Finding a Toxic History in the Archives

Scroll this

This post introduces Alex Souchen’s recently published Rethinking History article, “Missing from the record: historians, archival research and underwater munitions.”

A few years ago, I attended a workshop on marine science and underwater munitions, organized in Halifax with funding from a NATO Science for Peace and Security research cluster. The goal of the workshop was to help train the next generation of scientists studying the environmental and human health impacts of conventional and chemical weapons dumped at sea in the 20th century. These relic munitions are now a major concern because they disperse toxic chemicals into marine environments and pose energetic dangers to the offshore economy.

The scientists I met – established experts, experienced PhDs, and new graduate students – were a welcoming, friendly, and brilliant group of people. Most were from Europe, but everyone was eager to expand their knowledge and experience in the field. For me, though, the workshop was a whirlwind initiation: I was a freshly-minted history PhD and complete outsider to the scientific community. I remember siting there, on Day 1 of the course, thoroughly confused by lectures on toxicology and environmental science, and realizing that there was so much about the problem I didn’t understand: What is a benthic zone? Do ocean currents really need that much math? And is lipophilicity spelt with an “f” or “ph”? I was firmly out of my element.

On the second or third day, the instructors divided the group into clusters to better mimic the flow of information in real-world research projects. It was a good idea: they put all the biologists with biologists, oceanographers with oceanographers, toxicologists with toxicologists, and so on, to better divide the workload and capitalize on teamwork and expertise. However, there were a handful of participants – myself included – who didn’t fit in, so the instructors put us all together in an eclectic group they called “historical background.”

With the class divided into groups, everyone pulled out their computers, calculators, and scrap paper to begin analyzing the sonar surveys, oceanographic data, maps, and whatever else was available from our earlier voyage into the Bedford Basin.1 The surge of activity and purpose from our fellow participants prompted us “backgrounders” to exchange looks and nods: “ok, let’s get started too.” But then came the awkward realization that we had no idea what we were supposed to do. The answer, as it turned out, was not much.

The Bedford Magazine Explosion at night
Figure 2. The Bedford Magazine Explosion at night. Credit: J.C.M Hayward, Nova Scotia Archives, Accession No. 1981-517, 18 July 1945.

The organizers hadn’t prepared any historical resources for us. We had no documents or photographs from the Bedford Depot to analyze for bomb calibers and types; nor were any sources provided about the disastrous explosion there in July 1945 – an event often called the “other” Halifax Explosion. This meant that we couldn’t compile an inventory of potential pollutants and hazards that had ended up in the Bedford Basin – either because of the blast or dumped by bomb techs during the cleanup. We had no starting points to help the other groups complete their tasks. Instead, the paperwork that contained some of the information we needed was located in Ottawa, hundreds of kilometres away.

Looking back on it now, the timing was unfortunate. I was the only historian there, but I had just started researching underwater munitions and had few sources to share. The bulk of my document collection and analysis happened after the workshop and, as things turned out, I was years away from publishing the results. However, the experience made me realize something important about the field of underwater munitions: to my new scientist colleagues, historical research was probably as mysterious and confusing as the science was to me.

It dawned on me that they didn’t know how to properly train and support historians. And so, after the workshop, I endeavoured to adjust part of my future publication strategy to resolve that issue: I decided to write some advice literature about historical research methods and underwater munitions. This slight shift in focus, however, meant that I couldn’t stay stuck in the past, writing exclusively about historical events and contexts. Instead, I had to write for the here and now, speaking to audiences that don’t conduct historical research to understand the past on its own terms.

I figured I could make a meaningful contribution if I accomplished at least three things. First, I had to get back to the basics and explain what historians actually do in the archives, which I did in a short article, in Marine Pollution Bulletin, on a planned dumping operation that never happened in 1921. Second, I had to research more about the history of scientific investigations into the dilution of explosives and chemical weapons to show how past generations of scientists contributed to dumping policies and operations. That article was just published in Environmental History and introduced in an earlier post on NiCHE.

Third, I had to research more about the concept of archival grains to better understand the variety of factors and actors that shaped the structure of documentation on underwater munitions. In effect, I sought answers to the following questions: Why were some records created at the time and not others? Why do some collections survive intact, while others have large gaps? And how can we find toxic histories in the archives of the state, when so many disincentives exist to keep diligent records about them? My attempt at deciphering the provenance and preservation of archival records on a toxic subject – underwater munitions – was just published in Rethinking History. I hope you enjoy it!


1 If anyone has recommendations for a good environmental history of Halifax and the Bedford Basin, I would love to hear from you: @AlexSouchen.

The following two tabs change content below.
Alex Souchen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph. He is the author of War Junk: Munitions Disposal and Postwar Reconstruction in Canada (UBC Press, 2020).

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.