Long before the days of Terry Deary, storytelling was the oldest form of recording the past. Even before most people were literate, history was passed on through ballads, poems, myths and so forth. As an organised method of research, it has been used since the 5th century BC by Thucydides, one of the fathers of history, to understand the Peloponnesian Wars.
Until the mid-to-late 20th century, written histories took precedence over oral ones. This had to do with the rise of empiricism: written histories treat history like a science, whereas oral histories hinge on the relationship between the historian and the interviewee and focus on individual experience and emotion. The resurgence of oral history in Britain came from historians of folklore and minority groups, such as Scottish Gaelic speakers, the working class, and people from the countryside. These people’s experiences were not general or broad enough to be accommodated into empiricist history. Since then, the Oral History Society was founded in the 1970s. Oral historians continued to investigate ‘history from below,’ such as ethnic minority histories, LGBT histories and women’s histories.
Today, oral histories continue to be used in historical research. Here at Nutkhut, we have been utilising them to understand Indo-Fijian indentured servitude.
“Oral history is about bringing out the individual stories in the emotional side of people’s memories.” states Sarah Lowry, a Nutkhut oral historian. Dr. Maria del Pilar Kaladeen of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies adds, “We need to see [the Girmitiyas] as people, as individuals, not as nameless groups of labourers.” Nutkhut has stated that it has access to a wealth of resources for research and education, from the original documents signed by the Girmitiyas to the 360º Girmit Cardboard movie. However, oral history remains the touchstone of Girmit. Different kinds of archives “[enrich] the whole and bring the whole jigsaw together,” illustrates Iqbal Singh, Regional Community Partnership Manager for The National Archives.
Ultimately, what storytelling is used for is understanding history on a personal and emotional level, in a way that documents cannot provide. Oral history, just as it has done since the beginning, amplifies the voices and stories of those whose voices go unheard – which is why Nutkhut considers it of such importance in understanding Indo-Fijian indentured labour.
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- Cosson, Fiona. “Hidden Histories, Hidden Historians: Toolkit 2: Doing Your Oral History Project.” Manchester Histories. Accessed May 3, 2021. http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/29581/1/HH%20Oral%20History%20Toolkit.pdf.
- Nutkhut UK, “The Making of Girmit.” YouTube. Updated March 11, 2021. Accessed May 4, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-w_QoCPjEcY.
Smith, Graham. “The making of oral history: Sections 1-2.” Making History. Updated 2008. Accessed May 4, 2021, https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/oral_history.html