Guest Post: Researching en Français: French Archives, and Why They’re Worth It for All Early Americanists

Hannah Bailey, a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, studies the interconnectivity between developing notions of race and the expansion of the African slave trade in the early modern French Atlantic. She graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2010, with degrees in History and French, and a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies. Her master’s thesis focused on how women like Eliza Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington remembered, defined, and recorded their experiences during the American Revolution for her master’s thesis. Her dissertation uses histories of West Africa written by individuals like Jean-Baptiste Labat to help explain why, in early eighteenth-century accounts of the region, the fiction of African inferiority began to supersede the fact of African political and economic dominance on the West African coast.

ANOMI never learned the verb “rebobiner” in any of my nine years’ worth of French courses. I don’t blame my French teachers or professors for this. Neither they nor I had any idea that it would one day become an integral part of my vocabulary as I commenced my dissertation research in the Archives Nationales d’Outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France. As it happens, “rebobiner” means “to rewind the bobbin of microfilm that you spent twelve minutes learning how to load onto the microfilm reader, because microfilm is always complicated and is triply so when the directions are in a foreign language,” or…something like that. Despite my attempts to prepare myself for my time in the French archives, I experienced more “trials by fire” than I might care to admit. All of my listening to French radio, reading complex French secondary sources, and frantic scouring of French online archival inventories only got me so far. Despite the best efforts of the kindest and most helpful archival staff I’ve yet encountered, I often had to learn by doing, and that wasn’t always easy. It was, however, always worth it.

Those of us who have undertaken our graduate studies in the last fifteen years or so know that our histories should be “Atlantic,” “transnational,” “entangled,” “global,” “layered,” or “insert your favorite synonym for ‘complicated’ here.” While it may seem daunting to pursue such a project, I think that this historiographical trend is a good thing for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that none of our historical actors existed as self-contained units of humanity. They had connections (interpersonal, cultural, economic, spiritual, informational) all over their world, much as we do today. I took (and mercifully passed) my comprehensive exams this spring. I could quite easily provide a list of no fewer than fifty historians who think along these lines, and whose work exemplifies these connections. I’m sure you could too. Now here’s the thing I truly wasn’t prepared for when I stepped into the archives in Aix: archives really do illustrate that “entangled” story of the past about which I’ve read so much these past three years.

I know that I see entangled histories in the documents because that’s what I’ve been trained to see. Had I been researching for my PhD forty years ago, undoubtedly I would have seen things differently. Nevertheless, I don’t think anything could have prepared me to open that first carton of documents in a French archive and see an English document sitting there, right on top. It was from Queen Elisabeth I’s court, dated May 3, 1588, and it outlined British trading rights along the Senegal River. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but it sure wasn’t that! I wasn’t surprised that the French were concerned with British trading claims on the West African coast. That historical narrative is well known and well documented. I was taken aback that the very format and composition of the archives themselves encouraged me to think about the lives of my historical actors in such an entangled way from the get-go.

After starting on that methodological note, I couldn’t stop. I photographed manifests from Portuguese ships that the French captured off of the West African coast, which listed newly enslaved people’s Portuguese (not African) names. I found a journal that outlined trade deals and local West African political alliances from 1730 to 1731, in which the author worried about the late arrivals of ships from Boston and Nantes equally. I came upon a 1694 list of war material needed for battle along the Amazon that included suggestions for potential gifts that American Indian nations would appreciate, according to the cultural preferences and mores of each nation. I stood before a treaty dated March 5, 1737, between French colonial officials and a man named Sambaguelaye (about whom I unfortunately don’t know anything more just yet) which was written in both Arabic and French, wishing for all the world that I could instantaneously read and comprehend early modern Arabic handwriting. I even came across what I have since referred to as the most English envelope in the world, as it is addressed rather comically and passive-aggressively “To the French that Presume Settling up the River Gambia.” In short, I walked into the archives looking for insights into the ways in which early French colonists and traders encountered, understood, and categorized non-French people. As you can see, I was not disappointed.

Yes, my foray into the Archives Nationales d’Outre-mer taught me how to “rebobiner” my microfilm, but it also taught me something much more important: that we “French,” “British,” “Spanish,” “Portuguese,” and “Insert Your Own Title” Americanists could stand to speak to each other a little more when it comes to our research. Of course I found plenty of long-dead French and Francophone people in the archives. I expected that. I did not expect the very thing that made me excited to get up and head into the archives every day: the tremendous human diversity on display within documents that I assumed would be about (predominantly) French and Francophone people. It could be that I hit the archival jackpot as it were, that the French colonial archives are some of the richest of the world. That might be true, but I see no reason why we can’t appreciate finding the unexpected as we approach our work as historians, and do something with the extraordinary things we find. That French person that was mentioned casually in some of the documents that are integral to your research? Maybe I know something about them that I could share with you. In return, you might be able to tell me more about the context surrounding the world’s most English envelope I found, and the documents it contained. Entangled histories are a lot of work, all of which will be easier when we diverse “Americanists” learn to talk to each other more effectively. If our research subjects could clearly do it hundreds of years ago, why can’t we?

6 responses

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  2. Hannah,

    Thank you for your post. I’ve just started my doctoral studies in history and have recently had the pleasure of reading Henry Kamen’s Empire: How Spain Became A World Power, 1492-1763, which makes a compelling argument for a more international approach to the Atlantic world. It’s both exciting and encouraging to learn that you have seen this perspective borne out in the primary sources. Enjoy your research!

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