Should Universities Revisit their Colonial Legacies?

On 21 October, the Just World Institute (with the support of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh) organised an Ethics Forum with the title ‘Should Universities Revisit their Colonial Legacies?’. Four speakers presented their views: Dr Nuala Zahedieh (History), Dr Emile Chabal (History), Dr Hazel Gray (African Studies), and Dr Hugh McDonnell (Politics). Read Dr Hugh McDonnell’s talk below:

“The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward.” So announced former student in the history department here at Edinburgh – Gordon Brown. Speaking in 2005, his remarks chimed with a growing trend of revived imperialism, enlisting a range of opinion from Tony Blair’s advisor Robert Cooper, historian Niall Ferguson, Michael Gove, and even travel presenter Michael Palin.

I suggest that what was at work in Gordon Brown’s claim can be understood in the distinction that the great German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, made between working through the past, and working upon the past. Working through the past defines a mode of thought, like Brown’s, that does not mean seriously grappling with the past at all, nor exploring the ways in which it still impacts on our shared world today. ‘On the contrary,’ as Adorno wrote, its intention is to close the books on the past and, if possible, even remove it from memory.’ Likewise, what Brown was essentially saying was that any moral debts outstanding from Britain’s colonial venture – if there ever even were any – have long been repaid, and that the imperial past is no longer relevant.

Interestingly, Gordon Brown’s advice to forget about the past and move forward echoes certain arguments during the recent Rhodes Must Fall debate. Some defenders of keeping the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes on its pedestal at Oriel College Oxford expressed sympathy for the Rhodes Must Fall side, but ultimately said “don’t get het up about the statue and the past it represents. Instead, move forward and think about how we can make universities more inclusive now.

I suggest that what in each case was expressed as seemingly good advice not to immobilise oneself thrashing out long expired issues amounted to, in effect, a settlement of the issue on the cheap. Saying “look not at the past but the future” superficially seems quite sensible, of course. But it can amount to defusing the weightiness and urgency of a debt and obligations outstanding for over a century or centuries. Conversely, if one thinks only in terms of the present and looks forward, one has all the time in the world. And having disposed of that historical baggage one is more at leisure to address anti-colonial claims in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone whatsoever. What’s more, it depoliticises the issue by foreclosing the question of historical responsibility and causation, and renders post-colonial divisions and hierarchies a technical administrative issue.

If these instances of working through the past are unsatisfactory – just as is the equally prominent culture of colonial amnesia – what would working upon the past imply for the question of whether or how universities should revisit their colonial legacies? Workingupon the past refuses the notion that the past can be deleted, but holds out the promise that it can be progressed on. So, I want to set out a case that colonial legacies in society in general require revisiting – albeit in a particular way – and talk about how universities specifically are implicated, both in the sense of being inextricably intertwined with the concerns of society as a whole, and in the sense that universities have their own specific historical place in colonialism, which poses questions for us in the university community.

Now, if we as students and scholars are concerned about society, why should we take umbrage with colonialism and its memory and representation? Fundamentally because, I would stress, European colonialism involved tremendous violence, and that violence still permeates the present, which requires reckoning with.

An immediate qualification is required here. This kind of anti-colonial critique is often accused of being itself simplistic. Perhaps a good example here is the work of the historian Linda Colley, who argues that the historical multifacetedness and complexity of the British Empire precludes judgements about its uniformity, its racism, its ethics, and its military disposition.

Certainly, one should agree that European colonial empires were multifaceted, internally contradictory, involved multifarious actors who don’t fit neatly into categories of perpetrators or criminals, had differing or multiple logics over place and time, and can’t be reduced to sheer calculation of annexation and exploitation, and so on.

Yet, for all that, I would resist what I would call ‘complicating away injustice’. I mean by this the presupposition that if things are complicated we should evacuate our understandings of violence, subjugation, and injustice in all their various forms. This complicatedness, in other words, cannot annul but must be incorporated into an understanding of the colonial proliferation of violence.

In that vein, I hypothesise, that even if unevenly, a common grammar ran through European colonialism, which impacts on society today, though not necessarily in a direct mode of linear descent or direct causation. This is that the imperial division of the globe promoted a heightened reverence for the perceived strong, and accentuated disdain for the perceived weak. This connects in turn to the conceptualisation of perceived gradations within humanity, with those granted full human status pitted against what Paul Gilroy terms infrahumanity – those who, somehow, are not quite fully human, and so can be treated accordingly. These are identifiable throughout European colonial violence, which, after all, included racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing, enslavement, continual wars and savage repression, land theft, merciless exploitation, vast economic underdevelopment, execution and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands who fought for self-rule, concentration camps, medical experimentation, and overseeing famines that killed millions of people.

If this double grammar takes on different forms and intensities today, I suggest it’s a heritage that contributes to how European societies are shaped, and that this becomes clearest in terms of differing presuppositions about the appropriateness of certain groups to be more exploited; to carry fewer citizen rights, or equal rights but emptied of content; and the greater acceptability of their exposure to violence.  As just one illustration, Victor Kiernan – a historian who spent his whole career here at Edinburgh, by the way – described nineteenth century British colonial troops raucously laughing whilst mocking the voices of members of the local Indian populace. I was struck by the uncomfortable echo in the footage, which you can see on youtube, of police officers in Hull standing over the body of Christopher Alder, a former soldier of Nigerian descent, who was left to die face down on the police station floor with his trousers and underwear pulled down around his knees whilst officers made monkey noises and laughed over his lifeless body. Judges, incidentally, decided there was no case to be prosecuted.

Soin sum, I would foreground the judgement of Paul Gilroy that colonialism and its successor racism have debased humanism and damaged democracy and hope. And if we reject being an ivory tower standing apart from society we have to reckon with this.

To bring us back more closely to the role of universities, it’s certainly the case that as repositories of history and cultural memory they have both the responsibility and means to contribute substantially to highlighting and interrogating this situation. But again, this is a controversial claim. Opinions of what academics do often ranges from an impatience with “looking for problems” to an aggrieved sense that academics simply belligerently force their PC dogmas down the throats of the very taxpayers who pay their salaries.

However, I would defend critique against the allegation of being a dirty word. On the contrary, it seems to me, it’s about taking democracy seriously and holding it to rigorous standards accordingly, and calling into question hierarchies and violence that undermine it.

None of this is to say universities have lived up to this role particularly well, and its complicity with colonialism is just one way in which it has fallen short.  This is not just about rogue individuals like Rhodes and their venerated place in university public space, but also about the application of knowledge. Even if we would want to take issue with some of his conclusions, since Edward Said’s work Orientalism we can’t think about colonialism without looking at the mutual implication of knowledge and power.

More concretely, we would also need to look our institution in the mirror in the sense of always thinking through what we teach and study, and take very seriously the university’s role in reproducing the stratification of society, which I mentioned above in terms of colonial legacies. It’s striking that no less than 95% of undergraduates here at Edinburgh are white. Likewise, it’s important that we’re reflexive and critical about what universities as institutions as a whole do. An important example here being the successful campaign a couple of years ago to force Edinburgh to withdraw investment in technology used in offensive drones.

Finally, following on from mentioning what the question of colonialism requires of us in terms of self-reflection, a couple of vague thoughts about how to orient ourselves in this kind of inquiry into the colonial and post-colonial past and present. I think humility is really important here. If I’ve really only raised questions or sketched out inexhaustively issues to be considered, this is quite deliberate. If we accept that our privilege – i.e. in my case speaking as a white male academic – entails responsibilities, then we also need to recognise it brings with it glaring blind spots, so that it would be absurd for, say, me to hold forth on how communities most effected by colonial and post-colonial pasts and presents should be represented or what they should so. Democracy is poorly served by undercutting it.

So, in conclusion, commitment to working upon rather than through the colonial past precludes its quick dismissal, the depoliticisation of historical injustice and violence, requires rigorous scholarship that does not sooth power or defer to the status quo, and an extension of that energy and commitment that goes into scholarship into thinking about and debating the democratic nature of the university itself.


Hugh McDonnell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the GREYZONE European Research Council Starting Grant Project, led by Principal Investigator Dr Mihaela Mihai.