Silencing the past: reflections on remembering and forgetting

Issues of public history continue to raise important questions on both sides of the Tasman. From the attacks on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Invasion day protests in Australia, to the ongoing effects of the New Zealand Wars and the compulsory teaching of history in Aotearoa New Zealand’s schools, more and more people are grappling with narratives about the past. Social media feeds are flooded with programmes such as the civics series The Citizen’s Handbook and live, COVID-clouded discussions on colonisation and constitutional transformation. Debates on remembering and forgetting are more and more common, helped along by the tweets and press conferences of an embattled President Trump. As an archivist and labour historian, it’s exciting to see such a public engagement with history.

For me, it’s also timely. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of a book that profoundly changed the way I understand the production of history. I’m only now realising that it also influenced my working trajectory as an archivist and my own practice as a historian. More importantly, the book continues to offer insights into why some stories are remembered and others are not, and how historical narratives are produced and reproduced.

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Haitian writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot was first published in 1995. Twenty-five years on, its weaving of personal narrative with stories of slave rebellion, black Jacobins in the Haitian Revolution and the ‘discovery’ of the Americas still resonate. As I write, filmmaker Raoul Peck is using it as one of the key sources for Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part docuseries about the exploitative and genocidal aspects of European colonialism. Written with a nod to postmodernism and a critique of structuralism, Silencing the Past nonetheless blends such an approach with the best aspects of social history and its analysis of power relations.

This, however, is not intended as a review (of which there are plenty online, and I’d encourage you to read them). Instead, I want to pull out the bits that speak directly to discussions of remembering and forgetting; the bits that remind us that history is more than just individual or collective memory recall.

There are several insights in Silencing the Past that now seem like common sense but were relatively novel at the time: ‘The past – or, more accurately, pastness – is a position’; power ‘does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation … in history, power begins at the source.’ As an archivist, I geek out at statements like ‘historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power’ and ‘archives are the institutions that organise facts and sources and condition the possibility of existence of historical statements.’

Silence and the act of silencing have become buzzwords in historical scholarship, used as markers or tropes without further explanation. In response, some historians have pointed to the wealth of archival sources available to us, from oral histories to nineteenth century documents. Yet it’s Trouillot’s treatment of silences in the production of history that are especially important.

For Trouillot, silence is ‘an active and transitive process: one ‘silences’ a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active.’ He emphasises that history is constantly produced, that what we understand as ‘history’ changes with time and place, and that what is said to have happened as the recall of facts is indeed a process filled with silences. For Trouillot, it is not just a matter of what is remembered or forgotten. Silences are produced and reproduced throughout any telling of a story.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

And further: these moments ‘are not meant to provide a realistic description of the making of any individual narrative. Rather, they help us understand why not all silences are equal and why they cannot be addressed – or redressed – in the same manner.’ In other words, ‘any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly.’

I’ve written about the last three moments for Overland before, reflecting on the WW100 commemorations  or the hidden history of prison labour. The writing of history from below is a partial attempt to amplify the voices of the silenced. However, questioning the moment of fact creation is just as crucial.

As Trouillot notes, ‘silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded.’ Take the Imperial officer reporting on an engagement with Māori during the Waikato War, or the Tasmanian colonist recording hints of a frontier massacre in his diary; the ‘facts’ they choose to put down on paper come with their own ‘inborn absences, specific to its production.’ Historical facts are not created equal, nor are they neutral. The mentions or silences engaged in by the person creating a story ‘reflect differential control of the means of historical production’ from ‘the very first engraving that transforms an event into a fact.’

Even if we are blessed with a wealth of sources, they are still shaped by silences. In my day job as an archivist I work with documents from German Sāmoa, during the period before New Zealand invaded the country with its own imperial ambitions. At that time, indentured Chinese labourers (or ‘coolies’) were shipped in by boatload to work the various Sāmoan plantations mostly owned by German or British nationals. Thousands of Chinese men flushed through these capitalist ventures, by choice or by circumstance. In some cases, they challenged their poor conditions and treatment through riots, strikes and absenteeism. Yet, while we hold container after container of German Sāmoan records, the names of Chinese labourers are nearly never recorded. They exist in the documents as Kuli. No.323, or simply Kuli (the German word for coolie). Only by painstakingly cross-referencing scattered fragments (or mentions) can the names and human agency of some Chinese labourers be rescued from the produced silences of German clerks.

Hence the mention of ‘power’ in the by-line of Silencing the Past. ‘Power is constitutive of the story’ writes Trouillot. ‘Tracking power through various moments helps emphasise the fundamentally processual character of historical production, to insist that what history is matters less that how history works.’ This not only includes power from above, but power from below. As Vincent Brown notes in his masterful history of ‘Tacky’s revolt’, the Jamaican slave war that influenced the Haitian revolution: ‘as surely as wind and water change the contours of stone, slavery’s archival sources have been shaped by the black people they rarely describe.’

An understanding of context is radical, in the original meaning of the term (of relating to a root, to get to the root of something). It is context that allows us to make sense of a source and its creation, and to place it in relation to others. It is context that can unveil the legal fictions of state or white supremacist narratives. As we continue to discuss the past and its impact on our present, as we question what stories are remembered and what stories are forgotten, I look to Trouillot and the scores of critical writers since as a reminder of how power relations continue to shape history; how context matters; and how, sometimes, remembering alone is not enough.

Jared Davidson

Jared Davidson is a labour historian and archivist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He is the author of The History of a Riot, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 and other works. Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand (BWB) is out in

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  1. Ae marika, he pono enei korero, kua whai reo koe mo te hunga kua ngūtia, mo tatou ngā uri whakaheke hoki! Tena Koe Jared.

  2. As a veteran researcher of Samoa, little puzzled that a New Zealand researcher would so hammer German treatment of Chinese in Samoa. Surely he knows the Chinese in Samoa were treated far worse… by New Zealanders. The record is there.

    1. Kia ora Michael,
      Thanks for your comment. I focused here on the German Sāmoan records I work with to illustrate my point around archival silences, rather than a history of Chinese Labour in Sāmoa and their treatment under various regimes. That’s a much larger story, as you know.
      Cheers, Jared

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