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BHM: How Europe covered its back

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BHM: How Europe covered its back

Vincent Hiribarren is a lecturer in World History at King’s College, London. His work has led him to study many colonial-era archives of European countries that had a presence in Africa. Stephen Williams went to meet him.

Vincent Hiribarren is not perhaps a typical academic – he is too young and too informal. But it was clear from the outset of our conversation that he is an expert on European archives and also knows a great deal about the archives kept by post-independence African countries.

He has great respect for Senegal which, he says, holds one of the finest historical archives in Africa. He places much of the credit for this on Saliou Mbaye, who was the head of Senegal’s archives until very recently.

“Mbaye understood the relationship between the state and its records, and the importance of archives. It was something he recognised from the start. Now in Africa, Senegal is an example of how to do things,” Hiribarren says, adding:

“The French managed to keep links with former colleagues in Africa, in terms of archival work and the French also provides training for archivists by regularly sending experts to Africa – as well as training archivists from Africa in France.”

So was he suggesting that Senegal has the most progressive attitude towards archives in Africa? “In Francophone Africa, definitely,” Hiribarren says matter-of-factly. “But in Anglophone Africa, the question might be different.

“From the post-independence period onwards, from the 1950s, we had the construction of physical archive centres across Africa, and you had purpose-built buildings erected just for that purpose, and historians and journalists made use of them straightaway.”

As well as Senegal, Hiribarren also praises the quality of archives that the Cameroonian government has assembled, acknowledging the assistance that France has provided for their upkeep.

“But Nigeria is a situation that is not as good as it used to be,” Hiribarren declares. “Nigeria’s archives used to be much better, in the 1950s and 60s, until the Biafran civil war. After the war, the situation deteriorated quite quickly. But I think Nigeria used to be a good example of how to organise state archives.”

So is the lack of quality contemporary archives in Africa a question of political will, or financial resources, or a combination of different factors?

Hiribarrren believes that it is primarily a lack of finance, but adds that this is probably because few realise what an important role archives play.

He believes that there is confusion about what archivists do; the public is not sure whether they just collect information, and question whether they create inventories. They have little knowledge of just what they do.

Nevertheless, he concedes that if the choice were between the building of schools or archives, he would find it difficult to argue for budgets going to create archives (although they could be seen as an educational tool). But archives have never figured highly in African national policies – although archived documents often disclose important elements of the history of Africa, providing evidence of the past.

It is this provision of evidence that makes the whole issue of “migrated files” so important. Migrated files are those archives that were removed by colonial authorities and sent back home as former colonies won independence.

As David Anderson argues convincingly , sometimes the reason that incriminating archives were sent back to the colonialists’ home governments was that they were being used by the colonial officers as a type of insurance policy. For example, files were sent back to the UK to act as evidence that colonial officers did not agree, nor take part in, various operations against the colonised.

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