Do we need to decolonise history? And if so, how?
In 2019, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, expressed shock at figures showing the underrepresentation of ethnicity in professor positions in universities and encouraged scholars to “open up the conversation” about the curriculum. But what is decolonising history all about? How do we go about doing it – and do we actually need to? Here, we ask 10 experts for their views….
What does ‘decolonising history’ mean?
The campaign to decolonise history calls for a greater representation of non-European thinkers, as well as better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced, says Meera Sabaratnam, a senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS University of London – home to the only history department in Britain and north America that does not teach courses on western history (rather, its BA and MA History programmes focus exclusively on the histories of regions and people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East).
Sabaratnam, who is also the chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group, says decolonising the curriculum “asks us to look at our shared assumptions about how the world is.
“It is accepted in many disciplines that in the past, assumptions regarding racial and civilisational hierarchy informed a lot of thinking about how the world worked, what was worth studying in it and how it should be studied. Such assumptions also informed and justified the expansion of colonial rule in Asia, Africa and the Middle East until the mid-20th century. Whilst many of these assumptions have been challenged with the dismantling of colonial rule, many persist in public discourse as well as academic study.
“‘Decolonising the curriculum’ also asks the crucial questions about the relationship between the location and identity of the writer, what they write and how they write about it.”
So how do we go about decolonising history – and do we really need to? Here, 10 experts share their views…
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“It’s time to look at the Tudors and the English Civil War in a globally-connected way” – Dr Eleanor Newbigin
Imagine a detective at a crime scene, immobile, refusing to move, failing to assess the scene from different perspectives, interviewing only a selected few of the witnesses, while ignoring others. When she does finally talk to some of the others she asks them to corroborate the evidence she’s already got, not to give their own account of what has happened.
A decolonised approach to historical ‘detective work’ would require much more than interviewing the witnesses our detective ignored, and it would be necessary to look at the scene from more perspectives. A decolonised history would also explore the histories that had shaped this detective’s prejudice and bias. Some of this may be deliberate – perhaps she chose to speak to only some people, but perhaps it simply did not occur to her to do otherwise. What are the structures that enabled her not to see, not to think of these people? Where do these structures come from and what are their histories?
A decolonised history seeks much more than a better understanding of the history of European Empire. It seeks to understand how that history lives on today – in our institutions, in our social perspectives and in the very way in which we ‘do’ history. Humans have been thinking and writing about the past for millennia, but the discipline of history as we know it today is a product of the age of European empire. This has had profound consequences for our understanding of where ‘history’ happens and who shapes it. European colonial practice was built on racialised, gendered hierarchies. European people (or, to be precise, able-bodied, heterosexual, white men) were held to be the most developed on the globe. They were the drivers of modernity and progress, while all others were the inert and docile recipients of their civilised dynamism.
A decolonised history explores how these ideas emerged and continue to shape our understanding of not only the world under European empire, but also before that. Indeed, a fundamental part of undoing the blinkers of colonised history is to teach more widely and actively about attitudes and world views that existed before European empire, while thinking about why and how these came to be side-lined later on.
Calling for a decolonised and less-Eurocentric history is absolutely not to argue that we should not teach about the Tudors or the English Civil War, as some critics have suggested. But it is a call to look at these histories in a more critical, globally-connected way. Teaching about the Tudor kingdom as a contemporary of the Mughal empire and Ming dynasty would help students to see that the 16th century marked a period of powerful state-building right across the globe.
But we should also ask students to think about why we haven’t traditionally thought about Tudor rule in this way. What do we miss if we see the Tudors as part of only a ‘British’ story? How does doing so erase the economic and political desires that led to the formation of the East India Company and the import of wealth and riches from Asia to Britain?
Far from ‘cutting’ white men or white peoples out of history, as some critics have argued, the call to decolonise history requires us to look precisely at why these stories have come to dominate our understanding of what counts as history, and how this view of history reflects the prejudiced hierarchies of empire that should have no place in today’s democratic society.
Eleanor Newbigin is senior lecturer in the history of modern South Asia at SOAS University of London.
“We need to address the low number of people of colour hired to teach these histories” – Prof Olivette Otele
A few public figures have been giving the term ‘decolonising’ bad publicity in the last few years. A skewed understanding of the term has led people to believe that it should refer to a time when European colonies demanded self-determination. We learnt in the last decades that those movements were not peaceful. The narratives of benevolent European colonisers were obliterated as new sources emerged; some of which had been ‘migrated’ by European governments. In 2011, the Foreign Office acknowledged that around 8,800 files had been migrated to Britain during the troubled eras of independence of former colonies. The same year in France, we learnt how decolonial leaders had been hunted down and killed so that France could impose chosen candidates as presidents of the new countries.
The term decolonising has since evolved and refers nowadays to a process as much as to tools used to unpack, critically learn and get rid of discriminatory practices that are still plaguing several areas, including academic disciplines.
We have seen a cohort of public intellectuals expressing their views on the matter without giving particular thoughts to (or dismissing) the important historical contexts that brought about the post-war and the 21st century-decolonising movements. They were not born in a vacuum. They were the results of practices that were damaging for groups of people.
Twenty-first-century Britain is a culturally diverse society that is still struggling with the idea that those of non-European descent can be European and have every right to demand that the teaching of history reflect their multiple identities and the country’s overall common histories.
A recent report by the Royal Historical Society clearly demonstrated that identity, a sense of belonging and social cohesion were also linked to gaps in the British curriculum. History needs to be diverse. It means having a rich number of resources that include scholars from the so-called Global South as well as Afro-Asian-American-Europeans. However, diversity cannot be a substitute to decolonising. Decolonising also means addressing unequivocally the issue of the low number of people of colour hired in these institutions to teach those histories. Who teaches matters as much as what is taught.
Instead of brainstorming on exciting new approaches to deliver these various histories, we are currently wasting time catering to people who are worried about the alleged decline of ‘Western civilisation and values’ – a luxury the descent of the colonised do not have. I guess addressing the long history of ‘white privilege’ is also part of this 21st-century decolonising movement.
Olivette Otele is professor of history at Bath Spa University, specialising in the British and French empires and their legacies. Her publications focus on the history and memory of slavery and its lasting impact on Europe, Africa, Canada and the Indian Ocean.
“The truth is that when Britain was ‘great’ it was not ‘white’, but drew its strength from its colonial people” – Prof Kehinde Andrews
The first step in decolonising the way history is taught is to abandon the island story and engage with Britain through empire. Focusing on the British Isles presents a narrow version of Britishness which not only centres on the whiteness of the supposedly ‘indigenous’ population but is also woefully inaccurate. When we present British history as that of the islands we ignore the contributions of the colonies. It was only in the post-war period that large parts of the Caribbean, Africa and Asia became independent. Before this they were an integral part of the British Empire (nation) and contributed to every aspect of society. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that I should be grateful to those who fought the Nazis so that I can have my freedoms, as if my Caribbean family were not just as involved in the war effort as my relatives in Manchester.
Going further back, the industrial revolution that Britain is so proud of would have been impossible without the profits from slavery in the Caribbean and the exploitation of labour and resources in India. A proper understanding of Britain as empire would teach those on the island that we are not ‘foreign’, we always been part of the nation, which at one point spread across the globe.
The Windrush scandal would have been inconceivable if we knew that those we are deporting not only helped to build the welfare state but were either born as, or to subjects of, the British state. The truth is that when Britain was ‘great’ it was not ‘white’, but drew its strength from its colonial people. If society understood Britain as empire millions would not be yearning for a version of Britannia that simply never existed. With the stakes of Brexit being so high, understanding and unravelling the lie of the island story has perhaps never been so important.
Kehinde Andrews is professor of black studies at Birmingham City University and author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2018).
“Is it the responsibility of historians to sit in moral judgement on empires?” – Tom Holland
The original meaning of history was ‘enquiry’. Herodotus’ ambition, as he declared in the opening sentence of the first work of history ever written, was to ensure that “human achievement may be spared the ravages of time”. His investigations led him to write about everything under the sun: from snow-falls in Scandinavia to gold-digging ants in India. All the world was his proper canvas.
And so too today should it be for history departments. Expanding the range and variety of subjects available for students to study has to rank as an unqualified good. It is a goal that historians of all backgrounds and political persuasions should be able to support. Frame the broadening of the curriculum as a ‘decolonising of the curriculum’, however, and at once the issue becomes polarised. All kinds of theological questions are begged. Is it the responsibility of historians to sit in moral judgement on empires? If so, then which empires? Should an African or Asian empire be considered less compromised as a field of study than a European one?
The recent suggestion by Robert Gildea that black and ethnic minority students might find nothing of interest in the study of British history showed where talk of decolonising the history curriculum risks ending up. It should not be beyond the wit of good history departments to render the Anglo-Saxons – immigrants who, living amid a post-imperial order, fashioned new cultural, political and religious identities for themselves – a topic of interest to BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) students. To suggest otherwise is as ridiculous as suggesting that white students might find nothing to interest them in the history of ancient India, or the Incas, or the Malian Empire.
“But if I may digress here–,” Herodotus says at one point, “as I have sought opportunities to do from the moment I started this account of my enquiries…” This is the spirit that should be fostered: a sense that to study history is to embark on a journey that may lead anywhere.
Tom Holland is the author of a series of books on ancient and early medieval history including Athelstan: The Making of England (Penguin, 2016)
“The tyranny of the clock and the cult of work, which make so much of contemporary schooling joyless, are products of colonialism” – Dr Robin Bunce
Education is inherently political. What is it for? Who pays? Who benefits? These fundamental questions provoke intense controversy. And history is the most political of subjects. So, it’s no surprise that history has been central to recent reforms and to the campaign to decolonise the curriculum.
Decolonisation can be understood as an attempt to create a more diverse curriculum, or as an attempt to use education to expose and critique the systems of power that structure our world – systems that have their roots in colonialism.
I would argue that recent policy has been a barrier to decolonisation. In 2014, Richard J Evans, then professor of history at Cambridge, wrote that the then-education secretary Michael Gove's vision of history was, “a Little England version of our national past… a mindless regression to the patriotic myths of the Edwardian era”. At a deeper level, Gove’s desire to create a “knowledge-rich” curriculum was effectively an attack on “multi-cultural” education. Following the American educationalist ED Hirsch, Gove believed that schools had emphasised diverse cultures at the expense of essential facts, and to the detriment of shared values.
Austerity has also had an impact on attempts to decolonise history. ‘Efficiency savings’ have increased teacher workload immeasurably, while cutting funds for new resources. In a context where results matter more than ever, teachers are often reluctant to consider new topics or new approaches.
The irony of contemporary education is that teachers and students rarely have time to think. The tyranny of the clock and the cult of work, which make so much of contemporary schooling joyless, are products of colonialism. White colonialists believed that their industriousness, and their ability to measure time mechanically, made them superior to the black and brown people they dominated. Taking pressure off schools is a practical act of decolonisation. It will allow time for the critical thought necessary for the thoroughgoing decolonisation of history.
Dr Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He collaborated with a group of historians on Our Migration Story: The Making of Britain – an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded collaboration between the universities of Manchester and Cambridge and the Runnymede Trust, which provides resources for teachers teaching diverse histories
“A decolonised history might compel us to look more closely at our British experience” – Prof Peter J Ling
As a historian of the USA, I face several paradoxes in relation to decolonisation. At the height of the Cold War when the US was presenting itself to recently decolonised nations as a model, it reached back into its own experience of overthrowing a colonial power to suggest that it had a revolutionary tradition that could be shared. Simultaneously, former European colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean quickly perceived American influence as a type of neo-imperialism. Within America itself, the 1960s saw a widespread demand for a new “people’s history” that looked at the past from the “bottom up”. Stories of ‘great white men’ should give way to accounts of a more diverse array of less celebrated figures. The indigenous peoples; the African-American slaves; the kaleidoscope of ethnic working peoples from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America as well as Europe should all find agencies in this new history and by taking power from the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) decolonise American history. The Indian wars and western expansion were reconceptualised as ‘empire-building’.
The decolonised nation was a coloniser. As a historian of the civil rights movement I have confronted a further paradox. The African-American freedom struggle is important and inspiring and a figure like Martin Luther King is celebrated not just in the US. But surely this reflects the reality of American cultural imperialism? The media-rich documentation of American social movements within the Anglophone world makes it relatively easy to produce a compelling history, full of glorious oratory and graphic film footage – a ‘made for TV’ movie. Perhaps a decolonised history might compel us to look more closely at our British experience, ensuring that the 1963 Bristol bus boycott is as famous as the 1955–56 Montgomery one?
Peter J Ling is professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham and author of Martin Luther King Jr (2015) and [with Sharon Monteith eds] Gender in the Civil Rights Movement (2019)
“It’s time to reframe and reclaim black history” – Lavinya Stennett
Decolonising is the examining of our society which includes accountability, understanding and the re-insertion of experiences that have been side-lined in the process of colonial domination. It means accepting that colonial forces are oppressive. As a process, it entails the development of a culture that begins to see and examine the partiality of its foundations and current state. It leads us to not only ask questions but to find solutions. We know inequalities and racism exist, but what are we doing about it? The process therefore requires individuals to leave behind the arrogance that accompanies power and apathy that prohibits the space to examine an iniquitous condition objectively.
Many a time, the discourse surrounding decolonisation is devoid of meaningful analysis of the objective structures of colonialism. This is because its power is so deeply embedded within the norms and social structures of our society that we uphold and perpetuate the condition through our actions. In order to decolonise, we have to recognise each facet of life as constituting a work which extends, but is not limited to, the realms of knowledge, territorial/physical space and the body.
Seeing the project of decolonising as one that exceeds introspection and positionality is simply a time-wasting effort that does not have any material impact on people who experience colonial violence on a daily basis. The decolonising effort must start with an acceptance of the reality experienced by people terrorised by the continuing legacy of colonialism and therefore, not only should their inclusion be paramount – but decolonising must happen on their terms.
The Black Curriculum is a project I founded which teaches black British history around schools in the UK. In theory, it is a decolonising project that starts from the premise of re-centring narratives that have been rendered invisible and misrepresented by the structures of colonialism. We are solutions-based and we reframe black history both in narration and teaching, with the aim of providing a more critical and empowering curriculum.
Re-claiming black history has wide-ranging effects for those who will go on to learn it, as they are given a lens to view the society they will go on to change and, more importantly, are given a sense of identity. Therefore, any project of decolonising must foresee a positive way to change the material conditions of those impacted by colonialism and, from the inception, create a path that is on their terms.
Lavinya Stennett is a final-year student on the BA African Studies and Development Programme at SOAS University of London and a founder of the Black Curriculum project.
“Language learning is the key to decolonising the history curriculum” – Dr Nina Wardleworth
To identify, include and valorise a greater range of voices (of both primary sources and scholarship) that are needed to successfully decolonise the history curriculum, we must promote language learning. If we are overly, or solely, reliant on Anglophone voices or those who have been translated in English (with all the political and economic biases that such translation policies involve), then as historians we continue to perpetuate existing, often discriminatory and partial, narratives. These leave our students at best ill-informed about their own national history as well as global histories, or at worst feeling marginalised within our university curricula.
We are already a multilingual nation – between 16.6 per cent and 21.2 per cent of school students are bilingual because of their family heritage. Such linguistic competences and the intercultural skills that they bring with them need to be acknowledged and celebrated to a far greater extent. As academics, when designing university curricula we need to think more creatively about how such linguistic skills can be expressed and given credit in learning and assessment.
As the uptake of languages is falling in our schools (as has been highlighted by the British Academy), universities must stress, to a far greater extent, the importance of language learning to their students in terms of academic and intellectual development as well as employability. This can be achieved either through picking up again a language studied years earlier or learning a new language from the beginning alongside the main subject.
Equally, as historians we should be engaged with language learning throughout our own careers, as an important form of professional development*. (*Dr John Gallagher, history lecturer at the University of Leeds, has provided a useful list of tools available through this blog post.)
Dr Nina Wardleworth is lecturer in French and francophone studies and academic lead for inclusive curriculum design at the University of Leeds
“Education needs to be reconceptualised to reflect the conceptually-rich world we inhabit” – Dr Manjeet Ramgotra
How we form young minds matters. What we teach students to consider as knowledge, both contemporary and historical, structures and justifies social and political institutions. If we want to create greater gender and racial equality, we ought to reflect on this and what it is we do when we teach the history of political ideas.
In the first year of study at university, a certain formation takes place that is foundational. Some first-year introductions to political theory are structured conceptually, and others approach the study of political thought historically and teach a historical canon of thinkers from antiquity to the present that occasionally includes thinkers outside of the canon. However, these courses do not always include a wide diversity of thinkers. If they do, there is a tendency in conceptually-based courses to classify these thinkers under categories of feminism or post-colonialism courses. This leaves the study of political thinkers as the domain of white men; and, in turn, we reiterate a particular hierarchy.
The historical approach is also problematic. It presents a constructed history that tells the story of the development of western political ideas and often imagines this as a conversation between thinkers that occurs over time where subsequent participants build on what has been said by earlier theorists. This approach is not only exclusivist, but it also purports a sort of (chronological) progression of ideas from the ideal Greek city-state to some sort of liberal democracy.
In teaching first-year introduction to political theory I have tried to disrupt these patterns and have integrated more women and non-white political theorists in the syllabus. My course begins by questioning the canon of great thinkers. It puts bell hooks and Aristotle in conversation. This questions the authoritative status of the canon, and students are invited to consider how comparing two thinkers who wrote in very different contexts and times could be problematic, and to think more widely about history and context.
I believe education needs to be reconceptualised to reflect the conceptually-rich world we inhabit. An introductory course to political thought ought to capture diversity and openness rather than reiterate patterns that reinforce racial and gender inequality. The questions raised by women and men of colour are about the political – its boundaries; knowledge; power; freedom; equality; structures and institutions. In other words, they are about political theory writ large, and by pushing the boundaries they question what political theory is and ask why it is exclusive.
Dr Manjeet Ramgotra is a senior teaching fellow in the Department of Politics at SOAS University of London. She teaches political theory and writes on the history of ideas. This post is adapted from an earlier version that appeared on the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog
“Decolonising history is about refusing to relegate the experiences of the peoples of Asia and Africa to mere footnotes” – Prof Alden Young
I teach at a large private university in Philadelphia. When I think of ‘decolonising’ the history curriculum, I think of two distinct challenges: the first is that the United States in recent years has de-emphasised historical knowledge both in the secondary schooling system and increasingly in popular culture. Therefore, many of the people we write for exhibit broad historical illiteracy. The second is how to change the perspectives through which my students and others see and understand the world.
The first challenge means that while we seek to ‘decolonise’ history we have to ensure that we are not simply erasing history. The second challenge, changing the way we see and interpret history, goes directly to the heart of the decolonising mission. At first I thought the task was simply to broaden the curriculum; to teach about new places and different continents. One might think our job as the non-western historian on staff was simply to bring up new figures, tell different stories, add a few things here or there to round out the curriculum.
However, I have been fortunate to work in a small department where the large surveys of modern history have to be taught, and it is this experience that has led me to believe our challenge in decolonising the curriculum is not to add classes about Latin America, Africa, Black Britain or the history of African Americans, but rather to use the experiences of hyper-inflation in places like Sudan or Zimbabwe to fundamentally rethink modern economic history. The challenge is to think of Zimbabwe’s economic history over the past 20 years as no more of an odd case, an outlier, than the economic history of the Weimar Republic.
Similarly, when I teach my students about Martin Luther King’s last speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, I always stop to ask them to reflect on why he ends that speech with the Battle Hymn of the Republic. In the process, I have my students use the words of Martin Luther King to reflect back on the meaning of the Civil War and the remaking of the United States.
Decolonising history is about refusing to relegate the experiences of Africans in the Diaspora or the peoples of Asia and Africa to mere footnotes. The challenge is to place these experiences in the centre of our historical narratives and to change how we interpret our own stories.
Alden Young is assistant professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Program at Drexel University, Philadelphia