AHA Today , From the National History Center

Imperial Ends: Deconstructing Decolonization and the Archives of Empires

Guest Blogger | Jul 1, 2015

By Pillarisetti Sudhir

Empires might have been created in fits of absentmindedness. But a mindful and dedicated research impulse is required for recovering their histories, especially of their end times. The dissolution and dismantling of empires has, nevertheless, attracted a growing scholarly interest in recent times, resulting in a plethora of books, articles, and seminars that explore the many dimensions of a complex phenomenon that has come to be called decolonization. A pioneer in this scholarly terrain is the National History Center’s series of seminars on the theme of decolonization in the 20th century, a series that may be said—without exaggeration—to have helped build the field of decolonization history. The seminar series was founded by Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin), who also directs it and leads a faculty group that includes Dane Kennedy (George Washington Univ.), Philippa Levine (Univ. of Texas at Austin), Jason Parker (Texas A & M), and Marilyn Young (NYU).

Beginning in 2006, these seminars (which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and cosponsored by the American Historical Association and the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress) brought scholars from the United States and abroad who were researching various aspects of decolonization in different geographical regions, to Washington, D.C., for four weeks in the summer. The 10th and final seminar in the series is scheduled to start on July 6 at the Library of Congress. When it concludes, the seminar will have facilitated the research of 150 scholars. Their presentations at the seminars covered topics as esoteric as the imperialism of decolonization in the Antarctic and reproductive rights in decolonizing Africa and as seemingly mundane as the politics of oil in the Middle East. The work of these seminar participants is reflected in numerous books and articles they published and in seminars they organized.

One common challenge for many of these researchers was the lack of proper access to the archival record. States tend to be secretive, and imperial states even more so. Thus more than six decades after the winds of change began to blow through European empires in Africa and Asia, many of the metropolitan records are still difficult to access. Even the incomplete archives left behind in the former colonies could not always be used to compensate for the restrictions of the metropolitan archives. The archives of the new states were often poorly maintained by the new governments that had to contend with other, more pressing legacies of colonialism. Besides, the politics of anticolonial movements and of the newly independent states also affected what researchers could see and what was kept closed. The peoples without history had to continue, it would seem, without being able to retrieve and reconstruct their pasts, even centuries after the new science was transmitted to them as part of the imperial project.

Coincidentally (although, perhaps, there are no simple coincidences in history!), and perfectly resonating with the upcoming seminar on decolonization, the June 2015 issue of the American Historical Review devotes a considerable portion of its pages to an extended, detailed discussion of the major historiographic problems in recovering the history of the end of empires. Cast as an AHR Roundtable—an occasional feature of the journal—and focused on the theme, “The Archives of Decolonization,” the seven brief but and incisive articles provide a useful and stimulating introduction to the state of the field. As Farina Mir points out in the introductory essay, the roundtable “reflects the new spirit in scholarship on decolonization, which questions rather than assumes what it means, and interrogates its histories in diverse settings and through varied lenses.” This, precisely, is what the participants in the previous nine seminars have grappled with and what the 15 scholars taking part in the 2015 seminar propose to be doing.

Among the themes addressed by the contributors to the AHR Roundtable (Jordanna Bailkin, Caroline Elkins, Farina Mir, H. Reuben Neptune, Omnia El Shakry, Todd Shepard, and Sarah Stein), are such crucial issues as the meaning of “decolonization,” the multiple processes of decolonization, the making (and masking) of the colonial archive in the metropolis, and the need—in the former colonies—to use alternative methodologies and historical sources, especially when the colonial archive is not available or was destroyed. (Quite by coincidence—again!—Todd Shepard and Jordanna Bailkin will be delivering public lectures on aspects of decolonization at the Library of Congress as a part of the seminar on July 15 and 22 respectively.)

Unraveling the intricately entangled knots of colonial and postcolonial histories and the spaces (and times) between them is, therefore, a complex task, rendered even more complicated by the histories that continue to lie hidden in the imperial archives and by the divergent readings (“Whose history?” “Can the subaltern speak?” and so on) of the local archives. Yet, historians will strive to find ways around, if not through, the barriers, much like the set of enthusiastic historians who will be meeting in the seminar about to start in a few days to chart new maps of decolonization.

Pillarisetti Sudhir, a former editor of the AHA’s newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, is also a member of the faculty group that leads the seminar.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.


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