‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’
Let’s imagine that I go for a walk in Switzerland— in the easternmost part of the state, near the little-known town of Nauders. It’s slightly dark, I’m absent-minded, and in my extended perambulations I also happen to wander into not just Italy but also Lichtenstein. There are no borders marked, or none that I can see in the dark; it’s all under Schengen, and there are no police checks or fences; I’m mostly off-road anyway, and so there are no CCTV cameras to pick me up.
The respective states don’t know that I’ve encroached upon them; I myself don’t know that I’ve ever left Switzerland, and wouldn’t write it down even if I had; and so if one day a historian should set out to record my life, that little episode would quite probably never make it in.
Even if I was a compulsive diarist, and recorded my every move, and even if I made that same absent-minded walk, following the same route, every day for sixty years, the border-crossing nature of my walking career would never be placed by the historian into a narrative. There would be no evidence of it.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the real topic. In the example above, there is still, I suppose, a chance that somebody’s dashboard-cam, or amateur drone footage, or whatever else it might be might pick me up, leaving a trace. But that’s the 21st century. Transpose such movements back into the early 20th, let alone the 19th, and the disturbances left by them become far fewer. The state doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, and neither does the individual.
Let’s say, to add another layer of difficulty for the historian to a nut already difficult to crack, that the individual or individuals making such a journey are actively seeking to avoid being observed; and that moreover, rather than moving between Switzerland and Italy, historically well-regulated borders, they’re instead moving between, let us say, various decolonised nations in central Africa.
It’s my intention to write my project on human trafficking –the necessary conditions; the lived experiences of those involved; responses to it— in the early-to-mid-20th century. I had always expected this to be a somewhat difficult pool in which to fish, to invoke EH Carr. Patricia Clavin posits a vision of the world as a great hexagoned honey-comb, in which various actors are operating in the spaces in between the hexagons. Those who operate there, it turns out, frequently do so for a reason: they wish to remain undetected, and those who could seek to detect them are either unable to or do not desire to (bribery; incompetence; systemic apathy). The crowd goes mild. What a surprise.
That presents quite a conundrum to the historian. How do you historicise something deliberately unremarked at the time that it took place?- especially when it occurred in multiple locations, each of them with little interest in making records? With innovation- that’ll have to be the answer. It’s going to be a challenge, and it’ll require an approach that does more than the simple perusal of secondary works: this will have to be a project that dives into primary sources wholesale, and sources of a wide and varied nature.