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Imperialism

European history and ‘eurocentrism’ – a conversation between Dina Gusejnova (LSE) and Charles West (Sheffield)

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Over the past few weeks, Dina Gusejnova and Charles West have been discussing over email what ‘Eurocentrism’ means for historians studying and teaching European history. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

CW:
There’s lots of conversations going on at the moment about ‘eurocentrism’, and how it relates to the study and teaching of European history, both in schools and in universities (see for instance the project Why Europe, Which Europe?). I take eurocentrism to mean the conceptual privileging of Europe over the rest of the world, as if this part of the world’s history were intrinsically more important than anywhere else’s, and can serve as a universal benchmark for measuring progress.

But it’s increasingly common to hear people saying ‘eurocentric’ when they just mean ‘focusing on the geographical region of Europe’. This seems to me to be an unhelpful slippage. Studying the history of the geographical region of Europe is not in itself eurocentric. It depends how you do it. This might be a point that hardly needs to be made, but still: there are lots of good, non-eurocentric reasons to study, and ways of studying, European history.

And that’s all the more self-evident for people living in Europe. Place matters in history writing, because the world necessarily looks different depending on where one looks at it from: none of us has a God’s eye view of the world, and we need to remember our own positionality. So I see it as neither surprising nor intrinsically problematic if European history features more strongly in European countries’ school and university curricula than elsewhere, for example in India or Kenya or the United States (though of course other geographies and scales of history are and must be studied and taught in Europe too, for all kinds of important reasons: indeed I’ve contributed to this in a small way myself). I wondered what you thought about this as an historian of modern Europe?

DG:
First I’d like to say it’s really great to be able to return to a subject which, I recall, we last talked about on a work trip to India. The purpose of this trip was to foster institutional connections with universities in India, which provided a relevant context for the discussion.

Colloquially, overcoming ‘eurocentrism’ often means reducing the study of European history as such. The use of the term is often linked to demands for decolonisation, but in some sense, all historians need to think self-critically about their practice, whether they are historians of Europe or any other part of the world.

If the critique of eurocentrism has any constructive meaning for historical research and teaching, it is as a critique of a certain petrified view of modernity. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in Provincializing Europe in 2000, eurocentrism is a philosophy of history which ‘goes to the heart of the question of political modernity in non-Western societies’ by imposing a ‘“first in Europe, then elsewhere”’ mode of thinking about historical time. This mode of thinking was pernicious not only because it placed Europe at the centre, but also because it affected approaches to the non-western world, where those under its spell were prone to ‘replacing “Europe” by some locally constructed center.’ Histories of modern political economy have always been linked to the study of the moral sciences, looking at issues such as agency, complicity, and the eternal question of who benefits. Depending on the epoch of study, ‘European hegemony’ emerged through the expansion of a limited set of European powers and transnational actors, including the Catholic Church or such corporations as the Jesuits, business ventures like the East India Company, the Hanseatic League, etc.. It could also be seen as a product of the globalisation of the trade in people and commodities, the exploitation of labour and many other dimensions of the story. It is worth pointing out that Europeans were neither the sole beneficiaries of imperialism, colonialism, and associated forms of hegemony, nor were they always the main agents of this process. Like other groups of populations in the world, Europeans today are in some respects products of these processes. In fact, according to Marx, the agent of modernisation is capitalism itself – an abstract force with destructive power. Whichever story about modernity one takes on board, what matters for historians of modernity is that the very idea of Europe as a subject has been one of the by-products of modernisation, and this explains how the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ has been deployed rhetorically in the past.

At the time of Chakrabarty’s book, around the year 2000, many American historians were beginning to think of themselves as the ‘last Eurocentric generation’. Others who were working on areas outside Europe at the time still felt ‘stranded at the discipline’s periphery’. At one level, a lot has changed in the intervening twenty years when it comes to the geographical ‘provincialisation’ of Europe. The study of non-European history has been valorised more than before and uncoupled from European centres (though perhaps not enough) at European and American history departments, journals and institutions. In the early 2000s as an undergraduate in Cambridge, I witnessed this even in the physical transformation of intellectual spaces around me, as I cycled past a building where the words ‘Oriental Studies’ were quietly erased and replaced with ‘Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies’ – though of course the very assemblage of such large geographical areas in one subject group still bear the structural traces of empire. Faculties such as History and Classics may not have been visibly affected to the same degree, but in these disciplines, too, the changes of the past twenty years have been profound. Many grands récits of modern history now have a tone of greater humility when it comes to Europe’s place in the world. Such specialists in non-European history as Kenneth Pomeranz or Jürgen Osterhammel, who have both established their intellectual authority by working on China rather than Europe, have argued influentially that the ‘great divergence’ between Europe and other parts of the world in terms of wealth and growth was due to fortuitous factors such as the geographical distribution of coal; they used comparative and partly counterfactual arguments which have opened up a range of new approaches which contextualise Europe within modernisation processes in global history. In 2004, Chris Bayly, the preeminent historian of the British empire, famously announced that ‘all local, national or regional histories must, in important ways, therefore, be global histories. It is no longer really possible to write “European” or “American” history in a narrow sense’. One historian has recently described ‘area studies’, which was one domain of research where non-European histories emerged in the twentieth century, as a European-dominated ‘struggle for world knowledge’ (in a quip to Fritz Fischer’s critique of Germany in WWI, “The Struggle for World Supremacy”). In short, in the discipline of history, recent historiography has been correcting the representation of Europe in its domain in ways similar to the revisions which geographers have introduced to a Mercator map: Europe has been recontextualised, adjusted proportionally to its significance, moved out of focus, indeed, provincialized, if you like.

I find it remarkable that the critique of ‘eurocentrism’ is not only still prominent in meta-historiographical discourse twenty years after its latest emergence in history, but that the critical meaning of the term has become reduced. It now usually implies the idea of valuing European history over that of other geographical areas or populations, not, as in Chakrabrarty’s interpretation, for instance, teleological thinking as such. To name only one example, in 2020, in a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times, the historian and theorist of postcolonial political thought Adom Getachew insisted that ‘a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement’ has been a mainstay in academic culture, adding that elements of nineteenth-century imperialism continue to resonate in the anti-immigrant politics in the EU.

This kind of critique of eurocentrism has a three-fold direction: it is first, directed against academic and public history which has marginalised or exoticised research on geographical areas outside Europe; secondly, it is a critique of historical pedagogy and practice, which affects the ideas and self-valorisation of a much larger circle of people; finally, it is an institutional critique of inequalities in the modern world.

Generally, I think it is a welcome phenomenon that we Europeanists have to think more self-critically about our subject. But I also think that the concept of eurocentrism, if it is to be productive in critical pedagogy and research, cannot be projected outward on an imaginary discrete ‘eurocentric’ other. There is still a lot of work to be done within the historiography of Europe itself in unpacking the emergence of different ideas of Europeanness, and there is also a need for greater contextual and comparative work on a global as well as a local scale. The continent has its own Mercator-like distortions, which make some nations appear larger or more sharply than others. This is also true of urban versus rural histories, etc.

Let me give some more practical examples of the way I use critiques of eurocentrism in my teaching experience in my undergraduate course on interwar cultural history (Interwar worlds: the cultural consequences of the First World War). By contrast to the political history of the First World War, which has become more global in orientation, the historiography of interwar culture remains profoundly tied to a few familiar themes in European or North American history, such as British anti-war poetry, Weimar or Soviet culture, or the jazz age in France and the US. Between 1919 and 1935 thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Edmund Husserl acknowledged that the war had caused to think about European civilization as finite (Spengler) and have admitted that the classic teleology of Philosophy itself culminating in the creation of a ‘European humanity’ at its summit was, in the interwar period, in a profound crisis (Husserl). Yet in the work of historians, for a long time, the master narratives of such cultural transformations remained – well, not only Eurocentric, but centred around the classic European empire-nations, France, Germany, or Russia (the Soviet Union). This is nowhere more palpable than in studies of war memory, where figures like the doyen of French national historiography, Pierre Nora, loom large.

When it comes to designing research areas for students, one response to the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ might call upon historians to dismiss eurocentric studies such as Pierre Nora’s influential conception of ‘lieux de mémoire’ altogether – like the Algerian postcolonial thinker Seloua Luste Boulbina has done in an open letter to Pierre Nora. An alternative option is to reinterpret the whole idea of universalism that is inherent in French national and European history at large, and to examine it as a mode of claiming power that is available to different groups in history. This is something the Senegalese philosopher Souleyman Bachir Diagne has described as ‘horizontal’ or ‘lateral universalism’, a work in progress, with its eurocentric sting taken out. In that interwar cultural history course, I am closer to Diagne’s view of things. For instance, I tend to encourage students to use this Francophone literature to explore the memorialisation of the war in contexts such as the British Mandates in Africa and the Middle East, emphasising the circulation of memorial designs between different regime types and their different uptake in society; or they can engage with established studies of Soviet or Weimar culture and concepts such as ‘cultural revolution’ (which was itself originally taken from its Chinese context to examine Soviet history) to look at new vernacular movements or modern media in interwar Turkey, China, or Japan. In other words, I don´t think it is productive to start entirely from scratch or ‘write out’ the specific biases that have come to exist. Each research question requires thinking on one´s own feet and reinventing one´s methodological toolkit. The course is intentionally designed around an open question about the war´s cultural consequences, and any historiography is examined in a critical light and used in a modular fashion to expand our horizons.

CW

I agree that the charge of ‘eurocentrism’ might have special implications for historians of modern Europe, as you suggest, since the concept is so tied to that of modernity. But I also think it’s something that medieval specialists need to think about too. And of course they have, for instance by expanding their geographical horizons to think about the wider world, and by collaborating with experts on other parts of that world, including scholars institutionally located in the contemporary global south. And the debates continue as to whether ‘medieval’ is a category which only applies to European history, or whether it can and should be applied elsewhere too (both options can be labelled as ‘eurocentric’, after all). These developments are positive and valuable. Yet as I suggested at the beginning, I would argue that there’s a lot that can be done (and has been done) to tackle eurocentrism within the study of ‘medieval’ Europe as well.

The teaching dimension you highlight is really important: after all, this is how we communicate the priorities and shape of the discipline we work in to the next generation. Eurocentrism is something I’ve thought about (and discussed with students) in the context of in my third-year special subject course. The course is focused on 9th-c. Francia, so on lands now divided between half a dozen modern European countries (France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Spain). In a geographical sense it’s obviously a European history course. And there was a concept of Europe in the Middle Ages too, as Klaus Oschema has recently emphasised. The Franks had an idea of Europa. However, with a few interesting exceptions, they chose not to use it as a frame of reference or context; it wasn’t very important to them. Still, its very existence is significant in all kinds of ways, not least in that it means we shouldn’t blindly impose our concept of Europe upon a period which had its own. That’s an important nuance. We need to avoid seeing the Carolingian empire as a proto-EU, as Marie-Celine Isaïa has pointed out, as if the idea of Europe is unchanging or timeless, but nor should we imagine this idea just popped into existence in the 19th century. Neither is accurate. Historicising the concept of Europe, showing how the concept has meant different things at different times, is a key step in battling eurocentrism, and this is something which medieval history courses can contribute towards.

At the same time, the history of Europe doesn’t have to be only a history of the concept. It’s legitimate also to think about the history of the geographical region we now think of as Europe. In particular I’d suggest it’s important to include perspectives from al-Andalus, and to ensure these are included in the study of Europe as a region. I’ve worked them into my teaching for this very reason – not simply for the sake of it, but because this is relevant history. Al-Andalus is often tacitly sidelined by earlier medieval historians who aren’t specialists, not least for linguistic reasons since its textual records are mostly in Arabic not Latin. Plus, it was more culturally integrated with the Islamicate world than with the Christian lands to the north, and Amira Bennison has showed that Andalusians didn’t usually think of themselves as ‘European’ (though contemporaries to the north occasionally did). But then, as I’ve just said, the same is true of the Franks. This emphatically doesn’t mean Al-Andalus isn’t part of European history, and there’s a responsibility to make that clear. If we don’t point things like this out, which we can only do by teaching European history, then old framings will be left untouched and unchallenged. And it’s interesting and important, to come to your point about not quietly removing but critically interrogating the European historiographical legacy, for students to consider why Al-Andalus, and for that matter Muslim Sicily and even Christian Byzantium, has often been tacitly excluded from histories of Europe – and how putting them back in changes the picture.

DG

The topic of tacit exclusion highlights an important aspect of the problem we are discussing, namely, that the slogan of ‘provincializing’ Europe and terms such as ‘eurocentrism’ have been used out of context as tools for choosing what to study (or rather, what not to study any longer). This selective appropriation of terminology obscured the fact that these critiques were mostly focused on the question of how one studies phenomena, how things are contextualised and narrated. The real problem which limits historical research is the adherence to any kind of ‘centrism’ or ‘teleology’, which is often the consequence of an intuitive attempt to relate all unfamiliar phenomena to certain familiar brands of historical events, or assume that by covering the history of, say, urban environments, one has already subsumed the rural, and so on. Such systemic oversights, sometimes modelled around potted national histories of different European states, can be as damaging to a historian as it might be to a political campaigner who never leaves the remits of her home district. It is tempting to stick to path-dependent accounts of special national histories, particularly of European states, such as the history of National Socialism and the rise of the Third Reich, or Soviet History, where ‘centrism’ has led historians to explain the history of the Third Reich only by looking at Germany (thus missing, for instance, the fact that more than five of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust came from Nazi-Occupied Europe) or looking at the Russian Revolution and Civil War without paying attention to the history of, say, the fortunes of social or liberal democracy in the Muslim Caucasus.

I doubt that manifestos in themselves actually have a decisive impact on historical research. They may be nothing more than flags which blow according to the winds of change caused by other factors around them. For instance, to pick a few examples from a range of subjects in modern European history, one of the most illuminating accounts of the Russian revolution from the point of view of Russia’s non-Slavic peoples was published in 1972; it is Ronald Suny’s study of the Baku Commune. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which emphasises the common genealogies of modern extermination policies in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in colonial violence, dates back to 1951. Aby Warburg’s art historical studies of the ‘afterlife of antiquity’ and his provocative Memory Atlas, in their own day, provoked the European establishment by giving equal weighting to ancient and contemporary expressions of feeling, to European and non-European cultures, was a profound challenge to many disciplines – in the 1920s. Simon Dubnow’s Jewish histories, produced in the years between the end of the Russian empire and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact dividing eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, could be seen as examples of early subaltern studies. All this was produced years before the terms eurocentrism or such like were coined. Dubnow’s work could be seen as a way of valorising the history of a marginal people inhabiting so-called Pale of Settlement, the underdeveloped and impoverished western hinterland to which the European Jews were confined under the Russian empire and where many Jews still lived until the extermination of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust – including Dubnow himself, who was killed by a Gestapo agent in 1941. Looking at this aspect of European history, the term ‘hegemony’ hardly applies. In short, overcoming ‘centrism’ might look different for histories of modern racism or histories of modern nationalism and dictatorship, and it is certainly not something where one generation of historians can necessarily pat itself on the back for being more historically engaged. Others in the past have taken far greater existential risks in doing this kind of work.

CW

I think this ‘centrism’ of various kinds is a problem in medieval history too. There’s a rich tradition of social, and Marxist, historiography, but I wonder how many medieval European survey courses explicitly make space for the peasantry, who formed the overwhelming majority of the population, and whose production structured the economy, and thus funded all the more glamorous things? Of course there is the added problem that it’s the centres which are not only best documented, but most accessible to students too through translation of the narrative sources, which tend to privilege rulers and elites (with the great exception of Icelandic saga evidence). Thankfully the ‘special national histories’ is less of a problem for the early medievalist these days, though nationalists do often turn to the distant past for the most deeply-rooted authentication of their projects (and I fear we may see more of this in an English context).

But these sorts of problems aren’t pedagogically insuperable, and historians of Europe have some experience in engaging with them. I’d suggest that an anti-eurocentric European history pedagogy might involve explicitly demonstrating how European history can be read as undermining the triumphalist 19th– and 20th-century teleological narratives of European modernity which positioned that history as the universal benchmark, for instance by underscoring the relatively peripheral nature of the western Eurasian peninsula for most of recorded history. It might involve showing that Europe has always been entangled with the wider world, both when it seemed in a dominant position but also before and after; and crucially, that it has moreover been fundamentally shaped through that entanglement (here I think of Saba Mahmood’s brilliant critique of Charles Taylor’s account of secularism, highlighting its assumption of an ideologically hermetically sealed Europe). Those entanglements need to be understood as forming part of European history too. Take for instance monasticism, a key social movement and intellectual matrix in Europe, which was initially appropriated from an Egyptian set of ascetic practices, and whose western variant remained strongly influenced by eastern Mediterranean culture. An anti-eurocentric European history needs to have very porous boundaries, because flows over those boundaries have often been of fundamental importance. As I’ve already suggested, it might further involve demonstrating that the idea of Europe was itself historically produced, has never been simply just ‘there’, and has changed its connotations over time. As has often been pointed out, for instance, Europe was not a place or a context that mattered much to the ancient Romans. It might involve revealing and underscoring the human diversities that in different ways have always characterised Europe’s history, putting the lie to any idea of a homogenous ‘white’ European past, whilst doing justice to the processes of exclusion which have often been directed, often cruelly, at these diversities, as set out in R.I. Moore’s concept of the persecuting society, in which the centre defined itself through and against the margins. It should be stressed that Europe has always been a culturally plural region, though not always peacefully so, as you mentioned earlier. And this approach might involve using comparative approaches, partly to highlight how European history has never embodied the whole world’s history.

In all these aspects, I believe historians looking at the Middle Ages have a significant contribution to make. After all, Kathleen Davis has shown how representations of the Middle Ages were central to European conceptions of (and thus interventions in) the wider world in the nineteenth century. Rethinking the European Middle Ages critically thus destabilises eurocentric analyses from within, so to speak. Approached this way, the study of European history can perhaps not only escape the trap of eurocentrism, but contribute significantly to springing it. Eurocentrism is fundamentally a problem of historical method, not of content. But historians of Europe, including those looking at its more remote past, may nevertheless have a necessary role to play in dismantling it at source. Ignoring or downplaying European history, especially in European pedagogical contexts, might be done for the right reasons, but, in leaving older narratives intact, have all the wrong results.

DG

So far we have spoken about ‘eurocentrism’ as a timeless concept for interrogating pedagogies, particularly those related to courses in modern and medieval European history. But I think it is worth exploring in historical perspective how and when the critique of eurocentrism itself has emerged. The term ‘eurocentrism’ dates back to a specific moment in European and global history and in some ways remains restricted by it. It actually came into circulation in France, coined by the Egyptian-French political economist Samir Amin in 1988. Related critical terminology emerged around the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and in Britain, coined by Edward Said at Columbia, Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies group at Sussex, Teodor Shanin and his studies of the sociology of the global peasantry at Sheffield, and others. One could also throw books such as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987) into this mix. These critiques of European hegemony emerged at a time of globalisation and also at the height of the Cold War, and reflect the circumstances of this dual moment. What the above-mentioned authors had in common was their critical reflection on the structures of the bipolar world order and its critical shadow, the non-aligned movement, reflected in terminology such as the ‘Third World’, coined in the early 1950s by another French intellectual, Alfred Sauvy. Their use of the term ‘eurocentric’ entailed a critique of capitalism which, however, remained distant from orthodox or Soviet Marxism. They were influenced by critical readings of Hegel, and of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which, though written in the mid-1920s, were only translated into English in the 1970s, and which focused on the concept of ‘hegemony’ and the question of subaltern subjectivity. They were also observing contemporary events such as the peasant-driven revolutions of the non-western world. Even though these authors used terms such as ‘development’ and ‘Third World’, they also felt trapped by them. Teleologies came under attack not only from scholars like Amin and Said, who sought to draw attention to the significance of non-European and especially non-Christian civilizations, but also Shanin, who engaged critically with more Eurocentric Marxist conceptions of revolution such as those offered by Eric Hobsbawm.

Forty years from the minting of ‘eurocentrism’, it is time to re-evaluate the circulation of this coin in the context of modern political economies. We have discussed how ‘eurocentrism’ is used as a critique of an ideology which justifies Europe’s dominant position within the global capitalist world system, and as such coupled with a demand to reduce the proportion of attention given to the history of Europe in the teaching of modern history. But even more problematically, the critique of ‘eurocentrism’ often goes hand in hand with the demand to reduce the history of the pre-modern world altogether. I think both dogmatic interpretations of the critique can be very damaging to the discipline.

As a modernist, I am very aware that it is historians of pre-modern periods who have pioneered a variety of methods designed to help bring to live the past lives of those not recorded in institutionalised or written histories, including intellectual history sensitive to marginal voices, oral history, discourse analysis, studies of material culture; they have examined plural ideas of development, contradictory beliefs, forgotten ideologies. There has been an expansion of valid sources for historians together with an expansion of methods to pursue questions about the past (hence the various ‘turns’ since the 1970s). Knowing how to draw on records such as inquisition protocols to tell the history of its victims comes in handy when dealing with modern histories of oppression and persecution, whether it is by the KGB, the Stasi, or Pinochet’s regime. It would be foolish to, say, diminish the place of French historiography by following a zealous attempt to remove European components because in this context. In using ‘eurocentrism’ too fanatically as a tool, one risks throwing out many methodological riches which have accumulated in this domain. The same goes for other peculiarities of European historiographies.

The 20th-century critiques of eurocentrism were not absolutely new, but rather, updated versions of a range of critical positions towards the West which themselves go back much further. They appear in the European Enlightenment, in Russian discourses of anti-westernism from the 19th century, in German mid-twentieth century anti-Westernism, in the anti-westernism of the Ottoman Muslim world, as well as in the political thought of much of South East Asia. In the two intervening centuries, this question as such has often faded from view due to a range of factors, including the rise of nationalism as well as new forms of imperialism which were coupled with the rise of racial science that justified past colonial interventions by drawing up systems of difference. In this context, in Europe itself, history became entrenched as an academic discipline at leading universities, many of which served not only universal but also national purposes – most prominently, in France, with a new, more meritocratic system of higher education promoted by Napoleon. By the mid-19th century, one answer to the original Enlightenment question regarding the cosmopolitan purposes of history writing was given by Hegel, who could be described as a liberal ideologue for the Prussian state. His answer in the Philosophy of History essentially pitted European history as the focus of universal history, because, as he saw it, it was in and through European history that the ‘world spirit’ manifested itself. It was only in the aftermath of the Second World War that the original Enlightenment preoccupation with cosmopolitan purposes returned to the agenda of public discourse, shaped not least by institutions such as UNESCO but also from within the universities. Here is where ‘eurocentrism’ came into view. It is undeniable that Europe – and I mean in the first instance, western Europe – acquired a dominant position as an object of historical enquiry not only due to the role of some European powers and groups in the political and economic history of the world but also, more narrowly, because of the historical dominance of Germany, France, Britain and the European influence on the US within the modern university system. Unsurprisingly, the critique of this hegemony first emerged in the very institutions which have been shaped by it.

What neither the Enlightenment cosmopolitans nor the present-day critical thinkers like to discuss is the complicity of the elites of colonised countries in processes of colonisation, and the sheer varieties of racism, internal colonialism and slavery within Europe itself. This is a point forcefully made by Frantz Fanon in his critique of the ‘national bourgeosie’ in his 1961 classic Wretched of the Earth.  Terms such as slavery, racism, and Orientalism, have their place within the relationship of Europeans with other Europeans as well, and I see it as one of my tasks as an historian of Europe to remind students about this. To explore this in a more multi-directional way, there is now a formidable Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire (2018), with a chapter on China ‘from Manchu to Mao’ by our Sheffield colleague Tehyun Ma, work by Joya Chatterji on decolonisation in South Asia, decolonisation in Eastern Europe by James Mark and Quinn Slobodian, my LSE colleague David Motadel on transnational aspects of Islamic movements against empire, and many others. For Eastern Europe, there is much to learn here at the level of theory and research design from historians such as Alexander Etkind and his students. I wonder how these themes of empire, imperialism, and internal colonisation play out in the context of medieval history, with the shadow of the Roman empire and its diverse legacies lingering on.

CW:
While 19th-century empires were different from preceding forms of empire, empire itself was obviously not a modern or indeed a European invention. Parts of early medieval Europe can in some ways be considered a post-imperial set of societies (though not of course Byzantium), and medieval historians have extensively studied colonisation processes within Europe. And there’s a huge and exciting body of work about ethnicity and, more recently, race in the Middle Ages, often led by medievalists of colour. This latter body of work isn’t without its critics – Vanita Seth’s recent piece in History and Theory is important here – but the point that many of the analytical tools often used to describe European involvement with the wider world have purchase on Europe itself is crucial. Treating Europe and the wider world differently from a methodological point of view can be just another, more subtle form of eurocentrism.

DG:

To wrap up: the question how historians of Europe should somehow change their practice of research and writing in the light of such critiques does not have a self-evident answer. What does it mean to provincialize Europe in historiographical practice, and in what sense does revalorizing the non-European world depend on devalorizing the idea of European civilization? As soon as you start thinking in these terms, you will find the implications of ‘eurocentrism’ as a term to be very prescriptive and the historical accounts they are based on misleadingly reductive. Many history departments in the UK have recently ‘globalised’ their modern history courses. But even here you have many possible paths for implementing such an agenda. In designing course readings and supporting students´ independent research projects, I see broadly two options. Either I simply remove or reduce readings focusing on Europe. Or I let students work through them and deal with their various imperfections and shortcomings before starting their own explorations. My sense is that students generally are susceptible to manifestos of progress, they want to land on the right side of history, and any promise of shortcuts in this direction is therefore highly appealing. I’ve already written elsewhere about a tendency lately to divide up past thinkers into ‘purely’ progressive or ‘purely’ reactionary figures, by the standards of our day, which, in my view, can only lead to a shallow and self-serving celebration of the ideas of one’s own generation. Or take another example. What should students from China learn when they study the history of European racial science and its ties to colonial governance? The easier path is to dismiss this history as a problem of the West, to embed it in a political language of anti-westernism. It is far more arduous to think of the ways in which similar processes might be, or might have been, occurring in China itself. Yet, in my view, it is the arduous path that has more potential to lead to new critical histories of modernity, precisely because it does not culminate in the certainty of what it means to be on the right side of history. Students can be selective in exposing ‘eurocentrism’, but in fact they are as unfamiliar with the geography and politics of Eastern and Southern Europe as they are with the distinction between socialist and capitalist-aligned African states during the Cold War. Pitting the study of one against the other because one is supposedly more European than the other misses the point: what is needed is contextual knowledge of modern history, the ability to pinpoint the relevance of one’s local case study in a global framework.

Another way to think about this is that genuine historical inquiry itself rarely starts from narrative. Rather, the story comes at the end. Often the questions take root when you read a text or a document from the past and enter into a dialogue with it. Take, for instance, a historical text such as Max Weber’s (unfinished) study of music as a case study of rationalisation, supposedly a linchpin of western modernity. An intellectual historian who studies this text today will rightly see it as a work of political thought on Europe and the West – but in the 1950s the text would have been contextualised as a case study in sociology as such. In this sense it would be beneficial to ‘provincialize’ Max Weber, but certainly not excise him from the canon. For all its shortcomings, it was Weber’s status and later, the canonical status of his works, which gave recognition and visibility to non-western musical systems. Moreover, one could look at Weber’s intellectual encounters with W.E.B. DuBois, for instance, in the light of which a re-examination of such a European and decidedly eurocentric text could lead to a productive investigation around the use of musical notation and oral tradition as a source of political thought. This also brings me to related concern raised by many critics of ‘eurocentrism’, which is the demand to reduce the study of canonical thinkers and approaches. Yet some canonical histories have historically been a great bridge introducing underrepresented topics and people to the academy.

I’m sure that the term ‘eurocentrism’ has produced a lot of constructive debates in the past, and the term has become a natural part of our vocabulary, but the sort of disciplinary self-criticism that is needed today should transcend a narrow use of such terminology. It could instead take into account a question that has been debated since at least the Enlightenment, and some landmark interventions by authors such as Kant and Herder (1784), namely: What does it mean [for historians of Europe] to write history with a cosmopolitan purpose? I have tried examining these sorts of questions myself in conversation with colleagues in a volume I edited, called Cosmopolitanism in Conflict.

It is all the more important given that the decades of globalisation have redistributed power geographically – not in the sense of an actual social redistribution of wealth, but in the sense of co-opting more geographical areas as sites of power. This means that the holders of financial capital or power and their locations are no longer as visibly ‘European’ as in the 1980s. Secondly, the globalisation of the university sector, particularly in Britain and the United States, has created a mixed global population of students and academics. But the financial structure particularly of British universities is such that they are only accountable to make provisions for socially inclusive teaching (i.e. support for students who cannot fund themselves) on a national level, which means that students from places such as the ‘Global South’ or what is now called the ‘Global Majority’ tend to come from much wealthier social backgrounds. The problem of the asymmetry of class in the representation of students outside Britain in my view is often being overlooked. All this has implications for the way in which historians might self-critically reflect on the future of their discipline in research and teaching.

I would like to go back to the Herderian terms of asking the question what it might mean to practise history in a cosmopolitan sense, i.e. in the interests of all humanity, but also add the dimension of social diversity to this agenda. Historical research is among other things also a process of communication. What is needed is a framework which enables scholars and researchers to form a dialogue with multiple local, national, and global communities – the opening up of universities for this kind of conversation beyond their competitive market relations and rankings. Interestingly, one of the few positives of the pandemic has been the provision of exciting opportunities for just that.

Whatever the problems of modern history are, using the term ‘eurocentrism’ to impose modes of thinking on others strikes me as an unnecessary kind of puppeteering. It is productive when used as an invitation for a conversation, but good historical research comes from thinking about things for yourself, and from open encounters with other minds, including unsavoury characters. Historical research as I see it is not particularly suited for resolving problems, it is there to involve us in them, however uncomfortable the insights.

Charles West is a Reader in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield, where he’s taught since 2008. Current research projects include a collaborative Anglo-German study of local priests in tenth-century Europe, and a general history of eleventh-century Europe, under contract with OUP. His most recent publication is on early medieval ideas of the secular

Dina Gusejnova is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International History at LSE, having previously taught Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 2015 to 2019. Her current research explores the circulation of ideas of citizenship and nationality in Europe during the Second World War, most recently, in this article on German ideas of Englishness in the context of wartime internment

Cover image: ‘Wonderful Old Radio Dial’ courtesy of James Cridland, https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/200a0225-fae1-46d9-8cb1-2f8c9f60867f [accessed 11 May 2021].

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Mekatilili wa Menza and the Giriama War

Kilifi County plaque

Global histories of anti-colonial rebellion are laden with male leaders. Across Africa, leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Jomo Kenyatta steered resistance against their colonial overlords in Ghana, Congo and Kenya. Thankfully, recently the contribution of women within such movements has also emerged from the shadows of history. Mekatilili wa Menza is one such activist who deserves recognition for her anti-colonial defiance in Kenya. 

Believed to have been born in the 1840s in Kilifi County, Mekatilili wa Menza became politically active between 1912 and 1915, leading the Giriama people against British colonial forces.[1] Most of Mekatilili’s activism therefore began when she was in her seventies. Around that time, the British authorities began to increase economic pressures on the Giriama people by implementing ‘hut taxes’ and by attempting to control the palm wine and ivory trade. They also attempted to recruit as workforce young Giriama men, taking them away from the land near the Sabaki river.[2]

In the early years of empire, there was little contact between the Giriama and the British. It is against this backdrop of laissez-faire colonialism that Giriama resistance to heightened British control emerged in 1913. In May of that year, British administrator Arthur Champion established headmen and councils to preside over 28 newly established locations which encapsulated Giriama communities. C.W Hobley, the district commissioner of Seyidie Province was determined to convert the Giriama into a well-organised community dedicated to the colonial machine.[3]

However, traditionally, the Giriama had no central political authority. Elders Councils controlled the political affairs of Giriama societies, however, they did not act as chiefs. The emergence of British-appointed chiefs catapulted Giriama society into a New World autocracy.

This new situation partially led to the increasing Giriama’s defiance to the demands of the British, while Mekatilili’s presence within the movement also grew. She spoke at meetings in July and August 1913 in the kaya fungo, the ritual center of the Giriama. These meetings often concluded with the swearing of anti-British oaths promising to resist colonial rule. 

Visiting villages across the Giriama area, Mekatilili gave rousing speeches and, most famously, used the sacred KifuduGiriama funeral dance to encourage rebellion.[4] The dance is still performed today and seeks to bring communities together to transport the spirits of loved ones to the realms of the ancestors. The second part of the dance calls for the involvement of everyone present cultivating a sense of community spirit in a time of sadness.

One of Mekatilili’s most famous acts of rebellion saw her attend a meeting held on 13 August 1913 by British administrator Arthur Champion, who was attempting to recruit the Giriama youth for service in the First World War. Mekatilili entered the meeting with a hen and chicks in her hand, challenging Champion to take one of the chicks from her. When he reached out, the mother hen then pecked at the administrator’s hand, humiliating him in public. As the hen pecked Champion, Mekatilili told him: ‘This is what you will get if you try to take one of our sons.’[5]  

In his tour of inspection through Giriama areas in 1913, Champion discovered that Mekatilili and her son-in-law Wanje wa Mwadorikola had arrived before him and had been administering anti-British oaths. The two were arrested on 17 October 1913 and sentenced to five years imprisonment.[6] Champion documented the impact of Mekatilili’s campaign in his October report where he conceded that ‘every Giriama is much more afraid of the kiraho (oath) than of the government’.[7] Mekatilili’s activism had single-handedly undermined British authority amongst the Giriama people.  

While in prison, Mekatilili addressed Arthur Champion over her concerns about the cultural changes in Giriama society. She complained about the introduction of currency in cents, and rupees, the short skirts now being worn by Giriama women, as well as the resulting ‘immorality’ and inconsistent prices charged by Giriama women (possibly for sex). 

Mekatilili also called for the return to the traditional Giriama governance system by rejecting the British colonial government’s preferred tactic of indirect rule through government-appointed ‘headmen’ or chiefs. Soon after she made this statement, Mekatilili and Wanje were deported to a prison in Kisii. According to oral histories, on 14 January 1914, the two were released and trekked more than 700 kilometers back to Kilifi.[8] However, Mekatilili was recaptured just two days after her arrival back home.

The Giriama War broke out twelve days before Mekatilili’s second Arrest, when the British authorities partly destroyed the kaya fugo with dynamite.[9] Open hostilities began in Northern Giriama settlements on 16 August 1913 when the Giriama attacked a group of British policemen. Twenty police officers then broke up a crowd of Giriama and raised a nearby village to seize suspected rioters and an assortment of weapons.[10] On 19 August Arthur Champion’s temporary camp was set alight, and in retaliation he called upon the local police to destroy nearby villages and decimate Giriama crop. All these incidents increased pressure on the British at a time when they faced substantial threat from German forces in Tanganyika. 

However, as hostilities increased between Britain and Germany, the British had little choice but to negotiate for peace, as the King’s African Rifles (KAR) had to be withdrawn for service in German East Africa.[11] On 4 October terms for peace were arranged and the Giriama were ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 Rupees or goats at 3 rupees each, raise 1,000 labourers, surrender all arms, move from the Northern bank of the Sabaki river and surrender all heads of the tribe and leaders of the rebellion. All of this was to be done within ten days.[12]

Shortly after the peace agreement was reached, the Giriama resumed the offensive and refused to pay the funds to the British. However, the Governor of Kenya had instructed the KAR to remain on Giriama land to end all hostilities towards the British and to ensure reparations were paid. As a result, most of the fighting had ended by the end of 1914 and the Giriama paid the fine, supplied labourers and evacuated the Northern Bank of the Sabaki.[13]

This latter situation did not last, and a number of the Giriama soon returned. In 1917, C.W Hobley, the Provincial Commissioner, ruled that the Giriama could re-occupy the North Bank asserting that ‘if injustice has been done it is our duty to repair it.’[14] In 1919, the Giriama were also able to reclaim the kaya fungo.

The uprising forced the British colonial authorities to relax their control of Giriama land. As support crystallised around Mekatilili and her call to action, the British were forced to yield to their demands for the return of the kaya fungo.[15] In 1919, Mekatilili and Wanje were released from prison and were allowed to move back into the kaya, holding positions as leaders of the women’s and men’s councils respectively.[16]

The monument at Uhuru Gardens. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government 

Mekatilili wa Menza died of natural causes in 1924. She is buried in the Dakatcha Woodland and is memorialised every year by the Mekatilili wa Menza festival. Larger commemorative efforts have been made in recent years to mark her pivotal role in fighting British colonial oppression. During the first annual Mashujaa or Heroes Day on 9 September 2012, a statue of Mekatilili was unveiled at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Garden in her honour. 

The crowd at the 2014 Mekatilili festival. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government

Mekatilili’s acts of defiance have established her as a key figure in the early Kenyan anti-colonial struggle. It is justified that she is recognised and celebrated alongside the male activists who followed in her defiant footsteps. 

Lauren Brown has a masters degree (MA and MLitt) in History from the University of Dundee. She has published various articles on Kenyan history, and in particular on the Mau Mau rebellion. She is currently the assistant editor for Scottish Financial News and Scottish Housing News. She tweets: @LaurenBroon

Cover Image: A plaque beside the monument of Mekatalili. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government


[1] David K Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, African Historical Studies, Vol. 3, No.1, 1970, p.89

[2] Carrier, Nyamweru, Reinventing Africa’s National Heroes: The Case of Mekatalili, A Kenyan Popular Heroine p.605.

[3] Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, p.90.

[4] Ibid, p.605. 

[5] Museum of Kenya, Google Arts & Culture, Mekatalili Wa Menza: The Story of The Giriama Wonder Woman, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mekatilili-wa-menza-the-story-of-the-giriama-wonder-woman/uQJiyBBzmBOAKg

[6] Carrier, Nyamweru, Reinventing Africa’s National Heroes: The Case of Mekatalili, A Kenyan Popular Heroine, p.606.

[7] Cynthia Brantle, The Giriama and Colonial Resistance in Kenya, 1800-1920 (University of California Press: Berkeley,1981) p.89.

[8] Museum of Kenya, Google Arts & Culture, Mekatalili Wa Menza: The Story of The Giriama Wonder Woman, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mekatilili-wa-menza-the-story-of-the-giriama-wonder-woman/uQJiyBBzmBOAKg

[9] Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, p.94.

[10] A.J Temu, The Giriama War 1914-1915, Journal of Eastern African Research & Development, Vol. 1, No.2 (Gideon Were Publications: Nairobi, 1971), p.169.

[11] Ibid, p.171.

[12] Temu, The Giriama War 1914-1915, p.171.

[13] Ibid, p.171

[14] Ibid, p.183.

[15] Ibid, p.93.

[16] Ibid, p.95.

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British Imperial Revival in the Early Cold War: The Malayan ‘Emergency’ 1948-60

Image 1

As we gain perspective on a summer of global protest, it is clear that the traditional narrative of British colonial history is being questioned by the public at large. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in July represents a direct challenge to conventional histories of the beginnings of the British empire in the seventeenth century. But what of the end of empire?

Following the Second World War Britain declined as a world power, dwarfed by the bi-polar superpower colossi of the United States and the USSR and hamstrung by the inexorable disappearance of her imperial possessions. The sun of Empire, we are told, set across the world.[1]

From this perspective, British power and influence declined in relative terms. However, as recent research based on the ever-increasing release of official records has shown, this interpretation misses crucial discontinuities in the historical record. Recent scholarship by John Newsinger argues that Clement Attlee’s Labour government was as much a resurgent colonial warfare state as a domestic welfare state in the immediate postwar years.[2] Anne Deighton argues that Britain’s role in ideological battlegrounds of the nascent Cold War is demonstrably greater than traditional interpretations have suggested.[3] 

One concrete example of postwar Britain as a colonial Cold Warrior state is the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60. The conflict has been described by Malaysian-born anthropologist Yao Souchou as ‘a small, distant war’ not for its inconsequentiality in global affairs, but for its relegation to the side-lines of the historiography of the Cold War.[4] Bringing the conflict to the forefront of our attention, I believe, challenges the broad narrative of postwar ‘decline’ and demonstrates the continued international influence of the British state in the post-war period.

The ‘Emergency’ was the longest conflict fought by British forces in the twentieth century. With the aim of achieving national independence, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) fought a bitter campaign of insurgency against the British colonial government of Malaya and its local and Commonwealth allies. Despite their determined (and British-supported) resistance to wartime Japanese occupation, the MCP were ultimately defeated. More than just a decisive victory for the British empire, the campaign in Malaya was in fact the only conclusive military success by the Western powers in the entirety of the Cold War period.[5]

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA, 1957 (HU 51581) Men of the 48th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action against a terrorist hide-out near Segri Sembilan, Malaya. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205216100 [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Because of its abundant tin and rubber resources, Malaya, according to the British Colonial Sectary, was ‘by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire’.[6] With the British economy profoundly weakened by the loss of the former Indian territories, further capitulation in Asia was simply not acceptable. Although Marshall Plan aid chiefly funded Britain’s extensive (and expensive) programmes of urban revival and welfare reforms, a direct consequence of the economic recovery of ‘the West’ was the continuation of European colonialism for another two decades.[7]

The release of classified Foreign Office files has expanded our understanding of Britain’s propaganda machine in the early Cold War period. The intent of the Information Research Department (IRD) to promote Britain as a socialist ‘Third Force’ in world politics via its attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism is only now being adequately explored.[8] These offensive tactics were mirrored by a defensive approach to events in Malaya. Repeating the rhetoric used to describe the Jewish Irgun and Lehi in Palestine, British state propaganda relied on the dual euphemism of the ‘banditry’ of Malayan Communist rebels and the ‘emergency’ of their anti-colonial independence war in international representations of the conflict.[9]

The conflict was presented as arising from an international communist movement. It was done so with nuance: too strong a line could further align the Malayan Chinese ethnic group with the MCP; the opposite could have given the impression that the British were crushing a true nationalist movement. After the proclamation of American anti-colonial policy in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the chief aim of British propaganda was to ‘manipulate the American colossus’ into thinking that political and economic support of an archaic colonial regime was ‘the corollary of [Communist] containment’.[10] To this, end, as the war continued, international British propaganda utilised the carefully chosen term ‘Communist terrorists’ in their representations of the MCP.[11]

In terms of national propaganda, a great deal of scholarly attention is often given to the figure of Sir Gerald Templer. Serving as Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya from 1951 to 1954, his view that ‘the answer [to defeating the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the [Malayan] people’ has dominated conventional historical analysis of the conflict.[12] A defining component of contemporary ‘cultural Cold War’ strategies, we must remain wary of attributing the ‘hearts and minds’ metaphor too much importance in Britain’s victory over the MCP. Indeed, the position of Templer as a semi-mythic figure in the historiography of the conflict simultaneously empowers the actions of the Western elite and obscures the reality of the counter-insurgency tactics the British utilised throughout the conflict.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY 1948-1960 (D 87947) Men of 22 Special Air Service Regiment practice carrying a casualty to a waiting helicopter during a training exercise in a jungle clearing at Ulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212427 [Accessed 20 November 2020]

Based on racially motivated colonial attitudes exemplified by events of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, Bennett argues that mass arrests, deportation and destruction of property corresponded to a deliberate British campaign of ‘counter-terror’.[13] The forced re-settlement of over 500,000 Malayans in ‘New Villages’ with the ostensible aim of removing Communist influence were in fact little more than concentration camps built to keep the rural Chinese population under strict surveillance and control.[14] The tactics employed by the British state against the MCP demonstrated a resolve to maintain dominance of the colonial periphery by often brutal means.

A colonial attitude of imperial retrenchment, implemented through and influencing a nascent Cold War framework, saw Malaya as a continued source of colonial power for the British state. Britain successfully re-imposed colonial order by armed intervention, protecting its markets and control of natural resources essential to economic recovery. An extensive and influential network of regional intelligence informed international and national propaganda strategies to manipulate public opinion with the objective of the furtherance of British colonial Cold War objectives. Brutal and systematic detention, deportation and violence facilitated the crushing of the MCP revolt.

The summer of 2020 has shown the power of challenging traditionally idolised historical figures from the beginnings of the British empire. Similarly, a revisionist interpretation of the Malayan Emergency makes it clear that in postwar South-East Asia, there was no gracefully setting sun.

Liam Raine is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently researching the metaphorical structures of the Cold War. This blog piece is based on an essay written in submission for the module HST674 ‘International Relations and the Early Cold War in Britain’. For those interested in the longer research project, please contact Liam at liamandrewraine@gmail.com.


Cover image: A Malayan guide passes tracking information to the British sergeant of an infantry patrol during the Malayan Emergency. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212424 [Accessed 22 November 2020].

[1] L. James, ‘Part Five: The Setting Sun’ in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 2006), pp. 523-622.

[2] J. Newsinger, ‘War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945-51’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), pp. 61-67.

[3] A. Deighton, ‘Britain and the Cold War’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), pp. 112-32.

[4] S. Yao, The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a small, distant war (Copenhagen, 2016).

[5] B. Z. Keo, ‘A small, distant war?’, History Compass 17.3 (2019), pp. 1-2.

[6] Memo, by Colonial Secretary, 1 July 1948, C.P. (48) 171, CAB 129/25.

[7] W. I. Hitchcock, ‘The Marshall Plan and the creation of the West’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), p. 162; O. A. Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017), p. 265.

[8] H. Wilford, ‘The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed’, Review of International Studies 24.3 (1998), pp. 353-69.

[9] S. L. Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds (Leicester, 1995).

[10] J. Darwin, ‘Diplomacy and decolonization’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28.3 (2000), p. 16.

[11] P. Deery, ‘The terminology of terrorism: Malaya, 1948-1952’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.2 (2003), pp. 241-47.

[12] R. Clutterbuck, The long, long war (London, 1967), p. 3; R. Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (London, 1966).

[13] H. Bennett, ‘“A very salutary effect”’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32.3 (2009), pp. 415-44.

[14] T.-P. Tan, ‘Like a concentration camp, lah’: Chinese grassroots experience of the Emergency and New Villages in British Colonial Malaya’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 3 (2009), pp.216-28.

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Decolonisation Strategies: Portico Library Curators at Sheffield University

What it is to be here banner WEB (1)

Radha Kapuria with Helen Idle and James Moss

A chance visit to Manchester’s historic Portico Library in September 2020 revealed a fascinating exhibition on the colonisation of Australia. Titled ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’, this exhibition marks 250 years since the Gweagal people in Kamay (Botany Bay) first encountered strangers, led by Lieutenant James Cook, or ‘Captain Cook’, approaching their shores. 

The exhibition launched in April, and chimed well with the renewed debates around decolonisation and ‘Black Lives Matter’ that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in the US. In step with these current movements, an exhibition panel also covered poignant photographs from the ongoing ‘Aboriginal Lives Matter’ campaign across Australia. 

As an instructor on Sheffield’s sector-leading undergraduate module, ‘Conflict, Cultures and (De)Colonisation’, I was also struck by how the exhibition’s layout and content were so relevant to our classroom discussions. Our module considers the growth and governance of empires, and the role of decolonisation struggles, in shaping our contemporary world. On approaching Portico Library staff, I was delighted to find a Sheffield History alumnus in the Librarian, Dr Thom Keep. Thom introduced me to the library’s Exhibitions Curator, James Moss, and the force behind the exhibition, Dr Helen Idle, a researcher based at the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London. 

My colleagues Prof Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Dr Esme Cleall, who lead the teaching team on the module, were similarly enthused at the remarkable synergies between the exhibition and especially our rubric for Week 6, on ‘Materiality and Ownership’. During this week we examine the representations of objects–some stolen from indigenous populations across the world–in museums in the West and how they are bound up in histories of colonialism. Slowly, a plan emerged, where the Portico curators would deliver a guest lecture to our students on ‘Decolonising a Museum/Library Exhibition’. This lecture would provide students a window into the curators’ experience of putting together an exhibition that consciously tackled the challenges of decolonising knowledge, narratives and artefacts, through creative and self-reflexive methodologies. 

Western Australian timber samples from Manchester Museum, displayed in The Portico Library’s exhibition. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn. 

The session with Helen, James, and Apapat Jai-in Glynn (art curator and collaborator on the exhibition) on Thursday 29 October was a massive hit with students. Students were especially interested since their seminar activities for the coming week required them to design their own ‘decolonised’ museum galleries on the British Empire. A series of inventive questions from students ranged from repatriation and the curators’ partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the impact of the exhibition on other museums, to efforts toward genuine reconciliation in Australia, the ethics of representation in museum displays, and the difficulties of knowledge production through colonial archives. We will now turn to the experiences of Helen and James, as independent researcher and library curator respectively, in assembling this remarkable exhibition at Manchester.

Portico Library curators answer questions (in text form on the right) from students during the Google Meets session at the University of Sheffield on Thursday 29 October. Image Courtesy: Radha Kapuria.

Helen Idle:

When you glance around the open space of the Portico Library your eyes will alight on a black and white photograph. A woman stands tall, wrapped in a blanket with her head bowed. She is covered but for her face, and her voice. Here Rene Kulitja, artist and Traditional Owner of Uluru (the monolithic rock formation in central Australia), performs a story of the colonisation of her people through the very stillness of a photograph. She shows how the English language of the British tries to smother her language, law and culture: ‘But we are not English. We are Pitjantatjara!’

Pulangkita pitjangu (When the blanket came), displayed at the Portico Library, talks back to an official account of James Cook’s 1770 voyage that arrived in Australia. The account, compiled by Hawkesworth (1773) and held in the Portico Library, records the ‘possession’ of Australia for King Geroge III under the assumption of terra nullius – land belonging to no-one. The photograph counters this claim showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to survive and thrive in their country. 

Two young children in The Portico Library watching a video of artist Rene Kultja addressing audience members at Lowitja Institute. Above them hangs Rene’s artwork Pulangkita pitjangu.

For Rene Kulitja:

‘The blanket represents an important story with the significance of Captain Cook’s story, it’s on the same level. This is our side of the story.’

Putting these together affords a close re-reading of the account to reveal that Cook and his companions (eg. Joseph Banks) had seen people living along the east coast of Australia.

Shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2020, the edition on display was made by special arrangement with Rene Kulitja and photographer Rhett Hammerton. It journeyed from Melbourne to Brisbane to Alice Springs to Docker River via Uluru and Kata Tjuta before arriving in Manchester. In the collective effort to bring the photograph to Manchester we see a commitment to a principle of exhibition, ‘nothing about us without us’, and support the work of the artwork, ‘to get the story straight.’

In the words of Rene Kulitja:

‘It’s crucial we make one story out of our shared history, to get the story straight. At the moment, it’s too one-sided, the Cook side is bigger than the Blanket story. Finding a balance is really important for the wellbeing of our children

James Moss:

The Portico Library’s mission is to make its building, history and collection work for all the people of Manchester and beyond, and especially to share experiences and perspectives with and from those excluded by its early membership. Established at the height of British empire-building in 1806, the Library initially served only wealthy, white, male users (albeit including radical progressives, abolitionists and feminists) and overwhelmingly represents their voices among its books and manuscripts. It was central to Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, since it provided 400 of the leading industrialists, inventors and politicians with daily access to news, books and information, plus a space in which they met, networked and did deals, in the years during which Manchester grew from a town of about 60,000 to the biggest industrial city in the world. For the current team, who are committed to nurturing a socially responsible organisation, this unrepresentative nineteenth-century collection creates a challenge, but also an opportunity. By exposing the inequities upon which Britain’s prosperity was built, and those original texts that cultivated the white supremacist systems we inhabit, we can stimulate productive conversations among our visitors and users. 

The Portico Library, exterior and interior. Photographs: James Moss.

Port Jackson/Sydney in 1801. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales from its first settlement in January 1788 to August 1801, 1802. The Portico Library collection.

A view of the exhibition inside the Library. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn.

To achieve this, we have introduced increasingly collaborative and self-reflexive methods, working with experts-by-experience like Rene Kulitja and directly quoting campaigners such as Mangubadijarri Yanner to offset the obscurantism of the Library’s historic texts and our own inevitable biases. Rene’s photograph Pulangkita pitjangu, collaborative painting and text (Uluru Statement from the Heart) and performance at the Lowitja Institute are all intended to reach across lands and waters, time and place, to call each viewer and reader to action. In a Library whose books contain thousands of words about Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander people, the very least we can do today is to share words and intentions from artists and speakers like Rene. But this is of course just the start of what is needed. 

Anangu artists with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. From left: Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja, Happy Reid. Photograph: Clive Scollaly.

    A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as displayed in the Portico exhibition.

As a small charity, our budgets are often stretched, but we have committed to always paying artists and contributors, and covering the additional costs of ensuring legitimate voices are heard. 

The necessity to work with people with first-hand lived experience of exclusion and marginalisation is directly relevant to decolonisation, and translates into institutions ensuring that their work and contributions are well-paid for. To exhibit with Rene, who speaks a Pitjantjatjara language and based more than 1,500km from the nearest city, and in a time zone 9.5 hours distant from Manchester—and whose priorities are distinct from those of exhibition producers in England —factoring in significant extra time between communications was essential. Colleagues like Helen and Apapat who are conscientious and patient but also responsive and adaptable are also vital. 

The process of addressing the enormous imbalances of the history we have inherited does not have an end point. However, the direction we choose can either help perpetuate the privileges that benefit a few while disadvantaging others–especially marginalised communities–or generate new ideas and an enthusiasm for change.

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The exhibition ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’ is available online to view here.

Radha Kapuria is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History in Sheffield. She researches and teaches cultural histories of South Asia and the Global South, with a specific interest in music and gender history, migration, displacement and borderlands, and conflict, decolonisation and culture. She tweets @RadhaKapuria .

Helen Idle is a Research Associate with the Menzies Australia institute at King’s College London. Her research considers how visual cultures, art, and artefacts work as agents of knowledge production in museums, galleries and libraries. She also produced the exhibition ‘Entwined: knowledge and power in the age of Captain Cook’ at the Portico Library. She uses creative narrative and self-reflexive methodologies to work towards decolonisation within these domains. She tweets @Helen1i .

James Moss is an artist and curator who uses artworks, events and collaborations to interpret collections’ significance with new audiences. He is currently the Exhibitions Curator at The Portico Library in Manchester. He has curated a series of site-responsive co-produced projects to promote and contextualise the Portico’s 19th-century collection, including Made In Translation, and Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles & Feminism. The Portico Library tweets @ThePortico .

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Afghan Independence and the Violence of Imperial Peace

HM MAX’s blog

As Afghanistan now stands on the verge of a withdrawal agreement and an end to the occupation since 2001, the nation once again ponders the meanings of peace after a period of conflict dating back to the 1970s. On 19 August 2019, Afghanistan also celebrates the centenary of the restitution of its independence from British imperial rule.

In the eighteenth year of the (current) Afghan war, ‘peace’ talks are taking place with the Taliban movement, the remnants of the very regime that the US-led NATO coalition dislodged in response to the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda on 9/11. Important decisions on the future government of Afghanistan are being made far away from home, in Doha with the USA and in Moscow with Russia. Another imperially forged peace is on the horizon, but it spells a problem for the future of Afghanistan: the tragedy of the postcolonial present lies in the escalating deployment of rationales of power that were developed in the age of empire.

The signing of the peace treaty between British India and Afghanistan in Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919 has been captured as the moment when Afghanistan’s independence was restored. Between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Afghanistan was part of British India’s empire of the Raj, whose economic, political and cultural influence stretched far beyond India itself: from Southeast Asia to East Africa, from the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia.

In effect, Afghanistan was a dependence of a colony. In April 1919, at a time when colonial violence was particularly tangible, Amir Amanullah Khan declared his government’s independence. Armed jihad, or struggle, became the chosen means to achieve its recognition. The Third Anglo-Afghan War became Afghanistan’s War of Independence. Fighting took place from May to June 1919 along the border with India, a conflict that sits in a longer history of empire-state-tribe interaction on the frontier.

The purpose of military violence was not invasion. It lay in the logic of imperial diplomacy. Afghanistan had been excluded from the peace conference in Paris, where a new global post-war order was being shaped. The road to self-determination for colonial peoples did not lie in the appeal to egalitarian ideals. Independence was not granted. It had to be won; and the path from imperial subjecthood to the international recognition of sovereignty led through military conflict. One hundred years ago, independence necessitated ‘belligerency’. Today’s practitioners of insurgency have likewise fought their way to the table of international diplomacy.

The history of empire has certified the capacity for violence that kills and maims as a path to power. The US government prides itself in the organised production of destructive force, like the Massive Ordnance Air Blast of 2017, also fetishised as the “mother of all bombs”. A US president casually articulates the mass murder of millions of Afghans as a potential path to peace.

In 1919, a bombing raid on Kabul conducted by the nascent Royal Air Force during the Afghan War of Independence led to similar fantasies of military dominance. Meanwhile, the numbers of civilian casualties effected by occupation and Afghan National Army forces, the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State, are rising. On 7 August 2019, a Taliban bomb exploded in Kabul. And yet, for empires and their insurgents, the reward for violence is a seat at the table of peace negotiations.

The USA and Russia are legitimising the Pakistan-backed Taliban as stakeholders in an Afghan peace, generating the movement’s legitimacy as an international negotiating partner. In exchange for their promise to abstain from supporting global terrorism, the Taliban are offered the prospect of partaking in a future government of Afghanistan. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, successive amirs of Afghanistan reached agreements with regional neighbours. They even forfeited the right to conduct independent international relations to British India in exchange for their rulership of Afghanistan.

As a result of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century imperial contest between the British-Indian and Tsarist empires in South and Central Asia, modern Afghanistan emerged as a ‘buffer state’. Today, Afghanistan is being shaped as its modern-day variant, a geopolitical container required by the War on Terror. Meanwhile, as the most important stakeholders, the majority of Afghans do not endorse these foreign power brokers. In the context of empire, political convenience and opportunity often trump accountability and democracy. The decolonisation of these power-driven rationales in international relations has never been more urgent.

Maximilian Drephal is Research Associate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and also lectures in the School of Politics and International Studies at Loughborough University. He is the author of Afghanistan and the Coloniality of Diplomacy, which is published in the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series by Palgrave Macmillan.As Lecturer in International History at Sheffield, he has taught a class on “Afghanistan from the ‘Great Game’ to the ‘War on Terror'”, engaging with the subject also in previous publications in Modern Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press) and the edited collection Sport and Diplomacy: Games within Games (Manchester University Press).

 

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Apologise for Amritsar? Violence and Memory on the Centenary of the Massacre

The wall with bullet holes at Jallianwala Bagh

Saturday just gone (13th April) marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre. On this day in 1919, thousands of Indians from the city and its environs descended upon the Jallianwala Bagh, a public space, to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, to attend a political meeting in the context of Gandhi’s Rowlatt satyagraha, or simply to rest and relax in the Bagh. The British commander in charge of the local army garrison, General Reginald Dyer, had earlier issued orders prohibiting public gatherings and imposing a curfew on the city. Considering the gathering a direct contravention of his orders, Dyer determined to disperse the meeting with force. Without any forewarning, Dyer’s troops opened fire upon this peaceful and unarmed group of men, women and children. After more than ten minutes of slow, deliberate firing, official figures suggest 379 people lay dead (other estimates are much higher), with three times that number wounded.

The Amritsar Massacre has come to occupy a prominent place in any litany of the violent excesses of British imperialism. At the time, Dyer’s actions were criticised by some (but not all) in Britain as an outright betrayal of British values. Most famously, in July 1920, Churchill recalled what happened as ‘a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation … Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things’.

Today, centenary activities have principally coalesced around demands for the current British government to issue an official apology, with debates on this issue in the Lords back in February and in the Commons last Tuesday. This reflects larger, ongoing concerns about how best to contend with Britain’s imperial legacy. Ahead of the debate in the Commons a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson revisited Churchill’s speech, in tones that were reminiscent of David Cameron’s visit to Amritsar in February 2013.

Whilst stopping short of an apology, Cameron expressed ‘deep regret’, drawing upon Churchill’s speech to both condemn the massacre and attempt to recover Britain’s reputation as a benevolent influence upon the world. Both Churchill’s and Cameron’s depictions have been informed by a narrative of exceptionalism, in which British colonial rule is portrayed as kinder and gentler than that practised by other European powers. In these accounts, Dyer’s actions are an aberration, abhorrent to the strong moral basis upon which the empire was built.

In reality, however, Amritsar was no exception, but the most well known example of the ordinariness of colonial violence in British India. Invoking such banality is not to suggest that we should take this violence for granted. Doing so can reduce us to simply reconstructing history for its own sake, rather than reflecting on how events and actions were experienced and justified at the time. At the same time this is not an attempt to excuse what happened, but to better understand the motivations behind such actions.

Rather than focus on the ways in which the massacre subsequently electrified Indian anti-colonial nationalism of various ideological hues and methods, Kim Wagner’s recent book has emphasised the continuities of colonial rule in the violence of 1919. Invoking ‘the spectre of the “Mutiny”’ of 1857, Wagner has revealed how a particular and recurring ‘colonial mindset’ was shaped by the contradiction between ‘white power and white vulnerability’. In fact, Dyer’s actions reflected a common desire to ‘keep up appearances’ and avoid ‘losing face’, in the context of a pervasive and imagined anxiety about the latent threat of ‘native rebellion’.

Whether we end up with a formal apology or not, we can be certain that the massacre will continue to figure on any roll call of British colonial violence. This owes much to the consistent depiction of Amritsar and other colonial massacres as exceptional events. However, such interpretations ultimately deserve much closer and more careful scrutiny, in view of both the inescapability of colonial violence and the shared pressures and apprehensions that informed it.

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Oliver Godsmark is Lecturer in History at the University of Derby. His research considers citizenship, democracy and territory in late colonial and early postcolonial India. He has considered these issues in his recent monograph and in articles in South Asia and Modern Asian Studies.

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