The Oxford and Colonialism working group was created in the Spring of 2016 in an effort to reflect on the University’s historic ties with Great Britain’s colonial past and the ways in which the University’s colonial legacies reflect on the present, and our vision of the University’s future.
The student-led Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement, originally based at South African universities, brought issues of colonial legacies to international prominence in 2015-2016 and spurred similar movements globally. Oxford’s own RMF group helped galvanise numerous debates in Colleges, departments, and across the city - sometimes acrimonious, other times constructive. It is fair to say that while the University already had a policy on race and diversity issues, it had taken a back seat in debates over colonial legacies until then. Nevertheless, while the RMF campaign provided the much needed impetus, a number of isolated parts of the University in departments and Colleges had sought to address these issues for a long time, but in a disparate and uncoordinated manner, and without central University support. In order to bridge the gap between the student movements and the University’s formal body, Kalypso Nicolaidis (Department of Politics and International Relations) and Dorian Singh (St Antony’s College) initially brought together students, academics and staff to discuss practical ways for the University to think about and act on colonialism in a coordinated manner. The group explored a number of options for moving forward, including the creation of a physical at the centre of the University as well as a virtual space (please have a look at the interim report and press commentary).
The group grew progressively, and was joined on a voluntary basis to reach 120 members, students and staff, across all University divisions and University Administration Services, by 2018. Laura van Broekhoven (Pitt Rivers Museum) and Nadiya Figueroa (Rhodes House) joined the group as co-chairs to help steer its activities. The Pitt Rivers Museum became the home of the project. The student group Common Ground became a core partner in the group. Karma Nabulsi (Department of Politics and International Relations) led the effort to define a possible future governance structure that will be discussed more formally. In the autumn of 2017, the University central office, under the leadership of its Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, and Advocate and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality and Diversity, Rebecca Surender, put their support squarely behind the group which was provided support from the (then so-called) Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Fund in order to choose a way forward to showcase the outcomes of our joined-up conversation.
Throughout our discussions we were well aware that other universities in the UK, the United States, South Africa and elsewhere were also addressing issues of legacy and memory especially regarding slavery, and the benefits and profits they received from the slave trade. One of the group’s first initiatives was to ask “what can we learn from other such experiences”. Nevertheless, we also believe that issues raised by colonialism and slavery greatly overlap, they are also distinct.
Moreover, Oxford University is in a ‘privileged position’ (ironically, of course) to deal with British, and even other European colonial pasts, given its own central role in training political and administrative elites throughout the colonial era.
It is also important to point out that the working group did not seek to duplicate the efforts already taking place around the University. Rather, its aim was to look for common ground, link projects, initiatives and events across the University and suggest University-wide initiatives that are practical, sustainable and relevant both internally and with the wider public. Existing relevant initiatives included: TORCH’s Race and Resistance programme, which brings together researchers and students working on the history, literature, and culture of anti-racist movements in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, the United States, and beyond; the History Faculty’s teach-in on colonialism in the Spring of 2016; Oriel College’s initiative on rethinking how to curate, present and contextualise contentious artefacts and colonial relics kept in the College.
Eventually, the group decided to focus on the creation of this website as a first step, with a view to offer critical and constructive viewpoints on the historical relationship between our University and colonialism and on how this has affected (and continues to affect) the collegiate University’s architecture, admission and recruitment processes and curriculum throughout the University. These viewpoints have been gathered in a decentralised manner through appeals to Divisions, departments and Colleges, as well as individual group members, to populate the website on the basis of their internal debates. In doing so, our ambition is to encourage debates around issues of colonialism in the University, and explore the boundary between past and present-day colonialism and coloniality. The website will serve as a platform for these conversations, which are more pressing than ever following the momentous events of the summer of 2020.
The members of the working group hope that it will grow organically and help to widen the conversation within the student and staff body, the higher education and heritage sector, and hopefully the wider public at large, about how universities have been involved in and influenced by colonialism, and how they can drive further study and understanding of this complex but deeply relevant history.
We also hope that the creation of this initiative will empower existing initiatives and encourage new ones related to Oxford and colonialism. If so, the University will dramatically increase its attractiveness as an inclusive global hub for students and staff from around the world, including the global south, as well as British students from minority groups contemplating an application to Oxford.
The website has been conceived initially through meetings of the Oxford and Colonialism network and further designed and built by Dorian Singh with the help of Tim Myatt, Nataša Stuper and Ria Kapoor, under the guidance of Laura van Broekhoven and Kalypso Nicolaidis.