Teacher Notes

An argument for turning our students into ‘ocean divers’ by ‘pressing at the limits’ of the archive.

facts … are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use…

Carr, E. H. What Is History? Penguin Classics, 2018.

I have pressed at the limits of the case file and the document, speculated about what might have been, imagined the things whispered in dark bedrooms, and amplified moments of withholding, escape and possibility, moments when the vision and dreams of the wayward seemed possible.

·       ‘Note on Method’ – Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. 2020.

Can the subaltern speak, Year 8s?

When Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asked in 1988 ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ she wasn’t asking Year 8s on a Monday morning. But, as with a long line of thinkers interested in whose stories get told and how, she articulated something that our Year 8s should be thinking about. This enquiry gets students to do just that.

Sources are not simply handed down to us. Students tend to think they are. How do we know what we know about the past can be answered unthinkingly by our pupils ; ‘because the internet/textbook/the sheet/miss said so’. Carr’s analogy of historical facts as ‘fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean’ here is useful.

Students could be asked to imagine the historian diving into the ocean, like everyone’s favourite tudor swimmer, going ‘fishing’ for sources and then having to prepare their meal (inferences) as they see fit – and for others to judge. Although a far more difficult way to fish than Carr describes (he wrote of fishing lines, hooks and bait), diving emphasises the more active work historians from below have to do to find ‘facts to interpret’.

It was the work of interpreting the facts (or we as KS3 teachers might say making inferences) that Carr was so keen to highlight as a riposte to the positivist Historians who sought to simply narrate the past ‘as it was’. Sources, Carr showed, didn’t speak for themselves. The process of turning ‘sources’ from the past into ‘evidence’ of the past is something historians do and we get our students to grapple with. Any enquiry focused on evidential understanding at KS3 that get students to understand, practice and improve at this is a worthwhile one.

So far, so good. But we can, and I would argue, should ask our students to go further. Not only should students consider how we know what we know about the past, but also why are some things easier to know than others? To stretch the analogy further, why are some fish are harder to find and prepare than others?

Not only should students consider how we know what we know about the past, but also why are some things easier to know than others?

As Sadiya Hartman poetically suggests, historians like her find themselves ‘pressing at the limits of the case file’ when writing history about people marginalised in the past. All ‘History from Below’ engages with this challenge. Michel Rolph-Trouillot’s magnificent work Silencing the Past seems today to be widely read. It outlines to us how ‘the archive’ (in its broadest sense – the ocean that historians go fishing in) is constructed by power relations. Trouillot adds to Carr’s characterisation of writing history as ‘interpreting the facts’ by charting how the process of ‘fact creation’ is itself something the historian needs to be wary of. Carr’s ‘vast ocean’ is ‘sometimes inaccessible’ because of how past hierarchies constituted it.

Why bother?

This can feel very theoretical. So why bother? Should we not simply satisfy ourselves with getting our Year 8s to make solid inferences from sources, with supporting contextual knowledge and accurate language? Is Carr’s point – of History as process of ‘fact interpretation’ – not enough to be getting on with?

Indeed a Year 8 that makes justified, well explained and relevant inferences from sources is doing very well. In particular they’re excelling if they see themselves as a historian ‘preparing [facts]… and serving them in whatever style appeals to him (sic)”. But as so many historians now from so many different fields now tell us, if we only went for the facts easily available to us, we’d ignore the vast majority of lives lived in the past. Besides the ethics, we’d write incomplete narratives of the past (and have).

The implications are not solely ethical. I found this a stumbling block for students at GCSE when evaluating sources from the Reformation era in England. I’d set up the mystery and difficulties as historians we’d likely face when looking for public attitudes to the Reformation in England in restrictive political contexts. It would have taken a brave or powerful person to criticise the Act of Supremacy within England in 1535. The enquiry had been established well – Was the Reformation welcomed more than resisted? Let’s look at the archive of sources I’d prepared…

But my excitement at the inferences that could be drawn from a popular song or local church record was not matched by my students. They hadn’t understood the problems historians like Hartman (or indeed Duffy) face ‘pressing at the limits of the case file’ trying to tell stories about the past of marginalised people. They hadn’t considered in enough depth why some things are easier to know about the past than others. Instead they regularly found the court documents and speeches by powerful men (both resisting and welcoming religious reforms) to be more valuable sources of public opinion ‘because they were official and detailed’.

Of course we can explain to students the error of this thinking. With decent exposition, students can understand this theoretically. Get them to consider who writes their school reports and they’ll quickly see how the records that historians may work with can be skewed somewhat by power relations. But for a deeper historical understanding this isn’t enough. They need to engage with this problem themselves through historical enquiry.

Of course we can explain to students the error of this thinking… But for a deeper understanding this isn’t enough. They need to engage with this problem themselves through historical enquiry.

An Enquiry Approach to History from Below

The resistance of enslaved people is always something I’ve found students intrigued by. I remember myself being the same. It’s not merely teenage boys seeking to perform a kind of masculinity in front of the rest of the class who wonder aloud why those ‘enslaved didn’t just fight back’. Of course, ‘they’ did in so many ways. But it doesn’t require much teaching to explain to students that those people enslaved left few official records of their own (not least of any organised resistance) and that most of the sources we have about their stories were created by their enslavers. Indeed Vincent Brown’s epic study of Tacky’s War in Jamaica in 1760-61 is full of him ‘pressing at the limits’ of the sources available. Without him doing this we’d be left without any recent book-length historical study of arguably the most significant organised resistance to Transatlantic Slavery in 18th century Jamaica.

Indeed despite the millions of people who were kidnapped and trafficked over 300 years, we have no extant autobiographical writing from a women on her experiences of the dreaded ‘middle passage’. How, therefore, do we write about the female experience of the ‘middle passage’? This question is a perfect place to start an enquiry with students. The ethical and historical commitment puzzle provides a place from which students can begin their dive into ‘history from below’ and begin ‘pressing at the limits of the case file’ as Hartman would have it.

All historians are required to work with sources nimbly and prepare their ‘facts’ as they see fit. But, we can tell our students, ‘historians from below’ press at the limits because they need to. They are driven by their enquiry into the past with a desire to tell stories about people who the archives barely mention, and so must our students. Without us fostering this commitment to enquire ‘how the enslaved resisted Transatlantic Slavery’, students may logically decide many of the sources presented to them (and used to such effect by so many historians of Transatlantic Slavery) were ‘not useful‘, ‘biased‘, ‘incomplete‘ – or some combination of all three. It was this kind of thinking that meant very few published histories of resistance to Slavery appeared in print until the 1970s.

But we know that’s not good enough. Historians of Transatlantic Slavery have in recent decades dedicated their whole lives to working with ‘biased‘, ‘incomplete‘ and supposedly ‘not useful sources‘ to tell stories of the past we know existed but find harder to know about. Historians of women and the middle passage, have no other choice. Historians like Madine Thiam, researching the extraordinary life of Abu Bakr al Siddiq Watara, have no other choice. Vincent Brown, when writing on Tacky’s War, had no other choice.

Here is where we can get our Year 8s to work as ‘historians from below’ scouring the ocean for the harder to find ‘facts’ to interpret.

Here is where we can get our Year 8s to work as ‘historians from below’ scouring the ocean for the harder to find ‘facts’ to interpret.

An ‘tantalising’ example

Consider the following source below that I’ve used as part of the enquiry, taken from David Geggus’ 2014 The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History.

This could be really tricky for a student of any age. The source is a Portuguese government report from an official working in Brazil in 1805. Without context or support most Year 8s would struggle. I would never dream of dropping this on a table and asking students to get on with it.

But with a clear enquiry focus set out over a series of lessons and reading as a class, students were able to, as Geggus does, ‘push at the edge of the case file’. They made inferences from the source about the electrifying effect the Haitian Revolution had on the whole edifice of Transatlantic Slavery. The unnamed official reports, with a more than a hint of fear, that Black ‘freedmen… with artillery’ were wearing a brooch or medallion on them that portrayed leader of the Haitian Revolution (referred to here as ’emperor of the blacks’). This in a slave society – Brazil – that shared limited trade relations with St Domingue or the French West Indies. We can only speculate how news traveled and what stories Black communities (both free and unfree) and White communitites told of the developments in Haiti. Geggus himself refers to the source as ‘tantalizing’…

This tantalizing extract from government correspondence is an enigma. Whether it concerns painted medallions or cameo brooches, where the objects were made and how they got to Rio— nothing more about the incident is known.

Geggus, David Patrick. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2014.

‘Nothing more about the incident is known’ but what a story we can tell with it anyway! Of course sources from the Americas of enslaved or freed Black people discussing the Haitian Revolution are hard to find in ‘the vast and inaccessible ocean’ – not least because openly discussing such ideas at the time could be lethal. Indeed the source work I’ve seen in the scholarship involve historians working with increasingly fearful reports from officials across the Caribbean of hearing French words and whispered conversations among black populations. Julius Scott’s recently published research from the 1980s The Common Wind is a masterful attempt to ‘press at the limits’ of the archive where so many sources ‘tantalise’ in the way Geggus describes.

This 1805 government report is undeniably incomplete. Indeed a good introduction is to get students to ask questions that they’d like answered. Play up its incompleteness. We don’t know the name of the report writer. We don’t even know what the item ‘torn from the chests’ of some Black Freedmen was! Who made these items, what did they look like and how many people wore them?

But Geggus proceeds, as I would argue all Year 8 students could, to work with the source to tell a story with ‘historical facts’. He infers that this source reveals the electrifying impact – or ‘common wind’ – that blew across the Americas as a result of the Haitian Revolution. Fear and excitement in equal measure. This despite the clear limitations of the source and limited contextual knowledge of our students. With our enquiry focus in mind, our year 8s can be transformed into intrepid historians from below, diving into the ocean and pressing at the limits of the case file.

The more we give students the chance to do this, the better their evidential understanding becomes.

  • Aljoe, Nicole. “The Narrative of the Scherife of Timbuctoo (1835): A Scholarly Introduction.” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2015. https://ecda.northeastern.edu/item/neu:m04150575/
  • Carr, Helen, and Suzannah Lipscomb, editors. What Is History, Now? How the Past and Present Speak to Each Other. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021.
  • Duffy, Eamon. The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village. Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Geggus, David Patrick. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2014.
  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. First published in Great Britain, Serpent’s Tail, 2021.
  • —. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. First published as a Norton paperback, W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.
  • Hay, Douglas, editor. Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. Pantheon Books, 1975.
  • Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Verso, 2007.
  • Rediker, Marcus. “History from below the Water Line: Sharks and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” Atlantic Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2008, pp. 285–97, https://doi.org/10.1080/14788810802149758.
  • —. The Slave Ship: A Human History. John Murray, 2007.
  • Scott, Julius Sherrard, and Marcus Rediker. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. Paperback edition, Verso, 2020.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, and Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza. Can the Subaltern Speak? Two Works. Edited by Amber Husain and Mark Lewis, Afterall Books, 2020.
  • Thiam, Madina. Seeking Freedom in the Sahel (1805-1836) |. Boston University African Studies Center, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqECCERA4FM.
  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, and Hazel V. Carby. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 2015.
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