Monday, 27 July 2015

Article Review: A Question of Custody: The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands

Title: A Question of Custody: The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands
Author: Jeannette Allis Bastian
Publication: The American Archivist, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2001), pp. 96-114

This article describes the competing archival principles at work between the United States, Denmark, and the Virgin Islands. The lands now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, made up of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas were Danish colonies in 1672. The Danish West Indies Company brought enslaved people from Africa to work on plantations run by Englishmen, and they operated a moderately successful sea port in the islands. In 1848, the island's African majority won their freedom from Denmark, and the Danes attempted to govern the islanders. By 1916, the Danish felt that they were losing more money than they were making with the colony, and decided to sell the land to the United States.  

In the 20 years leading up to the sale of the islands, the colonial government began to ship island government records to Copenhagen. The Danish were meticulous record keepers and the weather, insects, unstable political climate, as well as the belief that those records were an extension of the "home" country, made them want to keep records in Denmark. Although the United States could have made a claim for all of "Denmark's" records when they acquired the islands, there was no national archives program at the time, the records were written in Danish, and the infrastructure needs of the new territory trumped a tug-of-war over records. Not only did the Danish keep the 4,000 linear feet of materials that were transferred in the late 1800's, the United States did not protest an additional 2,000 linear feet which was transferred in 1917. By 1936, a U.S. national archivist was in place and arranged for any government archival materials (1,260 linear feet) remaining on the islands to be shipped to Washington D.C. During the 1940's, the U.S. plan to extract more records was executed but contested by the local government; and by 1950 the practice of removing records from the Virgin Islands was stopped completely.

So what is there to be done with this fragmented set of records, the subjects of which have no clear line of access or control of? The United States and Denmark felt satisfied with the arrangement because they have provided sound storage and protection of documents, and are legally entitled to the government records of their past or current territories. While the inhabitants of the Virgin Island have a basic need and numerous obstacles to the access of their community records. Based on the principle of provenance, all of the records should be in the Virgin Islands because all of the records are about the Virgin Islands; inhabitants are critical to the "context creating process". Without the benefit of autobiographies or diaries, inhabitants have to rely on government records to re-create the worlds of their ancestors, records that are an ocean away. Hopefully with the on-going use of EAD, and other forms of linked data in the archives, we can intellectually piece together community histories that are physically separated.      

As I read this article, my first impression was that hegemonic nations have always disenfranchised the poor on every front; land, people, language, and now the records! Then I began to consider how complicated the situation really is. Can we say for sure that if left to their own devices, the locals would have maintained these 6,000 linear feet of archival documentation? Would the Danish records have been destroyed once the Danes left the port? Perhaps there is wisdom in the big bad colonizers for protecting these documents. Also, can we eliminate all other forms of record keeping in favor of the written one, what about oral traditions, sacred objects, or songs that are passed down from one generation to another? Removing the records does not necessarily mean that entire nation's history is gone. I suppose the greatest injustice is the inability to choose, perhaps the islanders would have happily shared certain records with Danish or Americans in exchange for some airplane vouchers and second language correspondence courses. Since they never asked, I guess that we will never know.

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