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.

Trafficking Past featuring Australia

Over the next year, the Trafficking Past team will continue to strengthen our collaboration with a number of Australian Institutions, especially the Laureate Research Programme in International History at the University of Sydney. On 21 August 2017, Philippa will be presenting on ‘Imperial Governmentalities and the Campaign Against the Traffic in Women in the Russian Empire‘ at the University of Sydney History department, and on 18 September she will present ‘Between Moscow, Geneva and Shanghai: The League of Nations’ campaigns against the traffic in Russian women refugees from the Soviet Union‘ at the Gender Institute within the Australian National University. Then, on April 12-13 2018, Julia and Philippa will travel to Australia to co-host the workshop ‘Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives’ with Professor Glenda Sluga of the Laureate Research Programme in International History, University of Sydney.

This latter workshop, which will bring together scholars working on or based in Oceania and the Asia-Pacific region, will ask how our global and international histories of trafficking and illicit migration change if we bring new geographies into the mix, and in doing so open up the geopolitics of our scholarly discussions about intimate labour and illicit migration. At the same time, it will centre questions of scale in our discussions of trafficking, interrogating the analytic distinctions made between the micro/local and the macro/global levels of analysis in histories of trafficking and illicit migration.

More broadly, we hope that our ongoing collaboration with Australian universities will not only help to forge lasting connections between humanities scholars based in the UK and Australia, but will also help us to reframe our ongoing discussions about sex and illicit migration through engagement with a new geographic context. Much of the existing literature on trafficking focuses on the Europe to North/South America nexus, with emergent work also emphasising the Middle East and South Asia. Little scholarship thus far has examined Australia or New Zealand.  The work of Trafficking Past PI, Julia Laite, seeks to address precisely this lacuna, as her forthcoming monograph on trafficking throughout the British Empire (including Oceania) will elaborate. By engaging with Australian scholars and institutions, we hope to internationalise further the field of trafficking history and place the British and Russian genealogies we trace in a truly global perspective.

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.

Upcoming appearances of the Trafficking Past Researchers

While the academic year winds down at both Birkbeck and UCL, the researchers of the Trafficking Past project are speeding up, with a number of upcoming scheduled appearances.

On Friday 2 June 2017, Julia and Philippa will be presenting at a workshop in Long Island, USA, as part of the 17th Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. The workshop is entitled ‘Challenging borders in research on trafficking and women’s migration’, and Julia and Philippa will be joined by affiliates of the Trafficking Past project including Jessica Pliley (Texas), Elisa Camiscioli (Binghamton), Sonja Dolinsek (Erfurt), Tara Suri (Princeton) and others. The workshop will examine the intersections between the history of trafficking and the history of migration (especially women’s migration) more broadly. In doing so it will challenge the ‘special’ status trafficking is often accorded as a phenomenon separated from clandestine migration and labour history.

On 7 June 2017, Julia and Philippa will take part in a special workshop at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies entitled ‘Victims of Human Trafficking: A Multidisciplinary Problematization of a Category.’ This event has been organised by Runa Lazzarino, currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies. The event is open to the public, but attendees are encouraged to register via Eventbrite.

Meanwhile, in August and September 2017, Philippa will be a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Visiting Fellow at the Laureate Research Programme in International History at the University of Sydney. This programme is a Project Partner of the Trafficking Past project, and will also be hosting a workshop for the project, ‘Trafficking History as Global History’, in April 2018.