Archives and Oral Memory: Contested visions in San Basilio del Palenque

My name is Ana Laura and I am a human rights lawyer and a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Geography. I am currently exploring the Afro-descendant geographies of the Colombian Caribbean while analysing patterns of dispossession and racialisation of their territories. My research project is participatory, collaborative and combines data from colonial archives, mapping exercises, interviews and auto-photography. My case study is San Basilio del Palenque, a town located in the Colombian Caribbean and successor of one of the palenques, or communities built by runaway slaves during the 17th century, in an area also known as Montes de María. On 15th June this year, I arrived in the town, just in time, for the celebrations that commemorate the Patron Saint of the community: St Basilio. I was not travelling alone, but with the company of Professor Alfonso Cassiani Herrera and the historian Maria Cristina Navarrete Pelaez, who are experts on the colonial past of San Basilio. Furthermore, we had the support of Aiden Salgado Herrera: anthropologist, palenquero [name given to the members of San Basilio] and coordinator of the activity, as a bridge between the city of Sheffield and the community.

We feared that the combination of high temperatures and preparations for the celebrations that bring together San Basilio with other neighbour communities would prevent people from joining our seminar on The Role of the Archives in times of Peacebuilding. Nevertheless, the participation of the community beat our expectations. Therefore, with the financial support of the University’s Postgraduate Researcher Experience Programme, the Ministry of Culture of Colombia and the geography department’s Culture Space & Difference Research Cluster, 40 participants attended, including students, academics, activists, campesinos, community leaders and local representatives. They exchanged ideas about the importance of the records – kept in distant archives – to the current community land claims in the aftermath of the armed conflict that took place in Colombia for more than 50 years.

Discussions and feedback among different groups, genders and generations of the community ran for over four hours, by far exceeding our planned single hour of Questions and Answers following the presentations by the guest speakers and my own doctoral research on territory and dispossession. One of the main objectives of the activity was to provoke an encounter between academia and the members of the community.  In this sense, the attendees expressed a high interest in confronting their oral memories with the interpretation of their history made by the researchers based mainly on colonial documents. This rich exchange will be part of an academic article that will be published shortly.

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Moreover, the presentation on my research findings was focused on the colonial documents, which were found in different archives and helped us to understand patterns of territorial dispossession suffered by San Basilio since the colonial times to date. Some of these documents were reproduced in maps using the results of participatory mapping exercises conducted in the community during fieldwork in 2015-2016. After the presentation of these maps, the attendees requested to improvise a participatory mapping exercise that clarified information existent in the colonial documents. In this sense, the intervention of the collective memory is still indispensable to fill the gaps regarding land dispossession processes that have affected them through time. There is an increasing interest in the community in continuing improving the participatory maps during my next visit.

Furthermore, the evidence collected during my doctoral research stimulated the legal discussions about how to capitalise the historic moment of peacebuilding in Colombia. Accordingly, the Peace Agreement, which was signed between the Colombian government and the FARCS-EP (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the People’s Army) in November 2016, permits so-called ‘ethnic communities’ to claim for territory lost during the armed conflict. San Basilio del Palenque falls into this category and my findings can contribute as evidence for territorial reparation.

Finally, the last purpose of the activity was to create a local archive in San Basilio, allowing their members and young generations of palenqueros to examine and interpret the colonial records without the mediation of academics. This is my aspiration and commitment as an activist scholar. Therefore, electronic and hard copies of colonial documents, including the Treaty signed in 1714 between the Spaniards and the community, reports and letters made by an expeditionary of the King of Spain on San Basilio in 1783, were given away to promote their reading and analysis.

Only time will tell whether a community based on an oral tradition, where illiteracy is still quite problematic, can/want to take advantage of these records. The use of this local archive by the members of San Basilio can become a possible topic of study and evaluation in the future.

 

 

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