About the Conference, March 17-18, 2016
When Raynal and Diderot’s encyclopaedic L’Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes appeared in Amsterdam in 1770 the connected history of the early modern and modern empires was already coming home to roost. Soon, revolutionaries in Haiti, the U.S., Peru, Mexico, and France would all herald the coming of a new postcolonial age, later recognized by the Peruvian historian Sebastian Lorente as that “contemporary age of revolutions and the peoples” (in the plural not the singular) that announced the “death of the king and colonialism.”
As Benedict Anderson recognized in his classic study of the colonial emergence of nationalism, that first Caribbean and Atlantic wave rippled in subsequent waves of anti-imperial decolonisation around the globe, including those that in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries swept across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Although Anderson initially argued for the “modular” nature of “nation-ness,” in the second edition of Imagined Communities he recognized the particular dynastic and colonial genealogies (Spanish, Portuguese, Ottoman, Russian, British, French, Dutch, etc.) of the postcolonial national states. It was not that all subsequent waves of anti-imperial decolonisation merely mimicked their American and European predecessors (as Partha Chatterjee complained in The Nation and Its Fragments) but rather that those waves were connected by the history of colonialism.
But precisely how were they connected? That is the central empirical question of this London conference. Of course, we do know about many such connections. We also know that the question may be formulated in many ways. We know that peoples, commodities, concepts, and administrative regimes circulated around the globe and between the empires, but precisely how did particular conjunctures of these connections shape the options and limits of decolonisation? We know that revolutionaries in China and North Africa cited and may have read their South American or Caribbean counterparts in newsprint and novels but what, if any, were the longer term consequences? Have Latin American and Caribbean thinkers (and not only European thinkers) inspired decolonizing thinking around the globe? If so, how and why? We know that late nineteenth-century French imperialists designed their “civilizing mission” in Africa with Spanish Empire and the historical lesson taught by Creole revolutionaries in mind, but what did this mean and why was it later forgotten? We know that Italian revolutionaries participated in Latin American revolutions, but how precisely did this influence the course of republicanism in Southern Europe? We know that Mexico and Cuba sought to export their revolutions but precisely how were these received in Europe, Asia, and Africa? We know that the Haitian revolution shook the Atlantic world and the global slave trade, but what about Asia and Africa?
At least two far-reaching implications follow from our empirical question, the first being historiographical and the second theoretical or conceptual. The first implication may be stated thus: How does our small how (of the historical connections between the decolonizing moments and actors) change the big How, that is, how does it change the way the global history of decolonisation and postcoloniality is written, lived, and understood? Should decolonization be understood primarily within imperial or national frames and terms? Were postcolonial pasts and futures imagined to be wider and deeper than the imperial or the national? Is it possible to imagine such pasts and futures today?
This small how/Big How question has played out on the academic front. The first wave of continental American decolonisation has gone missing from the story of decolonisation as it is currently written and taught in Anglophone World History textbooks and courses. The field of ‘Postcolonial Studies’ in the Anglophone world has been largely confined to the literary and cultural history of the British and French empires. What happens to that textbook and field when the Luso-Hispanic world becomes its ancestor? One relatively recent consequence of such forgetting and remembering among academics was the appearance, first, of Anglophone “Postcolonial Studies” and “Subaltern Studies” (in the 1980s, mainly) in the UK and US, followed more recently (in the 1990s and 2000s), by a “decolonial” camp of Latin Americanist cultural critics based primarily in the US and Mexico. Is it time to move beyond these camps and critical positions? Can a fresh, interdisciplinary look at the connected histories of decolonisation get us there?
The second, more theoretical implication of our empirical question may be articulated as follows: When understood in a deep, connected sense, could the concept of ‘decolonisation’ be useful for understanding the dynamics of the contemporary world? Indeed, could such a critical concept be more useful than, for example, ‘globalisation’ or ‘nationalism’? Would a global history course or text organized around a long, historical concept of ‘decolonisation’ be more illuminating than most of the available histories out there? In short, could thinking more deeply about decolonisation provide a better framework for understanding and acting upon the contemporary world?