Session 1.4 - The diversity of contexts: colonisation, languages and geography as barriers to access


Isabel Schellnack-Kelly, Kylie Moloney - Noa Petueli Tapumanaia, Louis-Gilles Pairault

Date Added:

23 October 2019

Chair: Didier Grange, Geneva City Archivist, Special Advisor (ICA)

Wednesday, 23 October 2019



a. Decolonising the archives, language as enablers and barriers to accessing public archives in South Africa by  Isabel Schellnack-Kelly

This paper investigates the challenges public archives encounter when confronting languages as enablers of access.  Languages can be regarded as barriers to researchers and users of archives to effectively access archival collections.  In the case of South Africa, languages have often been used as tools to segregate people.  Under the democratic dispensation, which recognises eleven official languages, languages are still used as tools to divide and segregate people and the different cultures.  The examples of how languages have divided South Africans from colonial times to the present day dispensation are evident in the archival collections housed by South Africa’s public archives service.  Access to public archives, whether it is the diaries of Jan van Riebeeck to the oral history projects with communities in and around the South African national game parks, are problematic if the user or researcher is unable to read and interpret the language.  Most of the collections found at the national and provincial archives are not easily accessible to researchers.

A qualitative study has been undertaken to identify all the languages of the different archival collections held by South Africa’s National Archives, provincial archives and the National Film, Video and Sound Archives.  Data has been collected by examining collections described on the database of the National Archives and Records Service, called NAAIRS, and accompanied by on-site visits to the National Archives, provincial archives and National Film, Video and Sound Archives.  A postmodernist ontology has been applied for the purposes of this research project.  The South African National Archives are being under-utilised by members of the public and researchers.  Archivists from the South African National Archives concur that there are dwindling numbers of researchers that visit the National Archives to do research.  Several reasons have been offered by scholars concerned with the state of affairs of the national archives and the lack of general interest from researchers in utilising archival collections.  This paper investigates the challenges being encountered by the large volumes of collections where access is restricted because of language barriers and the provision of little assistance from archival personnel to provide translation services.


Dr Isabel Schellnack-Kelly is a senior lecturer in Unisa's Department of Information Science. She teaches modules related to archives and records management, and is supervising masters and doctoral students. The title of her doctoral study: The role of records management in governance-based evidence, service delivery and development in South African communities. She has vast experience in archives and records management having worked as an archivist at the South African National Archives for over ten years. She also worked as a archives and records management consultant and was involved with projects in South Africa, Uganda and Kenya.

b. The repatriation of historical records from Kiribati to Tuvalu: Indigenous priorities and self determination in action at the Tuvalu National Library and Archive by Kylie Moloney - Noa Petueli Tapumanaia

Unpublished manuscripts and archival record collections documenting the colonial history of First Nations people in the Pacific Islands, particularly those of the small and remote Islands, are geographically dispersed throughout the Islands and, in some cases, the entire world.  Whilst Indigenous archivists and people from the Pacific Islands have long pursued the physical and digital repatriation of colonial collections, a broader awareness and increased knowledge around the damaging effects of colonial collections being inaccessible to indigenous people, as well as locally based indigenous priorities and self determination are contributing to a current day groundswell movement where institutions that hold colonial archives are encouraged to be more proactive in the discussion, engagement and repatriation of archives back to indigenous people.

In 2016 Noa Petueli Tapumanaia, the Director of the Tuvalu National Archives and Library, arranged to visit the Kiribati National Library and Archive with the intent of repatriating historical records relating to Ellice Islands back to his home country of Tuvalu. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate from 1892 and a colony from 1916 until 1 January 1976, when the islands were divided into two colonies which became independent nations shortly after. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were the British colonial names for the present day independent nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu. This project was motivated by a desire of self determination and local contemporary Tuvaluan priorities relating to ownership of history and identity.

This case study will describe the repatriation project, and highlight some of the challenges and positive outcomes of the physical repatriation of colonial records back to the indigenous people of Tuvalu.


Kylie Moloney

Kylie Moloney has worked in the cultural heritage sector for over 20 years. Kylie has extensive experience of working with First Nations collections; specifically those that relate to the Pacific Islands. Working as an archivist, educator and curator much of Kylie's professional work has focused on collaboratively improving access to First Nations collections. Kylie’s professional interests include educating and building capacity amongst First Nations people in the archive and library sector; and creating opportunities for people to encounter, engage and be transformed by First Nations stories. She currently works as a Senior Access Officer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Noa Petueli Tapumanaia 

Noa Petueli Tapumanaia holds a BA in Information Systems and Information Library Studies, a Diploma in Information Systems and a Certificate in Basic Library and Information Systems. He previously held the role of Head of Department and Chief Librarian and Archivist at the Tuvalu National Library and Archives. Noa is a current member of the PARBICA Bureau for two consecutive terms since 2015 and again in 2017. At the moment he is doing his MBA with the University of the South Pacific and has graduated with a Post Graduate Diploma for General Manager in Public Administration in the year 2018.


c. Reconstituting "the archives of silence": how to “recreate” slavery and slave trade archives by Louis-Gilles Pairault

Records of the slave trade are almost exclusively those of the slave-traders: the silence of the victims is deafening. There is a dearth of contributions from the slaves themselves in documents relating to the slave trade, most of which are on administrative or business issues and were, at all events, produced by the perpetrators rather than by the victims of slavery.

Historians are faced with the difficulty of having to rewrite the “history of silence” (to quote a French expression coined by Hubert Garneau). Any testimonials from the slave perspective, however scant, are therefore worth their weight in gold. The French port of La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast was the country’s second biggest slave port in the 18th century. The archives of Charente-Maritime are located in the town and house an exceptional collection of sources providing insight into how the slave trade operated. The majority of the documents preserved in these archives are administrative in nature but there are also a few accounts of expeditions and a number of letters. One of these is “Histoire des services à la mer et dans les ports” (History of maritime and port services), a long unpublished manuscript, the critical edition of which is scheduled for publication in 2019 (Geste publishers, co-headed by L.-G. Pairault).
This manuscript is the work of Claude-Vincent Polony (1756-1828), a French officer who, between 1784 and 1792, took part in three slave trading expeditions between the African Coast and Santo Domingo.
The document recounts several tragic events including the tale of an African princess reduced to slavery. So impressed was Polony by her majesty and dignity that he was keen to know more about her life and capture. He then recorded her story in his memoirs, enabling the victim’s tale to be heard through the records of her tormentors.
Taking this exceptional slave woman’s tale as its point of departure, this paper will address the issues raised by accounts from the mouths of slaves, the reliability and credibility of such texts.
Reference will also be made to other rare eye-witness accounts to broaden the scope of the presentation to wider issues: is it possible to reconstitute the “missing pages” of history from a miscellaneous collection of material from slave trade victims? For example, by grouping together the various separate contributions and perhaps even using a touch of creativity to produce first-person accounts based on experience with narrative historical fiction?


Louis-Gilles Pairault

Archivist and paleographer (Graduate of the Ecole Nationale des Chartes), Head Heritage Curator, Director of the Archives of the Charente-Maritime département. His publications include : - "Mémoire d'un officier de marine négrier : Claude Polony" (1756-1828) (Claude Polony: Life of a slave ship captain [1756-1828]), Geste, 2019 - « Les archives d’un crime de masse : comment « traiter » les archives de la traite négrière française ? » (Mass crime archives: how to handle French slave trade archives), Comma, ICA, Vol. 2016-2, 2017, p. 93-104 - "Le commerce triangulaire et la traite négrière rochelaise " (Triangular trade and the slave trade at La Rochelle), teaching material, 2014 - (co-dir.) Entre terres et mers, la Charente-Maritime dans la Grande Guerre (Between land and sea, the Charente Maritime region during the Great War) , Geste, 2018 - La Saga des Bourbons, Henry, roi de Navarre (The Bourbon saga, Henry, King of Navarre), Geste, 2018 - (co-dir.) Huguenots d’Aunis et de Saintonge (16e-18e s.) (The Aunis and Saintonge Huguenots in the 16th to 18th centuries), Paris, Les Indes Savantes, 2017 - (co-dir.) Journal d'un Rochelais sous l'Occupation (Journal of a resident of La Rochelle during the Occupation), Geste, 2016 - Le Saut des Français (The French breakthrough), Ouest-France, 2012 - Le Choix des couleurs, Mémoires Millénaires (Choosing the right colour: Millennium Memoirs , 2010 - Le Voyage de Malte (Travel to Malta), L’Etoile du Sud, 2004.