Empire & Decolonisation

Imperial History Now

Many of the demands in recent years to “decolonize” curricula have emerged as questions of diversification of course reading lists. But calls to decolonize curricula are more than a matter of addition, subtraction, or replacement of authors and texts. Instead, they are calls to address the relationship between the forms of knowledge we value in the classroom and the inequities and violence that exist on our campuses and in the world.

Historians of empire bring important methodological tools to these conversations. For over thirty years, “New” Imperial History has sought to bring metropole and colony into a unified field of study, to upset the certainties of the nation-state, to integrate multidisciplinary approaches to the study of the past, and to show the importance of race and gender to the distribution of rights and resources under empire. Imperial history can present important insights into the ways power operated in multiple domains and various spatial configurations, but it continues to be centered on the impact of empire in Britain and the actions and motives of imperialists, whether colonial officials, or the broad range of Britons who went out into the world as merchants, missionaries, and humanitarians. What might imperial history look like if it included the experiences and perspectives of colonial subjects?

Colonial Students in Great Britain. Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202357

This is not simply a question to ask of scholars, but in one of the key sites of dissemination and legitimation of scholarship—the classroom. Our students are a public, and our syllabuses present not only a body of knowledge, but an argument that is at once historical, historiographical, and political. Any syllabus is a settlement of tradeoffs, choices to focus on some topics, themes, places, and actors over others. At Reed College, in Portland, OR, I can offer history courses without the constraints of onerous department requirements or the need to teach pre-existing modules. I have the opportunity to craft narratives of the imperial past that are in dialogue with our present moment, and importantly for me, make colonial subjects, their experiences and political demands, central to the history of empire.

To bring colonial subjects into imperial history first requires interrogating and collapsing the boundaries between imperial history and area studies. Last semester, in a course called, “Defining and Defying Difference: Race, Ethnicity, and Empire,” I worked with 25 students in two seminars to examine how imperial power operated through categories of human difference.  Alongside now canonical works of “New” Imperial History like Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects, I assigned books that might be consigned to “area studies” fields. Doing so brought disparate parts of the empire into proximity. We compared Bengal and Jamaica in terms of gendered experience and the consolidation of colonial authority, while contrasting the difference made by slavery in the formation of colonial society. We also talked about connected histories of empire through the ways “White Men’s Countries” emerged in the late nineteenth century. And throughout the semester, particularly through works by feminist scholars like Durba Ghosh and Sasha Turner, we discussed the nature of colonial archives and the constrained forms of agency colonial subjects possessed as they at times navigated, survived, upheld, and contested empire.

I developed my courses out of my graduate training and research interests, but for my students, their main entry point is the racial politics of the contemporary United States. They have little previous knowledge of the British Empire, or of political forms other than the nation-state, but they are extraordinarily curious and hard-working. Because my students come from across the college, we began with broad overviews and theoretical readings, which give students tools to analyze race and racism historically. We focused on the centrality of managing difference to imperial rule and the processes by which racial hierarchies have been produced, maintained, and transformed.

Violence in its multiple forms was central to our discussions. If you put feminist historians of colonialism and slavery on your syllabus, child rape might come up in multiple weeks of the semester, because this history of violence is also the history of the British Empire. These conversations take their toll. Often, before class began, we shared the pop culture that helped us return to distressing and difficult material. The Great British Bake Off is very popular with Reed students.

I assigned the readings, but I offered students the opportunity to choose the topics for their three papers. In addition to a book review, students analyzed a contemporary news story through the lens of imperial history, bringing the work they did in the classroom to bear on a topic that was relevant to them. Students wrote insightful essays on the Windrush Scandal, Brexit, the repatriation of British Museum objects, the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, and John Chau’s death on North Sentinel Island. For their final research papers, some of the questions students asked include: how did representation of Chinese civilization impact British diplomacy in the era before the Opium Wars? How did personification of North America as an indigenous woman in British caricatures contribute to settler colonial accounts of the availability of land and enable violence against indigenous women? How did ideas about the criminality of certain groups in the Sulu Sea produce anti-piracy campaigns and the expansion of British commercial interests in South East Asia? What role did martyrdom play in missionary narratives concerning the inability of the formerly enslaved to become democratic subjects? How did Teddy Boys become scapegoated to uphold the mystique of British anti-racism? I could not have anticipated any of these topics when I first met my students at the beginning of the semester. And yet, they all arose from questions my students brought with them to the classroom, which were honed by their engagement with the course material.

It is hard to talk about race and racism in a diverse classroom because for many of the bodies in the room, racism is not a theoretical proposition or a relic of the past, it is an everyday reality. And for others, it is only an intellectual problem to figure out. Like many other groups within and without higher education, my classes struggled to build a shared conversation. The course pushed me as a scholar and educator as it required me to work with their discomfort, to embrace and support their varied research interests, and to evaluate the forms of care needed in the classroom.

But our responsibilities towards our students are the first and most urgent challenge to be faced, if we are committed to a project of decolonization that goes beyond simply bringing people of diverse backgrounds into the same classroom, academic department, professional association, or publication. One part of changing history courses requires shifting our conception of the audience for whom we teach, but another part requires letting go of the certainties of a stable intellectual formation to move toward something yet undefined.

My course focused on the contested nature of race and racism and the centrality of human difference to imperial rule. Doing so allowed students to see the contingencies of racial formation, but also the possibility of imagining a world beyond the racial hierarchies of empire. Decolonizing the curriculum is not an end, but the beginning of a longer process of transformation.

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