On archives

I have spent the last few weeks doing the kind of work that makes historical projects possible, sorting through great big foot-thick stacks of 500 year old paper, smelling the sweet old book smell, my nose slightly itchy as the detritus of centuries sloughs off into the air. Flip. Glance. Flip. Glance.

When I find something good, I decide whether to have it copied or transcribe it. My scanning budget is limited anyway, but since I work on the oldest, raggediest stuff, having the tiny advantage of looking at the actual object means than lines of rotten text can be salvaged instead of just being recorded as (roto).1

Transcription is boring work. The muffled silence of the archive and the slight warmth of the room makes me sleepy. Whatever vestige of my childhood ADD still exists roars, angry at the tedium of having to tap it out after having read it. I actually enjoy transcription at home, when I can pet a cat or make a cup of coffee in between lines, but here, when forced to do it, my brain wants to do anything else. I’ve taken to using this goofy app, letting the clackety noise of the fake typewriter tell my brain I am making progress.

Yesterday afternoon, I began transcribing this coffee-colored four page letter from the island of Hispaniola. The ink was too wet, or the paper too absorbent, and the letters have soaked into the page like watercolors into a paper towel. Where the letter was folded, time has worn a thin gap between the halves of the page.

As much as it is easy to complain, the archive, real or digital, is an amazing place to visit. Walt Whitman’s ghostly millions stand behind you, and you get to think about the contingency and complexity that put person in place and paper in archive.

Despite the occasional joy of discovery, however, it is not an emotional place. Most of the time, you scan (Flip. Flip.), or you serve as a memory buffer between the written and the typed. Yesterday, though, I started transcribing something that actually made me well up for the sheer wretchedness of the story within.

It’s the 1540s in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, and a royal decree has been announced through the streets, declaring the freedom of all of the island’s indigenous people from slavery.

For the island’s “protector of Indians,” however, it is a step that came decades too late, and the culmination of the ongoing humanitarian crisis that was the early colonial Caribbean. Of the island’s natives, only a few hundred remain, reduced by recent last-gasp rebellion and by utter indifference to their fate on behalf of their owners. The ones that survive head to the hills and into the vast new cattle ranges of the interior, away from the exploitative hacendados and mines and towards their own freedom, but also away from the last vestiges of Taino village life. These few hundred are spread so thin, the author says, as to be extinct.

It only gets worse. There is another, perhaps more tragic sort of “indian” in Hispaniola: the captured inhabitants of a band of coastline stretching from Maranhão to Yucatán to the Chesapeake. Atomized, often young, they have nowhere to go, no people to claim. They are, as the author says, without leaders, without mothers, and without fathers. They should be treated as young orphans regardless of age, according to the letter writer, before the big colonial world swallows them up. I bristle at his repeated and racist insistence that this diverse group of people, forced together by circumstance, was incapable of looking after itself. And I know that freedom likely came as a moment of joy to many of them, but every newly free person was also largely alone, sorting through this shuffled humanity for friends, related peoples, old coworkers and lovers, anything to make a new life in a place that only weeks ago saw fit to condemn them to dwindling gold mines and the boiling rooms of fledgling sugar plantations. A few may have made it home, as linguists or laborers, but these were the lucky few.

I’m about two thirds of the way through this document. I don’t know how to feel about returning to it, since it is so vivid and so sad. I will probably not read something so moving for a long time, but there is a certain comfort in objectivity and in knowing that this all happened so long ago. I guess this is the mixed semi-beautiful blessing of what I get to do.