Old and Papery

Spotted working in the Archives d’outre mer in Aix last week with my non-methodical approach, much to the gall of the French archivists working there. Skim-reading the 18th century scrawlings of white Creole male colonialists took a bit of getting used to, and a fair bit of time to process – from visually and mentally. I was mostly reading the Martinican lawyer Moreau de Saint-Méry’s Notes Historiques, reflections on his time spent in Saint-Domingue/Haiti, which felt very much like reading stage notes or a director’s notebook. His notes provide explanations of the various scènes of this colonial stage, under such “insightful” headings as dress, women and island foliage.

I was also able to view some much later photographic albums, containing images of Martinique. Though I wasn’t allowed to photograph these images myself, I felt an urge to document some of the incredible costume imagery I was finding and found myself sketching details, outlines and fabric designs on every blank space of my printed list of references. All of this under the downward glare of the Présidente de la salle, from her imposing desk perched slightly higher than the rest of us, at school mistress level. In scanning newspapers of the revolutionary period, such as the Affiches Americaines or the Gazette de la Guadeloupe, I was introduced to the delights of using microfilm. These machines seemed as ancient as the documents I was checking and with every query each archivist without fail would stress firstly that they had not received proper training in their operation. I felt particularly important and technologically endowed therefore when, on day three, the Présidente de la salle came to find me in the reading room to ask me if I could show her how one of the microfilm machines worked!!! Of course I couldn’t fix it, but I somehow must have been giving the impression that I knew what I was doing in that place.

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