Many of the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd last year drew links between present-day racism and racist histories. In Britain, debates centred on colonial figures, and statues honouring them. To some, the fact that Edward Colston’s plaque described him not as a slave trader, but as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city” was evidence that Britain was yet to confront its colonial past. Others saw Colston and statued figures like him as products of their time, capable of being praised for their contributions without being demonised. Even the prime minister stepped in, insisting that Britons needed to move beyond their “cringing embarrassment” about empire, to stop “this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness”.
This prime ministerial intervention is part of a concerted attempt by his government to suppress the outing of Britain’s colonial history. Other examples include Kemi Badnoch’s broadside against “critical race theory”; and culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s late-February “summit” where he reportedly castigated leading heritage bodies and charities for “doing Britain down”. This has coincided with what many see as a contradictory Conservative campaign in defence of free speech, marked most recently by the appointment of a “free speech champion” for English universities. Yet in a bizarre turn of events, the government has attempted to reconcile these two conflicting priorities, by forwarding a truly mind-boggling argument: that decolonial and antiracist history constitutes censorship.
This was the claim made by universities minister Michelle Donelan on a Daily Telegraph podcast last week. “The so-called decolonisation of the curriculum,” she said, “is, in effect, censoring history.” “I’m a vehement protector and champion of safeguarding our history,” she added. “It otherwise becomes fiction, if you start editing it, taking bits out that we view as stains.”
Dowden is not alone in thinking this. The consensus on the political right is that decolonising the curriculum involves a misrepresentation of British history, a selective memory that recalls only the bad and forgets the good. Yet as I know from my own work, this could not be further from the truth. Decolonising curricula is fundamentally an additive process, one that makes our knowledge of the world more complete.
Curricular decolonisation involves emphasising how colonialism created the modern world. In order to do this, we need to bring to light many aspects of history that are regularly hidden from view. Take Britain’s Industrial Revolution in the 17th-19th centuries. Among the great success stories of British industrialisation were the cotton and textile trades. However, the majority of Britain’s cotton was imported from the labour of the enslaved in the US, while knowledge of how to turn that cotton into textiles was imported from colonised India. There is a fundamental link between enslavement, empire and industrialisation – one our students must understand.
Then there is the fear among conservatives that decolonising curricula might mean prioritising some histories (usually those of the Global South) over others (usually those of the Global North). However, decolonisation is not a zero-sum game. Rather than censoring certain histories and privileging others, decolonising the curriculum enriches students’ existing knowledge. It is quite surprising, for instance, that while all of my university students were all familiar with the French Revolution (1789-1799), none had encountered the history of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – the first successful slave revolt in colonial history – that was happening at the same time. Decolonising the curriculum would not involve simply removing the French Revolution from our textbooks and replacing it with the Haitian one. Rather, it might link the two to produce a fuller understanding of both. Doing so would enable us to see how the French Revolution was only revolutionary for an elite, an elitism that served as the basis for revolutions in the colonies against the French revolutionary state. To the Haitian revolutionaries at the butt-end of French imperialism, revolutionary declarations that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and that “These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression” rang hollow. Situating the French Revolution within a network of colonial relations is not to overshadow it, but to elucidate it.
Decolonial accounts of history do not erase episodes but network them, in order to present a deeper understanding of the world. For instance, the histories of European fascism that are, rightly, a core component of the British history curriculum would be far better if linked to European colonialism; if we understood that the techniques the Nazis used in the Holocaust were first developed in the Herero and Nama genocide in present-day Namibia (1904-08); that they took inspiration from Britain’s use of starvation in Bengal and Ireland (the most cost-effective way to kill large numbers of people in one go), as well as from the use of concentration camps in the Boer War and the Spanish shooting sprees during the colonisation of the Americas.
Sociology, my discipline, is all about finding connected ways of thinking and producing critical forms of knowledge. Yet even in this social science, issues of colonialism, empire and enslavement are largely ignored. When I began working in the field, I noticed that my students typically reached the end of their degrees knowing about Marx, but not about his support for the Raj; about theories of modernity, but not the relation between modernisation and colonialism. Simply put, I realised that there was a gap in many students’ understanding, and saw it as my duty as an educator to fill them.
People like Donelan have things backwards. Decolonising the curriculum doesn’t censor history; it exposes it, and in ways that offer students a more complete understanding of their world.
Ali Meghji is a lecturer in social inequalities in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge University, and the author of Decolonizing Sociology: An Introduction.