Publication Date

September 1, 2015

It is a wonderful thing to witness the birth of a new historical field. I’ve had the privilege to be party to such an event as a founding faculty member of the International Decolonization Seminar, which came to an end this summer after a remarkable 10-year run. Starting in 2006, each year the seminar brought 15 early-career historians to Washington, DC, where they spent the hot, steamy month of July exploring the incomparable resources of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other area research institutions, engaging in vigorous debates with faculty leaders and one another, and writing in-depth research papers that became the basis for countless articles, book and dissertation chapters, conference presentations, and other scholarship on decolonization. Over the past decade, the 150 seminar participants have helped to forge a new and vibrant field of study.

I do not mean to suggest that until the launch of the seminar historians had not noticed what Farina Mir has recently referred to as one of “the most significant events or processes of the 20th century.” Christopher Bayly, Frederick Cooper, John Darwin, and various other distinguished historians had already written important works on the subject. Wm. Roger Louis was arguably the leading authority on the British withdrawal from empire long before he envisioned the idea of the seminar and served as its director from start to finish.

Even so, a decade ago few historians saw decolonization as a distinct field of study. In the early years, most of the seminar participants identified themselves as historians of empire or the Cold War or particular countries or regions. But once they came together, they discovered that their individual research interests often overlapped, revealing common patterns and parallel trajectories. Perspectives were widened, insights gained, friendships forged, collaborations created, and an intellectual cohort brought into being. The international composition of the seminar proved especially valuable and generative. Participants came from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, India, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, Singapore, and the United States. Each of them contributed particular experiences, skills, observations, and information to what became a common enterprise. Together they broke down cultural and intellectual barriers, enriching their own research and the field of decolonization as a whole.

What the seminar accomplished can be measured in a variety of ways. Seminar alumni have introduced new courses on the history of decolonization at their home institutions. They have organized panels at meetings of the American Historical Association, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the North American Conference of British Studies, and other scholarly venues. They have founded the H-Net listserv H-Decol. And, of course, they have published lots of books and articles, creating an intellectual synergy around the issue of decolonization that has become all but impossible to ignore.

Above all, the seminar alumni have contributed to a wholesale reassessment of decolonization—its causes, character, and consequences. When the seminar launched, the story of decolonization was told almost exclusively in terms of the political and diplomatic struggle between imperial states and anticolonial nationalists. This was an important story, to be sure, and it remains integral to our understanding of decolonization. But over the past decade, the range of issues that have attracted the attention of seminar participants has multiplied. Whereas many historians once believed decolonization took place mainly in the colonies, it is now recognized as having had an equally profound impact on imperial homelands. Formerly regarded as a moment of great rupture, it is now understood to have involved substantial continuities as well. Interest has increasingly shifted from the actions of states to the influence of international agencies like the United Nations, multinational conglomerates like Lonrho, and nongovernmental agencies like Oxfam.

Much recent research has also moved from the state to the local level, where decolonization’s experiential impact on peoples was more readily apparent and where factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexuality contributed to community mobilization and identity formation. The crucial issue of sovereignty—its nature, its scope, and the conditions and consequences of its transfer—is increasingly understood to have been far more variable, contested, and problematic than once supposed. This has helped spur greater interest in issues such as the drawing of borders, the expulsion of peoples, and the construction of national and subnational loyalties. Spatial, social, cultural, and other considerations now jockey with political ones for prominence in interpretations of decolonization.

Most early participants identified themselves as historians of empire, the Cold War, or particular countries or regions. But they discovered that their individual interests revealed common patterns and parallel trajectories.

When I joined the team of faculty that Roger Louis assembled for the inaugural seminar in 2006, I never imagined that it would last as long as it did or have such a profound impact on the study of decolonization. Nor, I suspect, did Roger or the other veteran seminar faculty: Philippa Levine (Univ. of Texas at Austin), Jason Parker (Texas A&M Univ.), Pillarisetti Sudhir (American Historical Association), and Marilyn Young (New York Univ.). Each of us brought a different expertise and set of interests to the seminar, which also benefited over the years from various guest faculty: Julia Clancy-Smith (Univ. of Arizona), John Darwin (Oxford Univ.), Jennifer Foray (Purdue Univ.), Joseph Miller (Univ. of Virginia), and Lori Watt (Washington Univ. in St. Louis). Parker, Foray, and Watt were themselves alumni of the seminar. I’m sure I speak for all of them when I say that it has been a rare privilege to be part of this seminar, getting to know so many talented young historians from so many different countries and bearing witness to their vibrant role in reshaping our understanding of decolonization.

Finally, it should be stressed that the seminar would not have been possible without the remarkable generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funded its 10-year run, and the wonderful hospitality of the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, which provided the magnificent setting and support for our proceedings.

is director of the National History Center and author of Decolonization: A Very Short Introduction, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in March 2016.

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