Decolonization Seminar Explores Old Topic in New Ways

Pillarisetti Sudhir, September 2006

Fifteen scholars from across the world gathered in Washington, D.C., recently to participate in a four-week seminar (held July 10–August 4, 2006), to explore a fascinating range of questions and issues relating to the theme of decolonization in the 20th century. The seminar, organized by the National History Center in collaboration with the Library of Congress (and supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), was intended to provide an opportunity for the participants to exchange information and discuss ideas both among themselves and with the seminar leaders, and to pursue their individual research projects. By all accounts, these aims were achieved to a large extent. While a majority of the participants—who were selected after a rigorous screening of the more than 50 applications that were received—were from the United States, many came from abroad (some from as far away as Australia). All were keen students of various aspects of decolonization, either in its ramifications in the former colonial societies or in its impact upon the former imperial metropoles, and ranging in its geographical focus from the traditional sites of colonialism such as South Asia and Africa to the not-so-common areas like Antarctica. Some participants had already completed PhD dissertations or published books or articles on the subject, while some others were beginning their studies in what is obviously becoming an increasingly important field of historical research.

What the participants—and the seminar leaders—discovered as they listened to each other during the discussion sessions was the remarkable extent to which the comparative and multidimensional explorations of the process of decolonization yielded rich insights. Who knew, for instance, that the partition of India in 1947 was perceived as a model for the partition of Palestine, or that "Settler Colonialism" could arguably be seen as a continuation of colonialism by other means, especially among the newly emergent states of Oceania? Was there a persistence of vision in photographing the Congo (and thus, by extension, in ways of seeing other former colonies)? How did the question of decolonization play out in the Cold War strategies of the United States? What effect did the return of repatriates from former colonies have on the metropolitan societies ("ghost worlds" of empire, as one scholar termed them)? How did science, imperialism, and new-state anxieties intersect in the white vastnesses of Antarctica (as they did—albeit in other ways—according to another scholar's presentation, in the arid sands of the Sahara)? What did "federation" mean in decolonized states? How entrenched were the legacies of colonialism, especially as instruments of state power in newly independent countries? The debates and discussions that revolved around these and many other exciting questions not only secured one of the prime objectives of the seminar—to facilitate the exchange of ideas and information—but also allowed the participants to refine their individual projects and research plans. Indeed, one of the best features of the seminar turned out to be the extraordinary camaraderie that developed among the participants who helped each other to find relevant research materials and to revise their drafts, and just through their expositions, enriched each other's work.

The exchanges and conversations spilled over from the formal sessions (most of which were held in the storied rooms of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress) into informal events that included visits to restaurants and joint treks to the National Archives (which turned out to be a marvelous treasure trove—much to their pleasant surprise—even for those working in more distant geographical areas not normally expected to be covered by the U.S. archives). Film screenings were also among the informal events that proved to be popular with the participants. Two tragic and horrific tales of decolonization and its effects—Ousmane Sembene's Camp de Thiaroye and Raoul Peck's Lumumba—were followed by the more light-hearted (but no less serious a commentary on colonialism) Privates on Parade, which was directed by Michael Blakemore.

The participants particularly appreciated the opportunities they had to interact with the seminar leaders and to receive their comments on the evolving drafts and ideas. These interactions, sometimes in groups, and sometimes individually, were framed by presentations, four of which were delivered as public lectures. In the first of these, the seminar's director, Wm. Roger Louis, the Kerr Professor of English Literature and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books and articles on the subject of decolonization, set the scene, providing an overview of the question, and arguing that the scramble to decolonize in the 20th century was a mirror image of the 19th-century scramble for empire. Joseph Miller, T. Cary Johnson Professor of History at the University of Virginia, discussed the African situation and pointed out that the roots of modern historical events in that continent lay in long-term rhythms of tradition, such as kinship networks among indigenous communities that played an important role in both the construction and the dismantling of empires. Dane Kennedy, the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, made a fascinating comparison of British and American empires, and examined the similarities and crucial differences between the two. Marilyn Young, professor of history at New York University, also took a comparative approach, exploring the echoes of the war in Vietnam that could be perceived in the current situation in Iraq, and the lessons that could (and could not be) drawn. Julia Clancy-Smith, professor of history at the University of Arizona and Pillarisetti Sudhir of the AHA made informal presentations on cultural and economic aspects of empire and decolonization respectively.

The highlight of the seminar was the presentation in the last week of the work done by the participants throughout the seminar. Conceptualizing, researching, and writing an article cannot truly be accomplished in a short time; so, even though some of the participants had come with draft chapters of proposed books or with extended synopses of articles they wanted to complete, all realized that compressing into four weeks what would normally take a much longer time was a true challenge. The best anyone could hope to do was to improve the drafts they began to write or to revise. That goal was clearly reached, as the presentations in the final week showed. The presentations also testified to the diligent research that the participants conducted in the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and elsewhere, and to the effort they put into polishing their drafts.

Was the seminar useful? Undoubtedly, according to the participants, who were unanimous in declaring that it proved to be very helpful, as it enabled them to sharpen their research focus (and in one or two instances, even to shift it); to test their hypotheses, conjectures, and arguments; to discover and use new research material; and to have their individual research projects enhanced by the collective intellectual labors of their colleagues. All the participants agreed too, that their work was made much easier by the courtesies extended to them by the staff of the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and especially by Miriam Hauss, the administrative officer of the National History Center.

The organizers of the seminar have begun to take steps toward the next in the series, to be held July 9–August 3, 2007 (view the call for applications), and are hoping that the second seminar will be as useful to the participants as the first one has been.