Feature Archive

Feature Archive: The ANOM in Aix-en-Provence

In this month’s Feature Archive, Dr Arthur Asseraf (All Souls, Oxford), who works on foreign news in colonial Algeria in 1881-1940, discusses the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence. 

The Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (ANOM, formerly known as CAOM) is the repository for the archives of the French state’s activities in its overseas possessions.  It is an incredibly rich collection which is usually deservedly busy, given that it contains everything from records of slave sales in 18th century Guadeloupe to police reports on 1930s Indochina. The archive is thus not only essential for most research involving individual territories in the French colonial empire, but also allows researchers to look at documents from various territories in the same place, so you could potentially order a box on West Africa in the morning and one on Madagascar in the afternoon.

The archive combines records produced in Paris by ministries in charge of overseas territories (the Ministry of Colonies, and for Algeria, a sub-section of the Ministry of Interior) as well as records from local territorial administration. The depth of the collection depends on the institutional status of the territory and how much of the archives were transferred to France at the time of independence. Thus the richest collection concerns Algeria, as the ANOM contains the archives not only of the former Government-General of Algeria (GGA), but also of many lower levels of local Algerian administration, allowing researchers to range down to the level of the préfecture, sous-préfecture and sometimes municipality within the same archive. By contrast, for West Africa (AOF) or Indochina, many more documents were left by French authorities in Dakar or Hanoï, which makes collections in Aix still important but less essential. Formally, the so-called archives de souveraineté dealing with high-level politics were taken back to France, and the so-called archives de gouvernement to do with day-to-day matters and things like infrastructure, health or eaux et forêts were left in the respective territories – in practice, however, the division is often haphazard.

Beyond these administrative records, the archive also contains private papers of many explorers and colonial administrators. It also contains the library of the former École Coloniale, which alone would be worth a research trip for its very valuable collection of both old and new published books on the colonial empire (a pro-tip is that the quota of library books you can order per day is higher than that of archival boxes, so if you’ve bust your quota or archives or are waiting for the next levée, ordering books is a good way to maximise your research time).

The archive is located next to the campus of the Aix-Marseille Faculté des Lettres, which in a peripheral area south of the centre of Aix – the location is thus not ideal in terms of transport. There are two main options in terms of getting there: staying in the centre of Aix and walking a good 25-30 minutes down from the Rotonde, or getting a short 10-minute bus ride on line 7 or 8 to the Schuman stop. Another option is to stay in Marseille (which is usually considerably cheaper), and to get the bus navette from the Gare Saint-Charles. This is more practical than it might initially seem, because the navette leaves every 5 minutes during rush hour and drops you off at the Poudrière stop which is just across from the ANOM, the total journey usually lasting around 35-45 minutes depending on traffic. There is no cafeteria within the archive, only a coffee and snack machine. The picnic tables outside, thanks to Aix’s clement weather, are usually a congenial spot for meeting fellow researchers for a lunch break, and a number of neighbouring restaurants and supermarkets offer cheap meals for students (though beware to those using the archive in August – because the university is on holiday the area is completely deserted).

The area also contains many other resources: in Marseille lie the archives of the Chambre du Commerce de Marseille which are essential for any study of colonial trade and shipping. The departmental archives of the Bouches-du-Rhône, both in Aix and Marseille, also offer many research opportunities, as well as the Bibliothèque Méjanes, and for those working on Algeria, the unofficial archive of the pied-noir community is housed at the Centre de Documentation Historique sur l’Algérie (CDHA).

Arthur Asseraf is a historian of modern North Africa, France and the Western Mediterranean, focusing on the circulation of information within this space. He is particularly interested in histories of news and media, and how these interact with the creation of racialised communities. Dr Asseraf is currently Examination Fellow in History at All Souls College, Oxford and from October 2017 will be University Lecturer in the History of France and the Francophone World since 1800 at the University of Cambridge.

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