Decolonisation: some thoughts on its history

“Until the lion learns to write – the story will always glorify the hunter.” J. Nozipo Maraire

The aim of this paper is to offer a location within educational historiography for decolonisation. This paper attempts to historically situate my role as a teacher within a wider historical and political context – and to synthesise research about education and social sustainability. I will start with an overview of some histories of this term and set it in a longer context of calls for social, racial and environmental justice within higher education. This focus of this work is principally on the UK, however I will discuss European wide trends and international locations as they are relevant. I will end by outlining the calls to action braided through the term and some of the practical approaches that can be taken by academics to decolonise curricula, cultures within Universities and spaces of educational encounter.


Published on 9th November 2021 | Written by Al Page | Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

Decolonisation as an action was the transfer of sovereignty from European colonial powers to former colonised nations, in Britain this process occurred between 1945 and 1997. There has been a focus in the historiography in the literature focussing on the interplay between European governments and indigenous societies (Armitage, D. and David, A., 2000 ; Gallagher, 1982; Holland, 1985; Hargreaves, 1988) showing the forces at play and the rationales behind the decision to cede power. However, with the ‘completion’ of this process by 1997 (Brown, 1998) Britain and its institutions could no longer be considered ‘colonial’ (Childs et al., 2014).

“Colonialism made the political world map look much as it does today, drawing up borders with no regard for local sensibilities and realities. It negated or purposefully misconceived the cultural, economic, political and social conditions under which the colonized led their lives. In the process, colonial powers imposed inappropriate identities on the people they ruled, crippling peoples’ self-esteem, thus diminishing their self-efficacy and potentially stunting their long-term social development.” (Quintero, 2012)

Within the context of this paper decolonisation is an unfinished project; and colonialism re- mains as an asymmetric power imbalance between countries that were formally colonies and the nations that ruled them. Recent work from indidgious scholars describes colonisation as a continuing political, economic and theoretical process used to impose Western/Eurocentric narratives about colonised community histories and the lasting impacts of the imperial pro- ject including, genocide, and cultural assimilation (Smith, L. T., 1999).

This ongoing process privileges Eurocentric epidemiologies within global Academia; “Indigenous knowledge systems are too frequently made into objects of study, treated as if they were instances of quaint folk theory held by the members of a primitive culture.” (Denzin et al., 2008). Decolonisation has two specific interlocking demands; firstly that forms of indigenous knowledge are no longer compared to Eurocentric forms of knowledge and secondly that the locations of Eurocentric knowledge are placed under the same forms of duress and judgement as indigenous knowledge. Yoking these two claims together is the ambition to restore indigenous knowledge, culture, language and environmental understanding in the contexts and conditions in which it was found pre-colonisation.

2020 marked a moment in which the long standing calls to decolonise the curriculum be- came both urgent and real in significant and distinct ways. Much of this pressure emerged from an increase in student led activism whose critiques of the higher education system as it exists in the UK calls for a far reaching and systemic rethinking of the forms of knowledge that are housed within Universities;

“The time is right for decolonizing the curriculum to reinvigorate what is being taught in HEIs. In critically re-examining what is included in the curriculum – the voices, narratives and different sources of knowledge – education could be transforming of both the individual (staff and/or student) and the impact this might have on the subject discipline and society.” (Charles, 2019)

Decolonisation is nothing new; anti-colonial or anti-imperial movements date back as far in history as the colonies themselves, and this process has been yoked to struggles within col- oniser nations for equal rights for both colonised peoples, and the descendants of colonised peoples. Within the colonised countries the fundamental desire has been the to delineate in- digenous ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1991) and to create spaces or sovereign states in which to house them. Within the polity and territory of the colonisers the conflict has cen- tred on human rights and redefining understandings of nationalities to include – as full members – the colonised or the descendants of the colonised. (Parker, 2009)

Within the context of Universities there has been a history of BIPOC students at UK Univer- sities since at least the 1810’s (Appiah, 1990) and there is a rich history of contributions to scholarship in the UK by citizens of colonised nations . Recent scholarship has focussed on the resuscitation of some of these legacies with projects such as the Black Cantabs in Cam- bridge and the plaque commemorating Oxford’s first black student; Christian Cole.

Universities as institutions have had key roles to play in the de-colonial project in two distinct but interconnected ways. Firstly, English Universities were sites where colonial ‘administrators’ could gain an education and it was at these Universities that key links were forged within the anti-colonial movement (Moscovitch, 2018). The growth in students from the colonies studying in Britain had deep and often conflicting results; it entrenched the English language as the lingua franca of post-colonial Governmental administration while raising profound questions of indigeneity and identity through trans-cultural interactions. One of its key roles was – ironically – that it fostered anti-imperial nationalism in students who “frequently tasted freedom for the first time while in Britain and returned with a greater desire to terminate the empire that suppressed it at home.” Jomo Kenyatta the first post-independence leader of Kenya was one of 7 post-colonial African leaders to study at the London School of Economics, for instance. Scholars such as Marxist Professor of Political Science Harold Laski, developed close and formative relationships with colonial students. His formulation of anti-colonial Marxism had a distinct impact on the economic policies of post-colonial India, for instance. The classes and political experiences of overseas students at UK universities produced graduates inclined towards particular varieties of internationalism, socialism and a belief in the power of the social sciences to transform society by facilitating expert advising and planning. (Moscovitch, 2017).

Alongside this was the creation of Universities in the British colonies from 1940 onwards. The establishment of Universities in the British colonies were seen from London as a route towards home rule through the education of a technocratic middle class ‘capable’ or running the countries along the ideological and managerial lines established by London. However, several scholars have established that the building of Universities in colonies in the era of decolonisation was a paradoxical example of the second colonial occupation of Africa. Livsey (2014) observes that while universities formed a crucial arena wherein decolonisation was ne- gotiated and anti-colonial activism was active it none the less represented the core paradox of decolonisation: being characterised by the simultaneous expansion of indirect control combined with a reduction of power within the colony. The importation of expatriate teachers and technical experts exemplified another era of colonial invasion, one informed by explicit racial prejudice against indigenous culture, intellectual capabilities and forms of self-governing. In doing so, colonial universities were simultaneously progressive but also far less radical than they initially appear, demonstrating a consistency with C19th and early C20th notions of the imperial ‘civilising mission’ welded to market orientated liberalism.

Interwar Paris represents an important watershed in pan-European academic response to calls for greater human rights for colonised people in Europe and glbally. This era was pow- ered by the work of an earlier generation of African diaspora students—among them Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, Paulette Nardal and Léopold Sédar Senghor who initiated the Négri- tude movement as a response to their encounters with the violent racism that characterised French society and educational institutions.

Their critique was epistemological as well as social. They took to task supposedly ‘enlight- ened’ European and Euro-American intellectuals over their role in developing and perpetuat- ing the intellectual and rhetorical resources used to legitimate systems of racial domination and colonialism. Césaire called them ‘charlatans and tricksters’, men who masqueraded as objective and rational but who were deeply invested in white supremacy and “refuse to ac- knowledge any merit in the non-white races and who were implicit in an intellectual project the perfidious purpose of which was the eradicating of the self-consciousness of the exploit- ed.” (Césaire, 1935)

In the lead up to the formal end of the British empire in 1997 – with the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government – there was a turn within academe towards post-colonial theory. (Ashcroft et al., 2002) Growing out of post-modernism and post-structuralism it was mainly centred around literary departments and found its grounding in the work of Foucault. Within this school of theory critiques were levelled against the instability and pretensions of Western imperialist grand-narratives, the Western figure of the stable subject, nationalisms, gender and the epistemology of Western liberalism more broadly. Writers such as Edward Said, Ngoga wa Thiong’o and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak attempted to account for the coloni- al encounter. Foregrounded in this work was an explicit critique of the Western theorisation of alterity/difference; this was a politics of reconstruction; and an attempt to find “a colloquium between the antagonistic inheritors of the colonial aftermath” (Gandhi, 2019)

Much of this theoretical legacy found material outlet in the Rhodes Must fall campaign, which started in earnest at Cape Town University in 2013 and spread first to Oxford University and then to many campuses throughout the UK. Centred initially on the symbolism and economic legacy of arch-imperialist and violent white supremacist Cecil Rhodes the campaign attempted to;

“1) Tackle the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history;

2) Reform the Euro-centric curriculum to remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge – by integrating subjugated and local epidemiologies. This will create a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy;

3) Address the under-representation and lack of welfare provision for Black and minority eth- nic (BME) amongst Oxford’s academic staff and students.” (RMFO, 2014)

The RMFO campaign has seen some success with statues of Rhodes removed across the campus in Cape Town and broad acceptance of its claims to decolonise the curriculum. Just as vitally it has also raised distinct critiques within universities around the legacy of funding and a culture of donations in order to ‘whitewash’ money;

“For instance, Rhodes’ statue has nothing to do on a public university campus. Then we are told that he donated his land and his money to build the university. How did he get the land in the first instance? How did he get the money? Who ultimately paid for the land and the money? Furthermore, a great donor is one who is discreet; who gives without reserve, in an- ticipation for nothing. A great donor is not one who is trying to manufacture wholesale debts, especially debts in regards to future generations who are then required to be eternally grateful.” (Mbembe, 2016)

This movement has spread to UK Universities and was foundational in the establishment at UCL in April 2015 of the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign, which in turn inspired subsequent groups in other mainly white elite UK Universities. These movements have broadened to include wide spread calls for social and environmental justice and a widening of the doors to access to Higher education.

This longer history has to be seen within the current logic of austerity politics in the UK the rise in University tuition fees and growing racial inequality, housing shortages, mass incarcer- ation and the doubling down on regressive policing. (Cha-Jua, 2010) The post-racial dream of the Obama presidency in the US combined with the very real barriers to access and success in majority white Universities and the current realities over police brutality in the west against BIPOC communities has created the current conditions in which the calls for change have be- come urgent and immanent.

A recent report puts it very bluntly; ”[W]hile BME students are over-represented in university entrance figures, they are concentrated in post-1992 and “new” universities, have lower levels of attainment and poorer graduate prospects than their White British classmates … UK universities have proved remarkably resilient to change in terms of curriculum, culture and staffing, remaining for the most part “ivory towers”—with the emphasis on “ivory”” (Arday et al., 2019)

With this history in mind some broad and long-standing themes emerge within decolonisa- tion as theory and action; the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign here again is instructive and we can see the movement focusses on three areas of University life and activity; iconog- raphy, curriculum and representation.

The battle over the material legacy and perpetuation of colonial discourse has been a key fo- cus of the de-colonial movements and is linked to larger attempts to de-fang the intense cultural amnesia around the role that Universities in the UK have played in the production of racist and colonial ideology. Goldsmiths students for example have called for the removal of statues of colonisers from the front of the Deptford Town Hall building, which has recently been purchased by the University. UCL students have focussed on the naming of buildings after race-scientists and eugenicists such as Francis Galton and Glasgow University students have pressed for action on that institutions historical links with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The material legacy then represents one distinct area of activity in the broader de-colonial movement. However, there is also a broad consensus that there needs to be a focus on the University as a space in which alternative, indigenous and subaltern (Spivak, 2002) forms of knowledge production can be taught and researched. This is an attempt to remedy selective narratives of academia and to question the ‘universal’ knowledge that is implicit in the very structure and naming of the ‘University’

A decolonised curriculum, then, is not simply one in which more space, attention and institu- tional support is given to texts and thinkers from the Global South/BIPOC communities. It is one that prioritises situated knowledge and which helps to re-establish and restore cultural knowledge that is indigenous and may be pre-colonial. “Consider that for more than a century, indigenous students have been part of a forced assimilation plan – their heritage and knowledge rejected and suppressed, and ignored by the education system” (Battiste, 2013, p. 23)

The claims made by the decolonise the curriculum campaigns as outlined above situate the classroom as a key site of ideological education and one which has radical potential to be
a space of struggle and historical restitution. This work is vital, for as Stuart Hall has said; “knowledge and learning shapes perceptions and practice … [and] has consequences for both those who employ it and those who are subjected to it” (Hall, 1992).


About the author

Alexander Page is an artist.


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