Reconsidering the Narrative: Diana Powell-Cotton’s 1937 diary

In this blog Emma Watson discusses her project ‘Moments of exchange in colonial collections: the 1937 Diana Powell-Cotton Angola diaries and their legacy’, funded by the University of Sussex Junior Research Associate Scheme. Emma is currently studying a BA in English and Art History at the University of Sussex.

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s rich archive of primary sources provides the opportunity for unique and continued research into the provenance of their collection. Diana Powell-Cotton’s 1937 diary documenting her trip to Angola with her sister Antoinette is an invaluable primary source that contextualises both the Powell-Cotton collection and their type of collecting. It is an insight into the mindset of the sisters, accounting for their political, moral and ethical beliefs, and providing a purpose and intent for the trip. The final section of the diary, which prior to this project had not been transcribed, offers two pivotal examples which bring to the fore the complexities of not only the mindset which framed the trip but of the acquisition of the 1937 collection itself. 

The two moments in the diary which are documented in the most detail are the Efundula ceremony in Owangwe, and a trip to the mines during which the smelting of iron took place for the making of hoe blades. Whilst the accounts for these events are rich in detail, it is the circumstances under which they occurred that needs to be questioned. In the instance of the Efundula, there is a bank of written evidence that reveals that the sisters forced the Efundula ceremony. By ensuring that it took place before it was set to take place in the Owangwe community, various material elements of the ceremony were rushed or ‘improvised’, altering the integrity of this significant cultural event. Paying a similar disregard to the socio-cultural structures and order of life in Angolan communities, the trip to the mines was in direct defiance of the Evale chief who had ordered that ‘no forgers where to leave for the mines until after the feast at Onjiva’. The sisters disregard for this order is demonstrative not only of their attitude towards Angolan culture and political order but also of their absolute desire to record and document specific cultural events. 

The language throughout the diary emphasises that the anthropological mindset which provoked the trip was one which sought to ‘salvage’ an Angolan culture which was being ‘spoilt’ by colonial presence. The irony of such an attitude is accounted for in the sisters’ disregard for the very structures of the culture which they sought to document in a “preserved” and “natural” state. When considered in the wider context of salvage anthropology, these two deeply problematic moments shed light on not only the selectivity of Diana and Antoinette’s ethnographic recordings but also of the deep-rooted colonial power at hand. This power assumed dominance over the cultural practice of non-Western communities, detrimentally impacting not only the way these events were represented, which in turn influenced “knowledge” production, but also more importantly posing serious social and political risks for the members of the communities who were involved. 

During the course of my project the final section of the 1937 Angolan diary has been photographed and transcribed for the first time. In due course, these materials will be published in the Making African Connections Digital Archive. For contemporary research this diary is of great significance, contributing to an understanding of the context of the Powell-Cotton sisters 1937 trip. Reading the diary for both what is and what isn’t there will provide a framework for venturing into the discovery of new narratives. In doing this the voices of Angolan communities that have previously been silenced can be accounted for. 

Emma Watson, Junior Research Associate, University of Sussex

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