| The importance of national archives - 18.02.2006
In the centre of Victoria stands a diminutive Big Ben coated in shimmering silver paint and polish. At an oblique angle, as if looking from the corner of its eyes at this symbol of British colonial rule, a giant, grey iron man, fists and feet having broken colonial chains, stands facing the Indian Ocean horizon in the exuberance of Freedom.
The fulcrum of these two symbols, however, is the Bicentennial Monument, a statue of three birds, each symbolic of Europe, Africa, and Asia, the genetic origins of the majority of Seychelles’ citizens but not the home.
These three monuments, each a historical archive of its own, tell a tale of a nation incomparable in its uniqueness and vitality, the Seychelles.
As we acknowledge these vibrant, living archives, and the national memory they inspire by their annual or daily recognition, the same attention must be paid to the paper documents in the Seychelles National Archives (SNA).
The importance of drastically improving the care of the physical documents in the SNA is actually not about the past or the future; as scholars have written, history is somewhere between what happened and what is said to have happened.
The importance of the archives, then, is in how we come to understand the truths we choose to live by in the present.
The Seychellois documents – neither British nor French – have the potential to unmask the silences in presently lived Seychelles history. The most deafening of these silences is the place of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and world economy. It is commonplace for historians to write Indian Ocean histories without a full engagement of this pivotal archipelago, simply dismissed as a sailor’s port of rest on their way to more important continents.
But such issues do not affect the average Seychellois citizen and have no explicit place here. Maintenance of the Seychelles archives, besides the mark of national pride, would also help stabilize the fervor of Seychellois politics.
As a democratic country, tracking, collecting, and maintaining the documents of various Ministries will further the democratic zeal of accountability and transparency between the government and the citizenry.
Each political party in the Seychelles today is a political actor; each is a historical agent by virtue that it is envisioning a future for the nation and acting on this vision. As such, the development of a common system of good governance, which surmounts political rivalry, is symbolized in maintaining pristine national archives for each Seychellois to access.
Another viability of the archives is more material. In addition to the project of rejuvenating the tourist industry, the development of Heritage Tourism could help the national economy.
As someone who has lived most of his life away from Seychelles, my maternal home, let me report that Americans, like many in the West, believe the Seychelles “lacks culture.”
What is meant by such idiotic statements I do not know; but it is for this reason that many tourists prefer to vacation in Mauritius, not to mention that Mauritius is also cheaper.
Tourists, it seems, are not as hedonistic as they are imagined to be, and would, in addition to tanning, also like to learn from their place of relaxation.
A brief glance at the steep increase of travel literature in any American or European bookstore, or websites devoted primarily to travel writers and their work, can give one enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that perhaps what is separating the tourist of the twenty-first century from their predecessors is a deeper desire to engage the foreign culture in which they find themselves, to engage like amateur anthropologists.
This is not true of everyone, but such engagement adds a sort of authenticity to travelling. The archives are the place where these cultural connections can be found and used to develop this growing niche within the tourist industry, a staple asset to the national economy.
Finally, the archives themselves provide the most sobering of all reasons for their improved condition. Whatever the cash crop of the Seychelles has ever been, it rose for a time and then fell. The fluctuation was a result of dependency on Western demand. Presently, the Western world economy is an economy based more and more on knowledge and ideas. The Seychelles can connect to this tide of ideas by digitizing the archives.
There are several databases – systematically arranged collections of data structured for automatic retrieval – which the government as well as the Seychellois citizenry can use to access ideas circulating the globe.
Such actions may open more possibilities for envisioning the Seychelles as the wonderfully unique nation it is.