National History Center

Forming a Field from Fragments of Empires: The Decolonization Seminars and Their Alumni Help Create New Subdiscipline

Marian J. Barber, November 2012

In the November 2011 issue of Perspectives on History, Lori Watt, who was a participant in the third international seminar on decolonization, offered a personal perspective on the seminar and discussed what it has meant to her and to the other participants. I would like to take a slightly different approach, focusing on what the seminar has meant to the emerging field of decolonization history.

In preparing to do so, I sent an e-mail questionnaire to the 104 scholars who have taken part in the seminar since its inception in 2006. Exactly 50 percent—52 individuals—responded. This article is based on their replies. Though not comprehensive, it gives a clear picture of the kinds of activities seminar alumni are engaged in and their growing influence on the subdiscipline. I asked about books; articles in peer-reviewed journals and edited collections; conferences organized; papers delivered; courses taught and work supervised; media interviews; and activities such as directing academic programs.

According to their responses, since their time in the seminar, 16 alumni have published books, ranging from Ryan M. Irwin's Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order and Lien-Hang T. Nguyen's Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam to Lucy Chester's Borders and Conflict in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the Partition of Punjab. Several won prizes and most have been reviewed in scholarly periodicals. Matthew G. Stanard's Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-Empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism received a very positive review in the Wall Street Journal.

An additional 11 participants have books scheduled for publication in the next two years. These include Rob Fletcher's British Imperialism and the 'Tribal Question': Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919–1939, Tracey Banivanua Mar's Decolonization and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire, and Matthew M. Heaton's Black Skin/White Coasts: Nigerian Psychiatrists, Decolonization, and the Globalization of Psychiatry. Thirteen have book projects in progress. University presses publishing alumni books include those of Oxford, Cambridge, Cornell, the University of North Carolina, Ohio University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Texas, and Johns Hopkins University, among others.

Members of the seminar have published more than 70 articles and book reviews in edited collections and peer-reviewed journals including the American Historical Review, Past and Present, the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Diplomatic History, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Journal of Historical Geography, British Scholar, Polar Record, the International History Review and the International Journal of Middle East Studies, with more than 30 articles forthcoming. Topics include oil politics in decolonizing regions, religious conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, climate change and decolonization politics in Antarctica, and public and private philanthropy in Haiti. They have published more than 100 reviews of books concerning some aspect of decolonization, empire, or formerly colonized areas.

More than a dozen seminar alumni have organized events including seminars, lecture series, workshops, colloquia, and short conferences on subjects including Algerian independence, Southeast Asian affairs, and decolonization during the late Cold War. They have delivered more than 258 conference papers and invited lectures on six continents. Languages employed in articles and presentations include German, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and English.

They have also brought the history and theory of decolonization to students in more than 30 undergraduate courses and graduate seminars at 10 colleges and universities, including the University of Kentucky, Portland State University, Yale University, the University of Saskatchewan, Washington University in St. Louis, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and LaTrobe University of Australia. They have also supervised numerous undergraduate and graduate theses and dissertations. Michael Anderson and Mairi MacDonald direct international relations programs at the University of Texas at Austin and Trinity College in the University of Toronto, respectively.

Several seminar members have discussed aspects of decolonization in newspaper and magazine articles and op-eds, including Paul Thomas Chamberlin's "When It Pays to Talk to Terrorists," published in the New York Times in September. Berny Sebe is a frequent contributor to BBC news broadcasts on decolonization-related subjects, and Chantalle Verna has discussed Haitian issues on Canadian television and Spanish-language radio in Miami.

Finally, the alumni have come together in the last year to organize a new H-Net list called H-Decolonization. Stefanie Wichhart and Paul McGarr prepared the application and will serve as general editors; Chris Dietrich and Brandon Marsh will be book review editors; and more than a dozen others will serve on the advisory council. They hope to roll out the list at the AHA annual meeting in New Orleans.

Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.