Working at the League of Nations Archive

Summer Archive Notes from Philippa Hetherington 

This week, I’ve been researching for Trafficking Past in the archive of the League of Nations. The reading room for the archive is appropriately named after John D. Rockefeller, whose foundation funded multiple travelling inquiries into the traffic in women in the 1920s and 1930s. It is located in the beautiful art deco Palais des Nations, which was built between 1929 and 1938 as the permanent home of the League (which itself would only last a few more years). Walking the corridors of the building, admiring the breezy terraces and the shiny mahogany fixtures, it’s easy to imagine various members of the Traffic in Women Committee rushing through the halls in 1924 or 1936.  In the reading room itself, the faces of Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson glare down at the researcher, while the windows provide a view of the Alps and Lake Geneva for when you need a nature break to clear the head.

View of the Alps from the League archive window.

A number of articles published in the past few years have examined the history of the League’s Traffic in Women committee, and its attempts to build a global coalition against trafficking (a term it always defined nebulously). Most notable are pieces by members of our own Trafficking Past network, Jessica Pliley and Magaly Rodriquez.  I’ve been looking at a particular corner of this history, the 1932 Commission of Inquiry into the Traffic in the ‘East,’ and the subsequent related inquiries into the Position of Women of Russian Origin in the East (1935), as well as the Bandoeng (Bandung) Conference of Central Authorities on the Traffic in Women in the East (1937). This series of commissions constituted an attempt by the Committee on the Traffic in Women to expand their remit beyond the previous Europe/Americans geographic focus (represented by the 1927 Inquiry, which  is discussed in Jessica’s and Magaly’s articles). The 1932 report on the initial commission claimed to have discovered a ‘wide traffic in women’ in ‘the East’ (a vaguely defined geographic location which depended as much on longstanding European civilisational discourses as clear topographical markers), while the subsequent conferences and reports proposed measures to be taken by governments and voluntary organisations to suppress or prevent it.

As with earlier inquiries into the traffic, these 1930s commissions were plagued with definitional confusions, with different actors using the term ‘traffic’ in different ways, while the collection of ‘data’ often relied on hearsay and anecdote. As such, they are far more useful as sources for the ways in which the conceputalisation of trafficking, and the work done by the League, were evolving in increasingly racialized ways in the 1930s in the context of rising nationalism and the threat of impending war, than they are for any ‘evidence’ of the extent or scope of a traffic in women.

The League archive is an excellent place to work for any historian of trafficking (and its discourses). There are clear finding aids for both the archival material and the League’s voluminous publications (parts of which are also available online here.  You can photograph documents (although my own method is to mix note taking with some photography, which I find helps me to absorb the bureaucratic structure I’m dealing with better) and order 5 boxes at a time (which are delivered immediately). And perhaps best of all, there is the delicious UN cafeteria, the best lunch deal in Switzerland, which comes complete with a roaming peacock on the terrace while you eat your lunch.

The Palais de Justice, home of the League of Nations.

The League’s holdings on trafficking (and in related collections including the Nansen Office for Refugees, the Health Section and the Committee on Child Welfare) are voluminous and much of them are still untapped. They hold huge potential for the further study of trafficking past, and will form the core of ongoing research for a number of our network members in coming years.

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