Unsilencing the Dutch East India Company Testaments at the Dutch National Archives

Mrinalini Luthra, CREATE pre-PhD fellow, and Charles Jeurgens, professor of Archival Studies, department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam

Project Description

[@mluthra perhaps you can add a short 1-2 sentences on the context: that you are working on the Digital Methods project (aim…) and that this was one of the sub-projects you worked on, explaining the course and the collaborators? And can you suggest 1 or more illustrations?]

The Dutch National Archives have large collections of archival material in custody which are classified as colonial because these documents originated in the context of colonial rule and are the administrative output of colonial state agencies and colonizing activities from the 17th to the 20th century. In the current debate, archival institutions are being challenged to rethink (decolonize) how to engage with these archives and how these archives are made accessible and interpretable. In that context the National Archives wants to de-silence what has been silenced in archival processes. The Dutch East India Company offered jobs to thousands of people as sailors, soldiers and servants working in the trading posts. Since there was always a risk that people would die while serving the VOC, many officials went to one of the VOC-notaries in Batavia, Cape of Good Hope or other places to notarize their will. Copies of these wills were sent to the headquarters of the Company in Amsterdam. Nowadays, these wills are important sources providing insights into the private lives of common people.

Recently, the Dutch National Archives made available online an index with names of more than 10,000 testators and digitized the corresponding handwritten documents (in Dutch: Oost-Indische Testamenten). The index of names was made by archivists in the nineteenth century. Although husband and wife frequently went together to the notary to draw up a will, and in spite of the fact that in such cases both names—husband and wife—are equally mentioned in the testaments, the nineteenth century index only refers to the male testator. The nineteenth century view of male dominance and obfuscation of female presence in the archival infrastructure is preserved and continued in the twenty-first century search infrastructure. Examining the notarial deeds even more carefully, it appears that in many instances not only the names of husband and wife, but also the names of local, indigenous people (men and women) in many different roles are mentioned, such as beneficiary, housemate, creditor, debtor or enslaved property. Although their voices were recorded, a nineteenth century archival world view, materialized in the compiled index, not only obscured women, but also indigenous people. The real problem in the context of our discussion is the perpetuation of this nineteenth century archival worldview in a new, revitalized digital archival infrastructure: it renders women and indigenous people invisible. 

Recently, the technical accessibility of these wills has improved. With the use of Tranksribus’ HTR tool (Handwritten Text Recognition) these texts have automatically been transcribed and made machine-readable (with a certain margin of error). Such developments offer new possibilities to investigate the extent to which non-indexed persons can be made visible with the help of artificial intelligence. We are particularly interested in giving a voice to the marginalized, silenced indigenous population.  In this project, we will work with these transcribed documents to explore ways to extract names of all people present in these testaments using artificial intelligence –– such as methods in natural language processing (NLP). Beginning with a close reading of these VOC testaments, we will understand the caveats of these documents and its silences — both in the indexing as well as in its creation. With that knowledge we will determine which existing artificial intelligence methods to apply to extract all names of people mentioned in these documents to create a new and broader index that includes voices of all men, women and indigenous people. Furthermore, we will strategize ways to unsilence other aspects of the archive, for example those who are perhaps mentioned without name.

The aim of the project is to draw up a proof of concept for the Dutch National Archives to unsilence the VOC testaments through reindexing by the methodology we develop. Moreover, we shall explore the affordances offered by artificial intelligence and computational technologies in archival studies.