Archival Catch 22

Picturesque church in the complex that hosts the French Defence Ministry Archives

Church in the Chateau complex that hosts the French Defence Ministry archives

Having made it to the Chateau Vincennes for the 1pm opening of the French Defence Ministry archives I was, perhaps understandably, disappointed to learn that the waiting time for ordered documents was…2-3 weeks. I had been told by email that I needed to book a space in the archive 2-3 weeks in advance but was told there was no detailed online catalogue and so could only request documents once I had arrived at the archive or write in advance with details of what I was looking for. I had written in advance and was told to consult the catalogue on arrival. Luckily I am in France for the next three weeks and a look through the catalogue confirmed the archive had a days worth of documents to photograph that would be useful for my project.

If I had come from slightly further afield, say the US, I might be slightly more annoyed. It did get me thinking about methodologies though. It is far easier to travel to distant archives or view them digitally now than it has ever been. Historians always have to be selective about the sources they incorporate, but how far can a project remain viable if key archives are inaccessible? I’m thinking particularly about projects pre-1980 that focussed on Qing China. Our understanding of the Qing has radically altered as a result of the ‘opening-up’ of the First Historical Archives in Beijing. As this incident demonstrates, archival challenges are hardly a thing of the past, but what methodologies can we use to shape research around them while still maintaining a project’s credibility?


Brothers in arms…


Hong Xiuquan's imperial robes - Presidential Palace, Nanjing

Hong Xiuquan’s imperial robes – Presidential Palace, Nanjing

I have decided to keep a fieldwork diary for the year because I will be moving around the world collecting archival data and the blog will help me keep track of surprises and points of interest along the way.  I have already spent a month grappling with palace memorials at Bei Da (Peking University) and two weeks at a summer school in Nanjing, which provided an opportunity to visit the former Taiping HQ and the Taiping history museum.

I am leaving for a month in archives in France in two weeks and have spent the last few months rooting through archives in the UK. My first surprise came when reading Charles Gordon’s papers in the British library. Famed as ‘Chinese Gordon’, saviour of the Qing and pacifier of Jiangsu, Gordon took over the ‘ever victorious’ army of foreign mercenaries from Henry Burgevine, an American who had fallen out with Li Hongzhang, the army’s Chinese overseer. Burgevine went on to lead a force of Taiping troops based at Suzhou. By the autumn of 1863 Gordon was besieging the wealthy city of Suzhou while Burgevine’s forces were helping to defend it. I had not expected, then, to find in Gordon’s papers, letters from Burgevine sent during the siege, presumably part of a two way correspondence, calmly discussing which party, Taiping or Qing, would offer China a better future. Despite their political differences, the fraternal language suggests that blood truly was thicker than water.