Decolonizing the Archive

Archives are repositories of knowledge. But all repositories are created and maintained by individuals located in time, place, and history, who make choices about what counts as knowledge, what belongs in a particular archive, and why it belongs there. In short, every archive is embedded in systems of power that shape what counts knowledge and non-knowledge. Existing archives of the early Caribbean are deeply entwined with colonial European capitalist modernity and a knowledge regime that racializes bodies with the aim of extracting labor, land, and capital from indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans.

But the digital archive, we believe, offers new possibilities for re-archiving (remixing and reassembling) materials from existing archives as well as archiving new materials. This is not just the promise of recovery—not simply a question of finding materials that have been hidden in the past. Rather, this is a formal possibility—one linked to the new affordances of the digital archive which invite (if not require!) us to disrupt, review, question, and revise the colonial knowledge regime that informs the archives from which we draw most of our materials.

The ECDA is an experiment in decolonizing the archive using digital means.  We view this as a collective and creative project in remapping the lines between knowledge and non-knowledge. We invite you to explore and to remix and rethink the early Caribbean materials found here and elsewhere. We welcome your contributions to this project.

A digital text is not a printed text: it is not written on paper in an alphabetic language but in code. The form of the digital archive is not sequential (and reading it is not a matter of turning pages, moving across text in a linear fashion, as the codex form of the book directs one to do), but recombinatory—it involves bringing pieces of coded text and images into relation with one another anew at each viewing. This means that portions and aspects of analogue texts are always being recombined in order to appear in digital form—and this, for us, is an invitation to explore the nature of textual construction (and knowledge construction) in existing analogue texts and in our digital re-presentations of them.

The embedded slave narrative collection is one example of our practice of “remix and reassembly” and we are working on others as well. For instance, in our embedded slave narrative collection, instead of (only) reproducing the authorial status of “Bryan Edwards” as it has appeared on the spine of his well-known book, History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793) for more than 200 years, the ECDA  has also extracted the story of an enslaved woman named Clara from that text and placed her name in the identifying category of author of “Clara’s Narrative.” We are collecting a growing number of similarly embedded slave narratives, extracted from texts written by European colonial authors, which we have remixed to form a new digital anthology of narratives that speak to one another (beyond the context of the words of Bryan Edwards or similar texts) in new ways and across new contexts. If you would like to contribute to the embedded slave narrative collection (because we have barely scratched the surface of the many embedded slave narratives to be found in early Caribbean texts), we welcome your help in building this anthology.