Microhistories of Trafficking: Small Stories and Digital Archives

By Julia Laite

My own research within the Trafficking Past network is a microhistory of one case of trafficking from the year 1910, in which a young woman from New Zealand was convinced to go to Buenos Aires by Antonio Carvelli, an Italian man who was living in Australia, to sell sex.  Pushing against the tendency to anecdotalize and decontextualize cases of trafficking in the past and present, the book I’m writing is taking a life history approach. Each chapter will trace a major character in the case, from when they are born, until when they die, and insists on seeing them as complex human beings engaged in modes of exploitation and labour within much wider economic and social contexts.  I want to find out what happened to them before and after I encountered them in the archive file in the National Archives in London:  what factors led them to be part of the case in 1910, and what their lives were like afterward.

Antonio Carvelli, after his first arrest in Australia

I would not have been able to write this book ten years ago. When I started my academic career, the desire to know what had happened to the individuals in this case, and where they came from, would not have been enough. This endeavour has only been made possible very recently, with the advent of digitized newspapers and family history materials. It is this that has allowed me to find and contextualize individuals who have left no, or very few ego-documents—indeed, texts of any description—behind. I have been able to digitally scour for pseudonyms hidden in lists of passengers, find names misspelled on marriage certificates, discover the death certificates of people who died long before their time. Character searchable digitized newspapers, available free to access in New Zealand and Australia, and by subscription in Britain, have enabled me to locate surprisingly detailed news stories about my historical actors that never would have been recorded in any periodical index and would have been essentially unfindable before. I can even discover, with the click of a few buttons, what the weather was like on any given day. What was once a virtually impossible search for needles in haystacks has become feasible, with financial support in order to pay for subscriptions, with a little imagination, and with a lot of patience.  And so, many of my ‘archival’ experiences in this research take place from the comfort of my home office, rather than the physical archive. The coffee is cheaper than in Geneva, but the view isn’t quite as exciting.

Carvelli escapes to Hawaii at the start of the First World War

But digital records that provide small pieces of information about individuals, however useful they are, do not replace the more detailed and wide ranging material found in archives. This story began, for me, when I opened MEPO 3/197 at the National Archives in London but my search is leading me to many other files in this and in many other archives. Like Philippa Hetherington and many others who write on the history of trafficking, I have worked in the League of Nations Archive at the UN in Geneva, where the materials related to the Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children, established after the First World War, are held in neatly labelled boxes and files.  They contain vital statistics about trafficking, reports from countries around the world, minutes that document the debates and controversies discussed by the Committee’s members. They are also peppered with tantalizing ephemera:  photographs of pimps, blank prostitute registration forms, sample contracts for dancing girls. Each image, each list of names, makes me reflect on whether it would be possible to trace all these life stories from their beginning to their end. Upon the wall of the archive hangs a map from 1921, showing the spider’s web of steamship routes that took the delegates of the new age of internationalism, as well as the traffickers I am studying, around the world.  This map will form the base for the interactive map and exhibit we are planning as part of this project: it’s the one you see when you arrive on our website.

 My own journey, meanwhile, took me away from the organized and remarkably rich files in Geneva, in a rental car through the Mont Blanc tunnel, to Turin, where Antonio Carvelli, the pimp and trafficking in my case, was born. The material I looked at in the Archivio di Stato in Turin contrasted sharply with the tidy boxes and typed letters created by the international officialdom of anti-trafficking at the League of Nations. Instead, I searched through warped bundles of files on thieves—Carvelli had been arrested for burglary before he got involved in prostitution—and failed to find his name.  At the UN archive, there was too much information to possibly take in. Here, there were only traces.  At last, and with the help of archivist Sylvia Corno, I found one faint mention of Carvelli on a single crumbling sheet of paper: a certificate of good conduct from when he was 18, when he joined the Italian military.

These small stories, often hidden amongst other material in smaller archives, can help connect the international and global picture of trafficking to its local contexts.  The link between the local and the global is something we hope to explore in this research project, as our research network shares their own stories of the big and small histories of trafficking and women’s illicit migration in archives around the world.

2 Replies to “Microhistories of Trafficking: Small Stories and Digital Archives”

  1. Very interesting and exciting.
    And I agree that it’s great having free access to digitized NZ and Aus. newspapers.

    Back in the 1980s a S. African historia called Charles Van Onselen (involved in History Workshoppish doings at Witwatersrand) was trying to trace a particlular international trafficker, I seem to remember.

    1. You are right Anna, and he actually published a book called ‘The Fox and the Flies’. It’s amazing historical detective work, much of it conducted before large scale digitization, but I’m afraid I’m quite critical of it. His portrayal of the women is pretty attrocious–the are called ‘whore wives’ and he claims that their souls were ‘destroyed’ by their experiences of sexual victimization. He also claims that the pimp he is studying was Jack the Ripper, which borders on the preposterous. I was disappointed, because I really admire a lot of his work in SA social history.

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