In a previous post I wrote about the way in which knowledge of important facts about what goes on in the confused conditions of war and occupation sometimes depends on just one document:
In today’s post I want to say a little more about documents and the pitfalls in interpreting them.
Actually the first case also depends on just one document – a Stanley Camp diary – although it’s possible I might have guessed the truth eventually even without it as there is a conflict of evidence that the diary neatly resolves.
My father was kept out of Stanley in 1942 and early 1943 to bake bread for the hospitals. During that period he married my mother – part of their wedding photo can be seen at the top of this page, and the full portfolio is here:
I have naturally always been interested in the date and circumstances of their despatch to Stanley, and for a long time the date at least didn’t seem a mystery. In my father’s archive is this typewritten letter announcing to his family that they’ve finally been interned:
True, no date is given for that event, but it must have been before (or in the early part of) April 30. But when I learnt more about events around that time, a problem emerged: I had assumed my parents were sent to Stanley along with a number of others recorded to have been consigned there after the arrest of Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, who had been allowed to stay uninterned to organise public health work and who was effectively my father’s boss. But that was on the May 2 a few days after the latest possible date of his arrival in Stanley as established by clear documentary evidence! So I devised a plausible enough theory: the Japanese prepared for the arrest of Selwyn-Clarke (and a number of others) by getting a few ‘small fry’ like my parents, who they didn’t suspect of any illegal activity, out of the way.
But then the truth was revealed. The holders of the diary of internee George Gerrard kindly transcribed it and put it online for members of the Yahoo Stanley Camp Discussion Group. Gerrard stated that early in May the Japanese authorities agreed that internees could send off one letter back-dated to April 30 and then another at the end of month. This small act of kindness was responsible for misleading me as May 7 was obviously in time for him to get to a typewriter and send off that letter to is parents with the ‘wrong’ date! Since then I’ve noted a lot of cards and letters from April 30, which, like my parents’, were in fact composed sometime in the first ten or so days of May.
So my parents went into Stanley with others from the French Hospital on May 7 – the ‘others’ arrival in camp was established by multiple sources and now I knew that my parents were almost certainly with them. No doubt they all felt huge relief at being safe for a time at least from the attentions of the Kempeitai – although one of those ‘others’, Dr. George Graham-Cumming, recalls, that they were sent off to the accompaniment of ‘We know where to find you…’ which was both obviously true and extremely disturbing, as brutal investigations of Selwyn-Clarke, Dr. Bunje and dozens of other suspected of being part of a British spy ring were currently taking place.
So that was when they went in to Stanley, but who exactly were the ‘others’ with them?
A couple of diaries stipulate that 18 people arrived on May 7, so I set about creating a list based on partial information in these diaries and known inhabitants of Bungalow ‘D’, where my parents, Selwyn-Clarke’s wife and daughter and other former inhabitants of the French Hospital are known to have ended up.
I was delighted to find an authoritative list in the Red Cross Archives in Geneva:
Amongst many services performed by Rudolf Zindel, we can include meticulous and careful record keeping. My own names were about 80% correct, but Zindel’s list surprised me in a number of ways.
I had thought, for example, that my parents’ best man, Owen Evans – the tall man standing behind my mother in the wedding photo – had gone into Stanley some time in September or October 1942. There were three pieces of evidence that led me to that conclusion: the claim in a secondary source that he spent about nine months uninterned, the statement by an Irish doctor that just before his escape from Hong Kong (that began on October 25, 1942) Selwyn-Clarke had somehow had Evans’s Red Cross status removed (something the doctor thought was appalling because he was doing a lot of good), and finally the absence of his name from a list of those living in the French Hospital drawn up by the BAAG in November or December 1942. Good enough reason for a preliminary conclusion, but there is no doubt that Zindel was correct, so the evidence I referred to has to be interpreted with this in mind.
But the real lesson is this: the mistakes in my list were caused by the fact that I was working with the clear statement in the diaries that 18 people came into Stanley on May 7 – and in fact that was wrong!
Well, ‘wrong’ might not be quite the word I’m looking for.
I have no excuse for not realising that – in the vocabulary and conventions of the time – 18 people meant 18 adults! I didn’t know about young Ian Mackie anyway, but I had assumed that a six -year-old like Mary Selwyn-Clarke would be considered one of the 18, and the fact that she wasn’t threw off all my calculations. Having been through the ideological revolutions of the sixties and seventies, if I had to sum the matter up with a bald statement I would say that 20 people were sent from the French Hospital to Stanley on that day. If given a little more space I would state, reflecting the culture of liberal Europe in 2016, that 18 adults, a child and a baby entered camp – and who knows how that kind of taxonomy will look in the future? In any case, I have long since abandoned the idea that our current sensitivity to the way we write about children reflects any moral superiority in myself and my generation or any improvement in the way children are treated! But that disillusion is another story altogether.
Happily the Red Cross archives have freed me from my misconception and I now have a definitive list of those who sat alongside my parents in what was probably an open truck ride down the Colony’s decaying roads to the southern peninsula. And a valuable lesson in the need for eternal vigilance in the struggle to understand documents in the context of the ideas and vocabularies of the era that produced them. This is never harder when that period is almost our own.