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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  1. Dear Emma,

    Just seen read your blog on the Powell Cotton sisters.

    I am wondering if you saw my Research MA undertaken at the Powell Cotton Museum (with the permission of Christopher Powell Cotton) on the ethnographies, collections, diaries, and correspondence of Diana and Antoinette Powell Cotton in reference to their fieldtrips in Angola 1936 and 1937? (University of Kent 2008), or Gwyneth Davies ‘Efundula’ MA and PhD ‘The Medical Culture of the Ovambo’, University of Kent and Jessica Einhorn ‘Kwanyama Efundula.’ Just to say that we have all worked on the diaries and transcribed them in some form or another in the process of our research. I also catalogued their work, and field notes (including 1937), at the museum itself, as up to then it hadn’t been done. So I don’t understand your ‘first time’ claim?

    Yours sincerely
    Louise Legrand

    1. Dear Louise,
      Thanks for getting in touch. Emma, who worked on the project as an undergraduate Junior Research Assistant, has now graduated and moved on to other things. I am the Post-Doctoral research fellow working on the project, I hope you are happy for me to respond instead.

      The claim to ‘photograph and transcribe’ for the first time relates specifically to the section of diary available on our website. Although there are multiple typed copies of some of the diaries in the archive, we could find no transcript of the final section of Diana’s diary from 1937. We were aware that other researchers had used it but could find no evidence of it having been transcribed. We believe the diaries are a very important historical source. Our aim in photographing and transcribing, this previously hard to access aspect of the archive, was to make it more useful to both the museum staff and external researchers. We are delighted, for example, that staff from the Museum’s Association of Namibia have been able to make use of Emma’s work in their own research.

      Thank you for highlighting your own work with the collection. We are very interested in the history of the archive and how it has been used. We have been in touch with some curators and researchers who worked with the collection in the past. We were in the process of arranging for Gwyneth to visit the museum and tell us more about her work in March last year but COVID intervened. One of the problems we and the current museum staff have is that records of previous work have not always been passed on effectively. I would be very interested to hear more about your cataloguing work as we are keen to piece together how the archive came to be in its current form.

      Thanks again for getting in touch.

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