 of this post.

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  1. Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism – Part 2: Creating a Nineteenth Century “Postcolonial” Archive | Adeline Koh - March 4, 2012

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