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Colonial archive research

Graduate OMT Travel Report – Catherine Phipps (2019, DPhil History) 

In December 2022, the Old Members’ Trust funded me to travel to Nantes and Paris in France to carry out research on France’s colonial history in Morocco as part of the final stage of the research for my DPhil in History.

I can see why, to many people, five days in a colonial archive (the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques) may not seem like the most exciting getaway in the world. The archives are cold and in quite an ugly, industrial part of the city. The whole point of the exercise is to try to read as many documents as possible in as little time. We order up to five boxes of documents a day, each with about 1,000 pages of neatly typed carbon paper from the early 20th century, and race against the clock to be able to read them. Most historians are only able to go the archives for a few weeks a year, perhaps less if they’re not based in Europe, and adrenaline is high to get through everything in this time. I can see why a few wintry days in December, when you arrive at the archives when it’s barely light in the morning and leave when it’s already night-time, may not sound very appealing…

Except that a strange number of coincidences meant that I was in France, at the colonial archives thumbing through French colonial documents from Morocco, around 14 December when France and Morocco played each other in the World Cup. For at least two weeks, the French press was full of analysis of what the match meant for France’s history with Morocco, for what it meant for the two countries’ postcolonial legacies, and questions of national identity. The day of the match, I made sure to order up boxes of colonial documents based on football. I wanted to examine how France was able to enforce colonial power through football, through soft power and creating hierarchies. I wrote it up for newlinesmag.com, for an online magazine. The whole world was talking about France’s modern relationship with Morocco and the racial identities of these teams, while I was able to read French government documents from the 1930s about how colonial football teams in Morocco needed to have at least three white players. It felt like the exact same conversations that were echoed in these documents were echoed in the French newspapers and radio. Every time France scored a goal, I could hear shouts from the Algerian supermarket round the corner and from the packed bars across the street.

Thanks to the Old Member’s Trust, I was able to be in the archives in France during this period and to see postcolonial legacies in France from a whole new angle. Thank you.

Find out more about the range of travel grants and scholarships available to assist Univ students on our Travel Grants page or read further travel reports.

Published: 10 May 2023

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