The Aim of Decolonisation

Rediscovering ‘Lost’ Archival Voices

24 March 2023

Written by: Amouraé Bhola-Chin

People often think that the most interesting historical narratives originate from the ‘richest’ of archival sources – those which answer our inquiries and seemingly tell an entire story. Yet our exploration into figures who forged London’s older global links challenges this position. Instead, we continue to dive into documents which force us to ask questions about why individual lives— such as that of Ignatius Sancho —have been conflated to tell the whole story of Londoners of African descent.

A team member working with archival documents ordered using the Archive’s digital catalogue.

By assessing history through the lens of a city, our project aspires to shift the focus onto collective and personal exchanges, in order to offer a fuller picture of such a culturally-rich epicentre as London. Our research, which spans from the Early Modern period to the nineteenth-century, encourages contemporary citizens to situate themselves within London’s dynamic narrative.

Projects like these attempt to extend the conversation to the wider public, while reimagining individuals’ relationships with the archival practice. Acknowledging the largely independent nature of research in shaping the historical narrative, Mapping Black London in particular aims to make a point of engaging with academics, archivists and budding historians alike.

Extending Conversations

Sitting down with Boughton House archivists, Crispin Powell and Charles Lister, in 2022.

Visiting Archives

During a tour of Boughton House, we learned more about Sancho’s life as a servant to the Montagu family, and got to touch some of the documents.

If this project has taught us one thing, it’s the wealth of knowledge that you can receive from a visit to the archives and their rapidly expanding digital platforms. Our study, which was born as ‘Ignatius Sancho’s London,’— now, Mapping Black London —has relied on material made accessible to the public. Only from this has it been made possible for us as researchers to build up social histories of this often marginalised community.

Laurence Ward with researchers, Amouraé Bhola-Chin and Libby Collard, earlier this year preparing to display quotes by Londoners of colour around the Archives. Photo credits: Oliver Ayers, 2023.

We appreciate the power of first-hand accounts because they dignify overlooked lives. When re-evaluating Black people’s experiences, handling these histories with care becomes the lifeline of our research, considering the difficulties we and others face when searching for them within the archival arena.

By the time I was wrapping up my research for the Unforgotten Lives exhibition, I realised how simply quoting the thoughts of an enslaved person could bring to life their hushed voices. And so the process began where I made it my mission to delve into the accounts and poetry of former slaves. As you can imagine, I learned a lot.

I found a snippet in Mary Prince’s narrative, titled, The History of Mary Prince, as she recounted her time on the Caribbean islands of Bermuda, Antigua and Barbuda and Turks and Caicos:

Oh the horrors of slavery! —How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate.

(Prince 1831: 11)

When dealing with archival material relating to the communities my ancestors were a part of, it’s as if I become witness to them — to their laments, as well as their hopes. Taking this excerpt for example, Mary’s testimony alone, or together with other collective memories, acknowledges the position she was in as a victim of chattel slavery. She confides in us.

While we are used to hearing from the victors, we haven’t given those on the opposing side the time of day. That’s why I would encourage people to visit an archive in London.

The year-long London Metropolitan Archives exhibition, Unforgotten Lives: Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1560 to 1860, echoes the personal voices buried within community histories. If you are in the city, please visit the exhibition; and whilst you’re there, question the London you have grown to know.