From the National History Center column of the October 2007 Perspectives

2007 Seminar on Decolonization: A Report

Pillarisetti Sudhir, October 2007

If evidence was required to demonstrate that historical analysis of "decolonization" is rapidly becoming an important theme—a subdiscipline, even—of modern historiography, all one needed to do was to stand in the Woodrow Wilson Room of the Library of Congress on a recent summer day, and exclaim, "Look around you!" as 15 scholars took part in a seminar on decolonization in the 20th century. Organized by the National History Center in collaboration with the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, the four-week seminar (held July 9–August 3, 2007) was the second in a series supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The participants in the seminar—recent PhDs and a few who are candidates in the last stages of their doctoral programs—were from different universities in the United States and abroad. Some had been studying aspects of decolonization in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East for several years; others had encountered decolonization conceptually as they studied different facets of 20th-century history, and decided to follow the new seams of discovery in the history of imperial decline.

The 2007 seminar, like the first seminar, gave a unique opportunity to the participants not only to exchange ideas and information—among themselves and with the seminar leaders—but also to use to great effect the rich archival and library resources available in Washington, D.C. Some participants were pleasantly surprised to find rich but unanticipated nuggets of historical information in unexpected places. For example, a scholar was delighted to discover (in the Library of Congress) an OSS report on the oppressed communities in India in the 1940s. Other participants made equally serendipitous finds in the National Archives—in the traditional files as well as in new media such as newsreels.

The participants in the seminar were: Yoav Alon; Michael Anderson; Mériam Belli; Laura Bier; David Campion.; Christopher Harding; Joseph Hodge; Chinnaiah Jangam; Christopher Lee; Mairi MacDonald; Brandon Marsh; Christopher O’Sullivan; Berny Sèbe; Penny Sinanoglou; and Pingtjin Thum (details about the scholars and their presentations can be read at www.nationalhistorycenter.org).

The seminar was led by Wm. Roger Louis, Kerr Professor and director of British studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and a former president of the AHA; Dane Kennedy (George Washington Univ.); Philippa Levine (Univ. of Southern California); Jason Parker (Texas A&M Univ.); and Pillarisetti Sudhir (AHA).

While the seminar’s structure and schedule provided ample time for the participants to conduct research in the local archives and libraries, the primary focus was on the frequent meetings to discuss both the research work as it progressed and the core issues of decolonization as reflected in a set of selected readings. The books, which often provoked passionate debate, ranged from memoirs such as the diary of Wavell, the viceroy of India in the waning days of the British Raj, to polemical analyses like Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Decolonising the Mind and reportage such as Alastair Horne’s study of the last days of the French in Algeria, A Savage War of Peace. One of the other books discussed was The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective by Crawford Young, and the seminar participants had the special pleasure of being able to discuss it with the author, who also gave a well-attended public lecture on the topic.

A second public lecture was delivered by Wm. Roger Louis, who gave the large gathering a grand tour of the European empires in their declining years and provided, in the process, insights into the making of the new postcolonial states. The two public lectures can be seen as webcasts at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/.

The seminar concluded with a series of presentations by the participants in which they reported on their research projects.

—PS