What I Did This Summer?
A handful of graduate students received funding from the history department for summer research. Below are reports on their experience!
The summer research grant from the History Department at Duke University helped reduce the cost of travel and lodging as I visited the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. My archival interest at NARA centered on the National Inventors Council (NIC). Created by President Franklin Roosevelt a year before U.S. entrance into World War II, the National Inventors Council solicited the general populace for new scientific and technological ideas that might prove useful in war. Charles Kettering—co-founder, Vice President, and head of research at General Motors—chaired the NIC. Kettering organized representatives from leading U.S. technology companies, top universities, and the military services to work alongside the Council’s full-time staff of technical experts as they evaluated over 360,000 submissions between 1940-1945. The Inventors Council rated thousands of these ideas with an “A” grade, warranting their submission to the National Defense Research Committee or a military branch for further development, production, and shipment to war fronts.
Privileged among specific devices were those that were remotely controlled. Kettering not only served as the Presidentially appointed chair of the National Inventors Council but led two of the Council’s twelve subcommittees. Specifically, Kettering took charge over what he knew best: the “Internal Combustion Engine” and “Remote Control Devices” committees. Kettering’s interest in remote control devices stemmed back to the previous World War. During the World War I, Kettering worked with Orville Wright and Elmer Sperry (inventors of the self-powered airplane and gyroscope, respectively) to produce one of the United States’ earliest “pilotless planes.” Predating the first “drone” by decades, the U.S. military shipped thousands of “Kettering Bug” pilotless planes to the Western Front near the end of World War I. Kettering’s revitalization of the Bug project during the Second World War, and his placement of “remote control devices” on equal footing with other more generalized Inventors Council subcommittees (aeronautics, ordnance, etc.), signaled his long-term fascination with both automation and airpower. The numerous submissions to the remote control devices subcommittee from laymen and laywomen inventors suggested how Kettering’s Bug had stimulated American fantasies for new war machines. Yet, the papers of the National Inventors Council demonstrate that the pilotless plane was only one among many ideas including death rays, weather manipulation devices, and new toxic chemical compounds, all evidence of the United States’ highly active imagination for war.
The UNHCR and Refugees in West Germany
Since 2015, the arrival of over one million refugees in Germany, most of them fleeing Syria, has called humanitarianism into question. While sympathetic onlookers express solidarity with refugees and celebrate German hospitality, a vocal and organized minority of refugees and activists have demanded asylum policy reform and protested against social discrimination and marginalization. On the other hand, a populist backlash has unmasked entrenched anxieties about race, migration, Islam, and globalization.
Asylum remains one of the most contentious issues in Germany’s political and intellectual life today, and the general consensus is that the current crisis is unprecedented. Yet by the late 1970s and early 80s, West Germany had already become Europe’s largest destination for refugees, a development that changed how migration was governed and caused problems that are not unlike those happening today.
Part of my dissertation research addresses the history of asylum in West Germany, and this past summer I travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to research some aspects of that past at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Not entirely sure of what I would come across in the UNHCR archives, I was excited about two findings from my two-week stay. First, I knew that the UNHCR had sent several officials to West German cities in the early 1980s to visit several camps and shelters where refugees were housed, because the media as well as refugees and activists from church groups and human rights organizations had decried their conditions. But in the archives, I was able to read the official reports of the UNHCR as well as the correspondence that went along with those visits. The official report was never meant to be released to the public, and when it was published it caused a minor scandal in West Germany. Yet second, this report also contributed to what one former UNHCR administrator referred to as the most serious crisis that the UNHCR had faced in its history up to that point—which I’ll write more about in the dissertation…
My research examines the history of Guajarati capitalist subjects in transition as they negotiate with and build new institutions, economic regimes and cultural subjectivities in the early decades of independence in India. It follows the itineraries of merchants, scientists, and entrepreneurs, and tracks a series of techno-scientific experiments, institutions, and philanthropic endeavors that were carried under the aegis of the developmental state in the region of Gujarat, specifically in the city of Ahmedabad. These projects involved a wide range of issues─ rural and agricultural improvement through televisual pedagogy, industrial reforms, labour management, etc. In studying how these concerns were honed in continuity with each other, I focus upon the ways in which they addressed anxieties about the classic developmental subjects of the 20th century: “the unruly labourer” and “the uneducated farmer.” In the process, I show how they concomitantly produced the classic male hero of postcolonial regimes: “the modern scientific/business visionary.” As my research courses through these outer space projects (related to the arrival of communication satellites for broadcasting developmental television) and small scale industrial automation/disciplinarian ambitions, I reveal how the simultaneous narratives of the triumphant business/scientific visionary and the actual failures of the projects on ground were co-constitutive, if not endemic to this very mode of expertise.
I spent a part of my summer in London. The Wellcome Library houses the archives of The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR). Established in 1947 in London, the institute was actively concerned with the promotion of behavioral psychology. TIHR has its origins in psychological programmes that were designed for boosting the morale of fatigued WWII soldiers. Between 1950s-60s, Tavistock forged collaborations with manufacturing companies across the globe, and conducted psychological observations for addressing issues related to labour and machines. At Wellcome, I found diaries/correspondences related to the Tavistock experts who were present in Ahmedabad during this time, and were conducting similar studies regarding the city’s industrial spaces.
The second half was spent in New Delhi, where I worked on my chapter on the communication satellites. Given the big science status, I knew that I will face access issues. Such documents are often classified under the Official Secrets Act (1923), a legislative vestige of the colonial period that sought to prevent espionage. The experiments I focus on, however, were operated by a now almost obsolete unit called the Development, Education and Communication Unit. The redundancy of the organization worked in my favour. In bold letters “SECRET” was stamped upon all the folders, and next to it a note that said “Declassified.” “The delegate exceeded his budget at the UN conference. Spent money on shopping.” The subject of the file read. Confused I continued leafing through the pages, and more dull exchanges emerged. To be fair, not all the folders were about budgeting blunders, their frequency, however, could not be ignored. This logic of secrecy reminded me about the rituals of secrecy that the archives as an institution must perform. A process which generates the effect of the state through arduous rhythms of access/denials. The banality of the secret further highlights this performative element, wherein the concern is not really about what the secret is. This observation of course does not undermine the fact that the state does actively withhold information and access to certain records.
Mostly, however, such experiences alerted me towards the sheer repetitiveness of the archives in general. And how it is perhaps such repetitions which demand our attention.
During my visit to the American Antiquarian Society, I found interesting information about the individuals who owned and managed printing presses across the British Caribbean in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. West Indian presses emerged shortly after European conquest and provided settlers with the opportunity to print a variety of texts such as books, newspapers, periodicals, and almanacs. Newspapers, however, were arguably the most important due to their regular production. Newspapers were published anywhere from two or three times a week, or daily, depending upon the size and scope of the presses located on each island.
In the decades leading up to emancipation in the British Caribbean, newspapers became one of the primary modes for disseminating political, social, and economic information. They were widely circulated therefore, readers were able to stay up to date on the issues taking place within and outside of the British metropole. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates residing in the West Indies often read newspapers in order to track parliamentary debates on the subject of abolition. In some cases, slave owners wrote articles opposing metropolitan efforts at ameliorating the conditions of the enslaved. Abolitionists also penned emotional essays calling on Members of Parliament to eradicate slavery due to the violence it inflicted on men, women, and children in bondage. While the impact of newspapers on the battle for white representation is clear, I wonder about how these texts may have influenced the thoughts, actions, and behaviors of the enslaved population.
At the American Antiquarian Society, I encountered several documents that provide some context for answering the previous question. I learned that press owners often employed slaves to help operate machinery and bind materials. Print work could have exposed slaves to abolition debates they may not have been privy to while working on plantations. I think the sources I came across will enable me to shed new light on how slaves attained, consumed, and shared information prior to emanicipation.
With the support of summer funding from the department of History, I was able to conduct archival research for my dissertation—Brazo-a-Brazo: Humanitarian Medicine and the Preservation of Empire—a history of immunization and patient consent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Spanish Atlantic World. Materials drawn from a variety of archives, including the Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba, the Oficina del Historiador dela Ciuadad de la Havana, the Biblioteca Nacional de José Martí, and the Instituto de Literatura y Lingüística, allowed me to study the doctors and institutions responsible for tracking, financing, and policing the use of smallpox vaccine in Cuba, introduced in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Reports from physicians within these institutions provide remarkable insight into how the vaccine circulated through the bodies of children and the enslaved, forming intimate networks between the island’s ports, plantations, and city streets. One such report, remitted by Dr. Tomás Romay, concerned the Brillante Rosa, a slave ship that arrived to Havana in the summer of 1811. On the voyage to Cuba, the captain Don Miguel Nuñez had lost 130 of the 464 captives taken from Angola. Romay blamed their deaths on insufficient medical supplies and the incompetency of the surgeon aboard. A staunch supporter of slavery, Romay sought the intervention of the city council to improve health conditions, writing "What are the advantages gained by these unhappy slaves with slavery if as soon as they are taken from their homes, they are buried in the abyss of the sea?"
Romay and his peers frequently turned to this humanitarian language of care, relying on their medical expertise to intervene into the growing trade in human chattel. It was through a critique of the unsavory conditions of slave ships and port barracks that Romay managed to secure a law mandating smallpox vaccination for all slaves newly arrived to the island, providing him with a supply of disposable bodies to reproduce and transmit the vaccine fluid. Rather than challenging the economic system—predicated on the conditions that produced these health inequalities—doctors such as Romay harnessed external calls for reform and care to justify the continued regime of enslaved labor. Reports from across these archives expose how medical practioners used healthcare and vaccination specifically to sustain and indeed expand the inter-colonial slave trade.
Romay remains a national hero when his body was exhumed and reinterred in a mausoleum housed within the Museo Nacional de Historia de las Ciencias Carlos J. Finlay. This summer I consulted several of his scientific tracts archived there. Texts such as Memoria Sobre la Introduccion y Progresos de la Vacuna en la Isla de Cuba include examples of how vaccination should be carried out, defined through racialized assumptions about immunity and pathology that justified the denial of medical consent and bodily autonomy for the enslaved, as well as catalyzed European immigration programs and extensive immunization campaigns throughout the Spanish Atlantic world. Analysis of these texts challenges not only the racialized divisions embedded within his medical science but also the legacy of a celebrated figure like Romay whose professional career—like so many nineteenth-century doctors—was built out of black suffering.