I am currently in the process of reviewing Emma Robertson’s Chocolate, women and empire for the Women’s History Review, and am very much enjoying it. Though you’ll have to wait on WHR for the official review, something that occurred to me while I was reading the introduction was how much I liked the personal dimension of Robertson’s individual interaction with the history.
Inspired by her own familial and childhood connections with the Rowntree factory in York (where various members of her family worked, and whose local connections impacted institutionally on much of her childhood – her school, the theatre, the pool, the park), Robertson decided to delve into a local story that turned out to be saturated with global and imperial significance – perfect fodder for the thesis it was, and the book it turned into.
What I like about Robertson’s approach, I think, is its lightness of touch. This isn’t a biography, but an acknowledgement of, and confrontation with, personal connection. Indeed, the sense she gives of personal confrontation with York’s, and thus her family’s, imperial past is probably what I found the most interesting. Reflecting upon the difficulties thrown up by a project that started as a local history connected to York, and became one connected also to the ‘numerous cocoa-producing villages and towns of Nigeria’, about which she knew little, Robertson reflected that
this lack of knowledge, of connection, was also at the heart of my project. I wanted to confront the disconnection of women in York and Nigeria whose lives have in fact long been intertwined through the economics and politics of cocoa. Crossing the borders between countries, and between disciplines, enabled me to disturb and analyse the boundaries between women, including those between myself, my interviewees and those who assisted me in my research (p. 8).
Indeed, later in the book Robertson reflects that in (re)producing Nigerian women’s narratives of their history of cocoa production, she has
had to come to terms with my location in the unequal relationship between York and Nigeria, and with the possibility that the nature of my research may only reproduce such inequalities. Indeed, the very process of this research has in a strange way mirrored the production of chocolate from raw material to finished good (pp. 124-5).
While she (rightly, I think) concludes that this should not ‘result in a “retreat” from writing about “other” women’ (p. 125), I found this thought intriguing indeed. Something I (and I know others) have pondered in the past is how justifiable it is to utilise people’s personal, emotional and sometimes tragic histories, thoughts, words and experiences for the sake of history writing. As Clare Anderson has recently noted of the contributors to her special issue on the Indian Ocean in the Journal of Social History (42:2 (2011), 335-344) ‘we remain acutely aware of the difficulties of our commitment to speaking for men and women long since dead – and of revealing intimate details of hope and despair, birth and blood, sex and sickness, and death’ (p. 339). Delving into people’s journals, diaries and private correspondence – is that justifiable for the sake of historical understanding? I have, of course, implicitly concluded that it is (otherwise I wouldn’t have a career, or any publications!). But whether that has been an ethical decision, or a self-serving one, is probably something else entirely…
– Emily Manktelow