National History Center

The Seminars on Decolonization: A Brief Look Back

Lori Watt, November 2011

In July 2012, the National History Center will hold its seventh International Seminar on Decolonization. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and cosponsored by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress and the American Historical Association, the Seminar brings together 15 early career scholars from around the world and five facilitators for a month in Washington, D.C., to discuss, research, and write histories of decolonization. As of 2011, 89 early career scholars have attended, led by a total of nine senior scholars. The seminar is the brainchild of Wm. Roger Louis, the Kerr Chair of English History and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the National History Center.

As a participant in 2008, I was first struck by the seminar's well-conceived form: junior and senior scholars first meet to review participants' research proposals and to read some common texts. Participants are then turned loose into the archives of the Washington D.C. area. More experienced researchers guide others through the labyrinths of the Library of Congress and the catalogues of the National Archives. Everyone then reconvenes to discuss the article-length pieces of original research circulated by participants. One need not look any further for a model for an intense and productive intellectual experience.

The seminar's major impact has been in shaping the field of the history of decolonization. It has contributed to the completion of several dissertations, including Rachel Leow's "Language, Nation and the State in the Decolonization of Malaya, c. 1920–1965," University of Cambridge, 2011. It inspired articles, including Fabian Klose's "'Source of Embarrassment': Human Rights, State of Emergency, and the Wars of Decolonization," in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, edited by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, 237–257 (Cambridge University Press, 2011). It influenced several monographs, including Joey S.R. Long's Safe for Decolonization: The Eisenhower Administration, Britain, and Singapore (Kent State University Press, 2011); Laura Robson's Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine (University of Texas Press, 2011); and Lorenzo Veracini's Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Mathilde Leduc (2006 participant) reports that her experience in the seminar contributed to "Programme Immersion Archives," an initiative that enables scholars from Africa to work for several months in Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa, facilitating just the kind of scholarly interaction between people from formerly metropolitan and colonial spaces envisioned by the founders of the seminar.

Moreover, the seminar has produced an international cohort of scholars of decolonization. We speak together on AHA and SHAFR panels, swap syllabi, and remain engaged in each other's work. We all work in the particular languages of our regions of expertise, but share themes and methodologies. I have never met 2006 participant Lucy Chester, but her work on cartography and decolonization in Palestine and India has informed my own thoughts on analogous processes in East Asia. Mairi MacDonald (2007 participant) concurred—for inspirations for researching and teaching about decolonization, we first turn to the work of seminar alumni.

The discussions during the seminar were especially rewarding thanks to the active participation of the seminar leaders. Apart from Wm. Roger Louis, the following scholars served as faculty over the years: Julia Clancy-Smith (Univ. of Arizona), John Darwin (Oxford Univ.), Dane Kennedy (George Washington Univ.), Philippa Levine (Univ. of Texas at Austin), Joseph Miller (Univ. of Virginia), Jason Parker (Texas A &M Univ.), Pillarisetti Sudhir (AHA), and Marilyn Young (NYU). Jennifer Foray, a participant in the 2008 seminar, will rejoin the seminar in 2012 as a faculty member.

Many of the seminar leaders also gave public lectures under the auspices of the Kluge Center. These public lectures on decolonization also help the National History Center to fulfill its mission to provide historical context to policy makers and the general public.

The seminar continues to be valuable for me in many ways. Trained as a historian of modern Japan, I learned a field not usually associated with East Asia. My experience formed the basis for my current book project "The Allies and the Decolonization of East Asia" and contributed to an ongoing faculty reading seminar, "Intimacies, Decolonization, and the Cold War," at my home institution, It served as the basis for a methods course for sophomore history majors, "Decolonization in the Twentieth Century." To my gratification, some of the students from that class have gone on to write senior theses on decolonization. Through its impact on dissertations, articles, monographs, archival residency programs, public lectures, and teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level, the decolonization seminar has enriched a field and raised scholarly and public interest in the history of the process that shaped, to a large extent, the world we know today.

Lori Watt is associate professor of history and international & area studies, Washington University in St. Louis. She was a participant in the third international seminar on decolonization held in summer 2008.