It is incumbent on the former colonisers to rethink the ideas and symbols which served to forge their hierarchical view of the world
Last week, Harvard announced the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to the memory of four slaves who lived and worked at the home of the university’s former presidents. Harvard’s current president Drew Faust declared that the institution was "directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage" and that despite some efforts, the history of slavery at Harvard "has rarely been acknowledged or invoked".
The decision comes amidst a growing movement across campuses worldwide calling for a redress of the colonial legacy, from recognising historical injustices to dismantling cultural artefacts and reviewing Euro-centric curriculums.
Here in the UK, the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford came to prominence after it forced the Oxford Union to admit its institutionally racist nature following a "Colonial Comeback" themed cocktail event. The movement has gone on to call on the university to tackle colonial iconography, in particular, a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th century British colonialist described by his biographer Anthony Thomas as an "architect of apartheid".
In Australia, New South Wales university recently set new guidelines stating that Australia's history should be described as "invasion and occupation" rather than the softer-sounding "settlement," a move which was met with derision by historian Kyle Sandilands who responded "get over it, it’s 200 years ago".
Sandilands’ response, much like that of Oxford’s Oriel College, which "overwhelmingly" opted to retain the statue of Rhodes, situates colonialism as a long buried relic, at best irrelevant to contemporary experiences, and at worst, a positive contribution to the world. Indeed, a 2014 survey found that almost 60 percent of Britons think the British Empire is something to be proud of rather than ashamed of, and almost half think it left its colonies better off. Such findings are particularly shocking to those working on the enduring impact of colonialism, from racism to poverty, through to imperialism - the trail has hardly gone cold.
At a time when talk of reparations is all but dead, a recent project by UCL has highlighted the £20 million in compensation paid by British taxpayers to former slave-owners after the abolition of slavery - the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. The slaves received nothing. The study found that as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived their fortunes from the slave trade. And with the emergence of the Panama files, the link between historical forms of exploitation and current power brokers is likely to become even more apparent. The empire is much less history than continuity.
But yet, while former colonies continue to undergo profound questioning over their identity and the enduring impact of colonisation, very little reflection has been undertaken in the heartland of empire on that very same question. Instead, it is as if the "independence" of former colonies marked the end of the colonial apparatus, and no reassessment of the values, ideals and ideologies which justified the invasion of other people’s territories and enslavement of their peoples, values at the core of British imperial culture – might require unpicking.
And this is where the true value of these campaigns to decolonise British campuses lies for broader society. It is not only the colonies which must seek to redefine themselves after colonisation in a manner which does not place a foreign culture at the centre of the understanding of the national self, but it is also incumbent on the former colonisers to rethink the ideas and symbols which served to forge their hierarchical view of the world.
To quote the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, colonialism’s "most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world." "To control a people’s culture is," he wrote, "to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others."
Today, in London’s iconic Trafalgar square, stands the statue of Major General Sir Henry Havelock, a veteran of the first Indian "mutiny," or as you might want to rephrase that – a man who successfully quashed Indian people’s struggle for independence. It stands to reason that efforts to subdue the natives’ call for self-rule would be rewarded and commemorated by his peers. But should we a post-colonial state – a former heart of empire - continue to parade such figures as cornerstones of British culture, while simultaneously claiming to recognise the historical wrongs committed? Surely that is a legitimate question.
Back to 'British' values
The closest concession to a critique of imperial thinking has been a commitment to multiculturalism in the post-war era, a sense that the new arrivals on British shores should be afforded equal rights to other citizens and their cultures should be respected. But just as the unifying ideologies which carried the seed of independence in colonised societies often underwent a critique post-independence, so too has multiculturalism come into question. Increasingly knocked for its laissez-faire principles, as well as its alleged inability to forge a unifying national culture.
In its place has emerged a drive towards a reimagining of the glory of "British values," the greatness of which now has to be taught in schools, alongside a more nationally focused reading curriculum which banishes "foreign" authors in favour of English ones. And as this retreat occurs away from the ideals of multiculturalism, a nostalgia for the greatness of empire is re-emerging, and with it a whitewashing of Britain’s colonial past.
Back in 2005, then Chancellor Gordon Brown set the wheels in motion when he said: "I think the days of Britain having to apologise for our history are over. I think we should move forward. I think we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it and we should talk, rightly so, about British values."
Since then, a new policy has emerged of "promoting British values," both in the Commonwealth (whilst simultaneously restricting population exchange) and within the less compliant parts of Britain in which the descendants of the colonised need to be schooled – quite literally – in the values of their own nation. The so-called Trojan horse scandal was a case in point. The colonial centre dictating to the literal and metaphorical periphery its conception of British values, devoid of any recognition of the exploitation and misery which were entailed in making Britain "great". Nor indeed of the moral bankruptcy of teaching such a view to those whose ancestors paid the price for it in blood and tears.
And so, by making out colonialism is a relic of the past - rather than an enduring set of power relations, we fail to recognise continuities and absolve the present from much-needed critical reflection. And this is where such movements for decoloniality are so vital. They are in fact the herald of a change which must come.
Rhodes Must Fall and sister movements are part of a growing wave of initiatives, from London to Leeds, starting in South Africa, in which socially conscious students have sought to challenge the perpetuation of racist symbols and ideas which have carried over uncritically from Britain’s empire.
"Colonialism is not just an economic, material phenomenon, it is also epistemological," points out a member of the Decolonising Our Minds society at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Zain Dada, another member, defines the group’s emergence from a palpable frustration "among first generation diaspora who still face visible racism and who are also engaged in the analysis of invisible, structural racism through theories of decoloniality".
These experiences, combined with inspiration taken from global struggles against Empire, including in many cases those of parents or relatives, are feeding a new generation. And it is their critical reassessment of the legacies of empire on British culture which ultimately paves the way for a fairer and more equitable society.
And yet, the campaigns have been largely met with consternation. For all the talk of the positive value of diversity within our society, such campaigns remain a struggle on the margins, not entirely dismissed, but requiring quiet co-optation through piecemeal concessions designed to quell the disruptive uprisings of those now too close to power to be metaphorically put down.
Indeed, an admission of racism following a decision to use an image of black hands in chains to advertise a drinks poster is surely a meagre victory for a movement of such ambition. And although a similar campaign at Cambridge succeeded in convincing Jesus College to take down and consider the repatriation of a bronze cockerel looted in the 19th century, such critical demands are yet to become audible to a broader audience.
It is not sufficient to eventually recognise the validity of the cries for freedom among oppressed peoples when the tools which served to uphold that domination continue to permeate popular culture and in many cases, justify new variants on imperial exploitation. In the case of Rhodes, to maintain as a central part of our social vocabulary a man who stands as the cultural equivalent of the "N" word, is to fail to recognise that just as language evolves to reflect changing social norms, so must our concrete edifices.
Critics of the decolonial movement have compared the call for the removal of Rhodes to a form of cultural censorship - where would the movement stop exactly, ask those who, in so doing, unwittingly concede the pervasiveness of imperial ideals within our contemporary culture.
If we might term white supremacy a culture which justifies the encroachment of European powers into other continents and lands under the guise of conferring civility upon peoples assumed to be lagging on the developmental scale, then the edifices of that supremacy must be dismantled.
In their place, society must make way for a consensual cultural construction, in which all voices are not a mere addition to a slightly reformed rotten core – the term "people" expanded to include women and ethnic minorities and quotas to guarantee a token visibility of the "other" – but rather serve to forge a new cultural project away from the racially skewed underpinning of the culture of empire. In this, the decolonial movement is the avant-garde of our generation.
- Myriam Francois is a Franco-British journalist, broadcaster and writer with a focus on current affairs, France and the Middle East. You can follow her on Twitter @MyriamFrancoisC
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Image: Students and staff of the University of Cape Town (UCT) march on campus during a protest against the statue of British coloniser Cecil John Rhodes at the university in Cape Town on 20 March 2015. (AFP)