colonial office

February 13, 1917 - Mata Hari Arrested in Paris 

Pictured - Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, aka the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Mata Hari was a Parisian sensation at the beginning of the 20th century. Born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, she married a colonial officer and moved to the Dutch East Indies. The marriage soon crumbled, however, and to make ends meet she became an exotic dancer, using the Malay moniker Mata Hari. She returned to Paris in 1905, where she became a mysterious, alluring Belle Epoque star.

When the war began, Mata Hari went back to the Netherlands, hoping to renew her dancing career. There, she was contacted by a member of German Intelligence, who paid her 20,000 francs to act as a German agent. Beyond accepting the money, however, she did nothing. 

Returning to Paris, she drew a flock of courtiers. Her many suspected love affairs with a diverse collection of officers and important people gave her excellent potential to gather information. French Counterintelligence now approached her, and offered her 1 millions francs to provide anything she learned to them. In the meantime, she fell in love with a Russian officer in France.

The French Counterintelligence chief, however, had no intention of paying Mata Hari anything - they suspected she was working for the Germans. When her Russian was wounded, the French military refused to allow her to see him unless she provided them with intelligence. Trying to get the money, Mata Hari clumsily approached a German military attaché in Spain for secrets, but he recognized her attempt and deliberately sent a message to be picked up by the French that framed her as a German agent. When Mata Hari returned to Paris on February 13, 1917, she was arrested and charged with espionage.
Gaiutra Bahadur: 'How could I write about women whose existence is barely acknowledged?'
The author of Coolie Woman explains how research into the life of her own great-grandmother exposed a hidden history of exploitation

“History had left these women voiceless. The existing archives that document indenture contain biases and elisions. I found a rich paper trail in India Office and Colonial Office records in London: statistical reports and diaries by captains and surgeons aboard the ships that transported the indentured; transcripts of inquiries into uprisings on the plantations; confidential dossiers on overseers who slept with Indian women. These documents allowed me, partially, to reconstruct the texture of the women’s lives.

But what the archive didn’t do, and could not do, was reveal their thoughts or their feelings: indentured women appear in the records only when something goes awry, in moments of tragedy or scandal. They are only described by others, by the various white men who held power over them; the ships’ surgeons and captains, planters and overseers, immigration agents and magistrates. I could read the women only through the often sexist, racist eyes of government and plantation officials who had vested interests – economic, careerist, sexual – in telling the story from their own perspectives. Since indentured women were, for the most part, illiterate, they didn’t leave behind written traces of themselves. Just as there isn’t a single existing narrative from a woman or girl who survived the Middle Passage, the rare first-person accounts of indenture – there are three – are all by men. The stealing of the voices of indentured women, born into the wrong class, race and gender to write themselves into history, was structural.” - Gaiutra Bahadur

I’m reading my students responses to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial, and it’s stunning to me how quickly readers seem prepared to accept the absurdity of accusation in criminal justice. Kafka really had a knack for illustrating how quickly we submit to social order. We give over quite a bit in our social contract to the justice system. Clearly, Kafka was working out several issues to do with alienation and control. Mainly, we’re left with a difficulty. It’s difficult for an accused to be innocent of that which they are accused. Kafka works out the notion of feeling justice within the grotesque violence of “In the Penal Colony” where an officer tells a visitor that it would be pointless to inform the accused of that which they are accused because through their punishment they will come to feel it. It’s a brilliant reduction of criminal punishment. K, in The Trial, refuses to use his social status and social network to indefinitely protract his case, as he’s been advised to do, because he insists on his innocence. K dies like a dog because he’s innocent, because he insists he’s been slandered. I’m reflecting a lot lately on the millions of people in prisons, most of whom are there because criminal justice insists constant reflection on guilt will somehow rehabilitate the guilty, which is utterly absurd. Criminal justice insists one is guilty having been sentenced. There’s literally NOTHING upon which to reflect.