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Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 807-816

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The Turn to History

Garth L Green
Winthrop University

From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures Brian Keith Axel, editor. Durham: Duke University Press. 2002

When I first arrived at the national archives in Trinidad and Tobago ten years ago I was struck by the dilapidated condition of the facility. It was the rainy season and plastic sheeting covered the pane-less window fames, water collected in puddles and dripped from ceilings, a persistent scent of mildew hung in the air. The environment inside seemed little different from that outside as there were no functioning temperature or humidity controls. Furthermore, access to the materials was limited primarily by the real index being in the head of whoever happened to be at the front desk when you arrived. Many factors contributed to the building's condition including the attempted coup of 1990 that had left many buildings in Port of Spain in ruins and the particularly difficult period of "economic restructuring" that Trinidad and Tobago was enduring.

The irony of Trinidad's first and long-serving Prime Minister, Eric Williams, an Oxford trained historian, never having built an adequate national archives was not lost on local and visiting scholars. Despite the great wealth of the oil boom years (1973-1980), the national archives never received sufficient resources from the government. Rumors abounded that the lack of adequate facilities ensured that whatever clandestine manipulations of the political and economic system of Trinidad and Tobago that Williams and his associates (once called a kleptomaniacal [End Page 807] oligarchy by a leader of the Opposition) may have undertaken would not be uncovered by future generations. The lack of adequate facilities compels Trinidadian scholars to travel to England to obtain vital documents relating to Trinidad's colonial past since most records reside in the Colonial Office Archives. Historians who focus on local events and personalities often rely upon family records and collections at the University of the West Indies or the National Library.

Within the walls of the archive are found documents such as studies of subordinated populations or "ethnic groups" seen by those in control of the state as potentially troublesome and the material of everyday state administration that construct a people as objects of state knowledge for government and subsequently as subjects in the writing of history. When the histories of "a people" are written, they are built, in part, upon the materials in the archives. Hence, for the people of Trinidad and Tobago, a new kind of person to be known as the Trinidadian (or the Trinbagonian, a neologism used by some in Trinidad and Tobago an attempt to be as inclusive as possible) was constructed, in part, through Williams's magisterial histories, including The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (1962), published on Trinidad's Independence day, August 31, 1962 and through his earlier works Capitalism and Slavery (1944), The Negro in the Caribbean (1942), Education in the British West Indies (1950), and later works, British Historians and the British West Indies (1964) and From Columbus to Castro (1970). And the people of Trinidad and Tobago continue to be constructed, as various social actors in Trinidad and Tobago articulate arguments for their particular vision of a Trinidadian past, a "place" for their people within that past, and assert claims upon the state for recognition and resources.

There has been widespread public debate concerning the poor condition of the structure that is to be the repository of the documents from which future generations of historians will write the history of Trinidad. The "archives," broadly conceived as the collective repositories of documents from the past both public and private, is full of proposals, research reports, and administrative agendas for creating a showcase for Trinidad's historical achievements, natural resources, and forms of creative expression. However, most of these plans have expired on the cold slab of political calculation and financial fluctuations in the world economy. What remain are the traces of intense but as yet unresolved debates similar to what Ann Stoler, in her contribution...


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