some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:
I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.
I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.
II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.
III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.
IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.
V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.
VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.
VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.
VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.
Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.