History Department
History Department

Independence and Decolonization Conference explores these two crucial processes

feature masthead Independence and Decolonization
Principal convener, Associate Professor Susan Deans-Smith and Dr. Berny Sebe from London

Principal convener and Associate Professor Susan Deans-Smith speaks with Dr. Berny Sèbe who travelled from England to present at the conference

In the bicentennial year of the Mexican Independence movement, three University of Texas (UT) history professors took the opportunity to assemble colleagues to present their newest research on the ways that the breakup of empires and the formation of newly independent states have shaped the world.

Department of History Professors Susan Deans-Smith, Benjamin Claude Brower, and Mark Metzler, with assistance from the Institute for Historical Studies (IHS), organized the Independence and Decolonization Conference. Held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center in Austin on April 15-17, 2010, it brought together scholars from around the globe.

The scope of the conference was broad:

  • presentations ranged across five continents,
  • 200 years, and
  • focused on subjects as diverse as art, armies, and anthropology. 

The 23 scholars assembled for this conference worked to pull all of these diverse themes together and offer answers to big historical questions about the nature of postcolonial nationhood, identity, and power.

PANEL I: Defining Decolonization

Amid weeklong thunderstorms and flash-flood warnings, the conference got off to an impressive start Thursday afternoon. The beginning remarks featured three internationally renowned professors of colonial and imperial studies at UT: Professors Wm. Roger Louis, A.G. Hopkins, and Philippa Levine. Each was asked to discuss how he or she conceptualized and defined decolonization as a historical subject.

Louis opened the discussion by relating how he first became interested in decolonization as a student in Paris during the 1950s, when he was exposed to propaganda relating to the Algerian struggle for independence. He also described the impressionable experience of being in Cairo when the Suez Canal was nationalized.

Louis emphasized that while excellent work is being done on the subject, scholars involved never agree on a definition of decolonization, let alone an appropriate way to compare decolonization experiences. He concluded by stressing the need for historians of decolonization to consider it within the wider international historical context.

Professors Wm. Roger Louis, A.G. Hopkins, Philippa Levine open the conference

UT Professors Wm. Roger Louis, A.G. Hopkins, and Philippa Levine open the conference

Professor A.G. Hopkins seconded Louis’ issues with trying to define decolonization, saying that attempts at a hard definition inevitably “fragment and slip through the fingers.” He traced for the audience the history of the word, from its origins in the 1830s to its ubiquitous use in the 1960s, when it was pressed into service as a quick, catch-all term to describe the rapid succession of colonial independence movements.

Hopkins remarked that decolonization, despite its wide application, has always been a word that is “used more than explained.” Although a true definition of the term remains elusive, he argued that one is on more certain grounds when mapping out the central issues relating to the topic: colonization and independence.

With regard to colonization, Hopkins argued that realizing the pre-existing limits to colonial power helps one understand more about its eventual disappearance. With regard to independence, he stressed that a distinction must be made between formal and effective independence.

Presenting her own challenge to the traditional narrative of decolonization, UT Professor and Co-Director of the British Studies Program, Philippa Levine called on scholars to acknowledge the important role that gender played in colonial independence movements. She argued that although the role of women and sexuality were frequently written out of post-independence literature, one could nevertheless find “gendered traces” throughout the history of decolonization.

Women were the disproportionate victims of communal violence, often falling victim to kidnapping and rape. However, women were also combatants, as seen in Algeria where women helped to organize bombings and insurgent attacks as well as providing intelligence.

Levine noted, "that without a gendered analysis, our understanding of decolonization will remain at best partial, minimizing women’s roles and replicating rather traditional and narrow views of how politics operates."

PANEL II: Mapping the History of Revolution and Counter-revolution in Spanish America

Assistant Professor Marcela Echeverri, CUNY, and Professor Alan Knight, director of Latin American Centre, Oxford University

Assistant Professor Marcela Echeverri, CUNY; and Professor Alan Knight, director of Latin American Centre, Oxford University

This panel brought together four scholars at various stages of their careers. Assistant Professor Marcela Echeverri, College of Staten Island, City University of New York, presented her paper entitled “Popular Royalists and Revolution in Colombia, 1809-1819.”

Using archival sources from the southwestern region of Colombia, Echeverri re-examined the reasons why Indians and black slaves were loyal to the Spanish Crown and its royalist army during the early years of the independence war in Popayán.

She suggested that their allegiance was not inevitable, or the expression of some false consciousness, but the product of a continually renegotiated understanding of their rights conferred by the Crown, as well as the result of contingent military alliances between the royalist elites and Indians and slaves, which gave unprecedented benefits to the latter. Attention to these popular royalists destabilizes the modernizing narrative of independence and gives a much more complex image of popular politics, Echeverri argued.

Associate Professor Mark Thurner, University of Florida, presented “After Colonialism and the King: Notes on the Peruvian Birth of ‘Contemporary History.’” Thurner analyzed the writings and images of late colonial Creole and early republican intellectuals in Peru to suggest how historians might reconsider timelines of independence.

With thorough attention to Creole awareness of the transition between Peruvian antiquity — the succession of Inca emperors whose heirs, according to the official line, were the Spanish royals — and the colonial period, or “modernity,” Thurner argued that postcolonial elites understood the period after independence as “contemporary history,” a marriage of Peruvian uniqueness with French Republican ideals of political change.

Thurner suggested how an understanding of the colonial as “modern” and the postcolonial as “contemporary” well illustrated the ambiguity of the democratic predicament in history and gave contemporary postcolonial history a birthplace in Peru.  Also, perhaps challenging Echeverri’s distinction of elite Creoles’ support for revolution from that of the indigenous population, Thurner pointed out that Bolivar was translated into Quechua. “Words like ‘Republic’ matter. They are being translated. This wasn’t just a Creole revolution,” Thurner emphasized.

Similarly, Professor and Director of the Latin American Centre at the University of Oxford Alan Knight called for more attention to the originality of Latin America in theories of nationalism in his paper, “Was the Mexican Revolution a ‘War of National Liberation’?” Taking aim at oversimplified comparisons of the 20th century revolution to those of Russia, Iran and China, Knight answered “no”, that the real revolution was not against foreign interests but within Mexico, a mass social uprising spurred by internal class divisions.

Mexican nationalism was already well formed before the 20th century, and it didn’t need a foreign imperialist government to cause a revolution. Instead of seeing the revolution as a war of liberation against foreign interests, especially those from the U.S., Knight challenged scholars to reassess the role of popular nationalism.

PANEL III: Decolonization and Difference in Northern Africa

Nordine Amara, member Institut de recherche sur le Maghreb contemporain, Tunisia; Berny Sèbe, lecturer at University of Birmingham, England

Nordine Amara, member Institut de recherche sur le Maghreb contemporain, Tunisia; Berny Sèbe, lecturer at University of Birmingham, England

This panel discussed how difference among populations is constructed in various ways, and how such populations may resist homogenization when it serves a nascent nation-state. Dr. Berny Sèbe, University of Birmingham, England, helped us understand the Sahara as a place marked by its geographic unity and political fragmentation, where borders are literally lines drawn in the sand. His analysis of the failure of several projects of unification in postcolonial Sahara, affirmed just how problematic it is to imagine, retrospectively, an idealized homogeneity.

Nordine Amara, Institut de recherche sur le Maghreb contemporain, Tunisia, analyzed the question of nationality in colonial and postcolonial Algeria. His talk identified how the French state deployed nationality law as part of its “colonial biopolitics.” Conferring French nationality upon Algerians, but excepting them from the rights of citizenship, allowed France to make a sovereign claim on the people of Algeria while producing a fundamental social inequality, yielding a subjected colonial subject.

This colonial subject was called the indigène or “native” Algerian, an exercise that fellow panelist, Professor Todd Shepard, Johns Hopkins University, underlined as transnational in essence. According to Shepard, the French government understood the anti-colonial struggles in Algeria as a social movement led by segregated citizens. Thus, in order to minimize these tensions, France sought to incorporate racial and cultural “differences” into the nation.

This institutional narrative, as Shepard highlighted, borrowed from Mexico’s indigenismo model of integration, which a broad network of social scientists, brought together by UNESCO, helped to shape and promote.

As Brower commented at the end of the panel, each presentation proved how crucial it is to understand the diverse layers of historical experiences embedded in the word decolonization. It was clear from the papers presented that the transnational experience of decolonization is a fruitful arena for further exploration.

“If we are to understand the multiple meanings of the category of decolonization, its differences and its potential challenges, we need to move beyond a bounded, national framework,” Brower said.

PANEL IV: Three Waves of Decolonization on Russo-Turkic Shores

The presenters in this panel focused on nation-state formation in Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Central Asian republics. Professor Ilya Vinkovetsky, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, analyzed Bulgaria’s constitution of 1879, which was heavily shaped by the Russian Empire and its designs on the European territories of the declining Ottoman Empire.

Vinkovetsky credits the surprising liberality of this constitution, given Russian domestic autocracy, to the social homogenization of both ethnicity and class that followed the Russo-Turkish War, the expulsion of the old Ottoman elites, and the liberal reform impulses of a segment of the Russian bureaucracy. He argued that the constitutional process begun under Russian tutelage by the newly independent Bulgaria had the effect of not only severing Bulgaria from the Ottomans but also from Russian overlordship as well.

Professor Howard Eissenstat, St. Lawrence University, N.Y., examined Turkey as it changed from being the core of the Ottoman Empire to a nation-state. He challenged the traditional historic interpretation that the Turkish War of Independence was an anti-colonial war. Instead he argued that Turkey plays a somewhat unique role as both an imperial power and de facto resister of western imperial designs.

European colonial powers, according to Eissenstat, played only a supporting role in what was essentially a civil war among various factions of the old Ottoman elites and between rival nationalist programs about the shape of the post-Ottoman Middle East. The Turkish national state prevailed because of force of arms, not ideas.

UT Assistant Professor Yoav Di-Capua, the panel commentator, rejected the validity of considering these processes as decolonization, suggesting that, for Bulgaria and Turkey, ‘de-Ottomanization’ might be a better term due to the unique aspects of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

Examining decolonization from the perspective of political science, Professor Paul Kubicek, Oakland University, Mich., argued that post-Soviet Central Asia represented a “last frontier” of decolonization. These nations, Kubicek argued, did not experience the kind of indigenous nationalist movements that sought national independence in most other colonial settings; rather, they were “orphans” of the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were, therefore, forced to develop both state institutions — many of which were only cosmetically changed from those under the Soviets — and at the same time a sense of national identity and legitimacy.

Kubicek concluded by examining the extent to which this dual nation- and state-building exercise has worked — or not. He found it deficient in most aspects and solely reliant upon the charismatic authority of leaders and the tenuous connections drawn to elements of the past that make up the imagined national narrative.

PANEL V: New Doctoral Research in Colonial and Postcolonial History

Doctoral candidates Laurie Wood and Amber Abbas of UT, and Juan Luis Ossa of St. Antony's College, University of Oxford

Doctoral candidates Laurie Wood and Amber Abbas of UT; and Juan Luis Ossa of St. Antony's College, University of Oxford

This panel was an eclectic grouping of new doctoral researchers, two from UT's History Department and one from the University of Oxford. Laurie Wood, UT doctoral candidate, examined a manuscript entitled History of Unrest Occurring in Martinique During the Revolution by Pierre Dessalles. As a colonial magistrate, Dessalles, compiled documents in the Caribbean island of Martinique relating to the French revolution.

Wood explained that the book is useful in two ways. The documents reveal a complex island society and colonial officials' desire for a revolution in France, but certainly not in the island colony where their own power would be threatened.

Juan Luis Ossa Santa Cruz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, explored the main characteristics of Chile's first revolutionary army after the fall of the Spanish Empire. Ossa argued that independence divided Chilean society in a civic, rather than civil, war between Santiago and Concepción. The Chilean autonomists on both sides of this conflict eventually became revolutionaries and influenced the creation of the First Revolutionary Army.

The third presenter, UT doctoral candidate Amber Abbas, described the multiple realities of South Asian Muslims following partition, providing a new lens through which to view the partition of India, Pakistan, and, eventually, Bangladesh. Abbas focused on oral interviews of former students of Aligarh Muslim University in India in the 1940s, in an attempt, as she explained, to move the narrative of partition away from the oversimplified story of one violent moment in 1947.

PANEL VI: Africa and the Contested Imaginaries of Decolonization

Assistant Professors Frank Guridy, Ruramisai Charumbira of UT and Evan Maina Mwangi of Northwestern University

Assistant Professors Frank Guridy and Ruramisai Charumbira of UT, and Evan Maina Mwangi of Northwestern University

The sixth and final panel of the conference on April 17 focused on the political and social consequences of decolonization as well as how the memory of decolonization has evolved over time. Assistant Professor Sarah Van Beurden, Ohio State University and fellow of the Institute for Historical Studies 2009-10, focused on the creation of Zaire’s postcolonial identity through the restitution of artwork removed from the region during colonial rule.

She asserted that the issue of restitution of artwork was not only a continuation of the Belgian-Congo postcolonial contentieux (disputes), but also an attempt by President Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime to free Zairean peoples of their colonial past through the system of authencité (authenticity). Ultimately, both sides benefited from the repatriation of art — Belgium because it allowed it to distance itself from its colonial image and Mobutu, because it elevated his image among his own constituency and the international community.

UT Department of History Assistant Professor Ruramisai Charumbira examined how the ruling elite of Zimbabwe used the nationalist politico-religious symbol of Nehanda to legitimize their political power. Nehanda Charwe was a spiritual leader in the late 19th century and encouraged the people of north central Zimbabwe to revolt against Britain’s colonial rule. The British eventually executed her in April 1898.

She has since become both a “popular” spirit medium and a political icon that overtime has been used by leaders such as Robert Mugabe to lend to their oppressive rule the legitimacy of the anti-colonial struggle. Charumbira also notes how Nehanda, despite being a female spirit who brought rain and fertility to the land, was relegated to an androgynous ancestral symbol of resistance that reflected fears of feminist nationalism. Such an instrumental use of history and memory has consequences, and as Mugabe’s popularity waned, Nehanda too has been rejected by youth as a symbol of repression.

Charumbira fears that the political exploitation of Nehanda memory as myth will overshadow and possibly obliterate their role as historical actors, part of a larger problem for understanding the place of women in southern-African history.

Professor Evan Mwangi of Northwestern University, Ill. also examined the changing understanding of anti-colonial symbols in his paper “Incomplete Rebellion: The Mau Mau Rebellion in 21st Century Kenyan Culture.” He showed how Mau Mau is used out of historical context to address problems facing present-day Kenya.

According to Mwangi, Mau Mau — the name of the ethnic group responsible for revolting to overthrow the British from 1952-60 — is the ultimate symbol for bravery and strength against colonialism and for self-determination. However, it has been integrated into consumer culture, transportation, and music for ideological and aesthetic purposes — many times in contradiction with its initial purpose and message. What has emerged is a hybridization where memories of colonialism reflect disappointment with the current post-colonial state.

Taken together, the papers in this panel suggested that the memory of colonialism still runs deep in the popular, political, and religious culture of post-independence Africa. This is evident in both the dissatisfaction of the citizenry with their current governments, and the efforts of governments to rally popular support. Furthermore, as African economies and societies become increasingly globalized, the specter of colonialism and European control looms ever larger.

PANEL VII: Concluding Roundtable

Professors Eric Van Young of University of California at San Diego, and Frederick Cooper of New York University

Professors Eric Van Young of University of California at San Diego, and Frederick Cooper of New York University

In the concluding roundtable discussion, led by Professor Frederick Cooper, New York University, and Professor Van Young, the conference participants worked to integrate the new perspectives presented at the conference into a more refined understanding of independence and decolonization as concepts and historical circumstances.

In his opening of the roundtable discussion, Cooper cautioned that we risk flattening out the experience of colonialism when putting it in a broad temporal context. Colonialism and decolonization did not mean the same thing in 1810 as they did in 1965.

Cooper emphasized that historians should think about how the distinctive period of decolonization following World War II generated new critiques of colonialism and new visions of what decolonization implied for people in colonies and for the countries that had imposed their rule over them alike. He also criticized the historical framework of modernity, claiming that it is not a useful way of understanding the very diverse processes that are included under this umbrella term.

Van Young provided what he called a "scattershot inventory of major themes" as a way to both summarize the main issues raised throughout the conference and to raise some questions to help guide future inquiries on these subjects. He made different points grouped under the two headings: "independence" and "decolonization."

Regarding independence, Van Young asked that participants think carefully about the broad but crucial question of the role of nationalism and collective consciousness in independence movements. As for decolonization, he made the point that decolonization — which is an ongoing and, possibly, perpetual process — should not be conflated with postcoloniality, which is a social and political condition.

In the end, participants did not reach any formal agreement about how to define decolonization. As Di-Capua observed the panelists “experimented with the concept rather than seeking a definition of it.”

The conference participants all agreed that decolonization is not over. It is an ongoing process and one that is continually re-imagined and therefore perpetuated; both for the countries that were colonized and the scholars whose attempts to understand it sometimes impact historical developments.  As we live in a thoroughly interconnected world, there is a crucial need for a worldwide perspective on what happens when empires split up and nations develop. As Knight queried during his presentation, "When the shooting stops, then what?"

Levine commented that, “Workshops and conferences of this sort, which bring together people who work in such a diverse range of fields offer a fantastic opportunity for real cross-fertilization. Learning how scholars in other areas think about big issues, how they solve problems in their particular field, always open up new intellectual possibilities. What could be more exciting than that?”

Historians who focus on broad themes like independence and decolonization are too often unaware of the wider resonances of their work, because the nature of the academy can lock them into parochial debates with scholars working on the same time or place. The Independence and Decolonization Conference helped cross some of these barriers, creating a forum for discussing a global issue from a global perspective.

Contributors: Panel I — Robert Whitaker, Panel II — Christopher Heaney, Panel III — Franz Hensel, Panel IV — Matthew Bunn, Panel V — Jessica Achberger, Panel VI — Ryan Groves, Panel VII — Cameron Strang

Conference poster design: Veronica Jimenez Vega
Photos and banner graphic (adaptation from conference poster): M.G. Moore