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Oxford’s imperial present: ‘postcolonialism’ doesn’t mean it’s over

It’s a well established fact that a lot of Oxford’s current institutional ‘glory’ can be attributed to colonialism. A large amount of its capital was reaped from colonial enterprise, including from the worst of its kind, slavery (look at St. John’s research, for example). When we hear postcolonialism, however, we’re used to understanding it as a time period beyond the event that was colonialism. Being from India, many would say, for example, that colonialism ended there in 1947, and the ‘postcolonial’ era began after that. But perhaps it’s more accurate to think of postcolonialism as colonialism under national governments rather than the end of the system itself.

There are many aspects to colonialism, at the abstract level of sovereignty to material conditions of life and labour, but its reach is virtually unlimited. History has its way of entrenching institutions – whether it is through law, setting up of incentive structures, or the minds of people, every systemic change often leaves an impact that is hard to get rid of. What does this actually look like in the context of postcolonialism? The clearest example is the import of Westminster-style democracy across the colonies. This also comes with the adoption of the common law system in judiciaries. In a cultural context, this might include the use and spread of English across the world. There are much deeper institutions as well, such as colonial land revenue collection systems, the exploitation of forests (many occupied by indigenous populations), and the entrenchment of colourism.

One common question when we talk about postcolonialism is why nationalist revolutions didn’t ‘completely’ disown their colonial past. The answer is what I suggested at the start of the previous paragraph – that alternative institutions might have developed in their own manner in the colonies through a process of their own indigenous evolution, but when the British intervened with their own system, they inserted their colonial institutions into this process. This insertion was thus met with each colony’s own nationalistic revolution, but following the framework of dialectical and historical materialism, it was clear that a revolution born as an ‘antithesis’ to something, will always give birth to a ‘synthesis’ or a nation that is stuck in between its own ideals and what it fought against. Such a nation cannot be independent of colonialism. 

Practically, we may attribute this to a variety of reasons. The Indian elite, for example, were already trained in British institutions- they became lawyers studying English law, politicians working in the model imposed by the British Parliament, and educationists and reformers influenced by the system of study the British introduced them to. To say they did this out of choice would be highly misleading – the incentives were made highly attractive because the British rewarded loyalty and service, and disincentives of brute force applied to dissenters. So, when we look at the nations born out of colonialism, we continue to see colonial structures that are alive and thriving.

This framework helps us understand Oxford’s present role as a colonial institution, since these structures extend beyond the nations themselves. At a very basic level, it is the impression of prestige that the British left throughout its colonies that continues to carry Oxford’s reputation today. As a student of law, for example, I can see how because of the Indian adoption of common law, Oxford has made itself indispensable to Indian lawyers. It is the pinnacle of the British academic elite, and if we want to understand Indian systems of law, we are still bound to look into British law – not only from the colonial period, but also contemporary law. For example, the reform of sodomy laws and sedition laws requires us to study contemporary British reforms in those fields besides colonial intentions, in order to change such laws within the framework of the legal system and principles the colonists themselves left behind.

After Britain made English indispensable to the Indian elite, and with its vast imperial footprint, the world, it made its own institutions that teach the language and store its deepest history of literature more valuable to postcolonial nations. This also holds true for history, sociology, anthropology and more, since the Western perspective of these subjects have entrenched themselves as the foundational accounts of the Indian narrative – look at Dalrymple, Omvedt, Austin, etc. Without prejudice to the expertise of many of these scholars, consider the case of Dumont for how such Westernised views may go wrong. Similar structures operate at various levels, explaining why Oxford, even today, continues to actively benefit from colonialism, and why the postcolonial populations strive (or struggle) to enter the institution. 

What could this mean for Oxford? It requires a recognition as students and members of the university that we are not the pinnacle of merit, but the pinnacle of privilege. Our existence in this institution can be attributed to the extent by which we are able to derive benefit from, and contribute to, those colonial institutions that make Oxford valuable. This does not serve to negate the struggles of anyone to get into the university, but once we are here, we need to recognise that our individual efforts do not exist in a vacuum, but in the context of our position as people who are located in a colonial system, where elites across the world and British citizens are given an upper hand.

This raises questions on how we may recognise that privilege and work towards ‘decolonising’. This is a question with a range of responses, however, I suggest that with the global entrenchment of these colonial institutions, it is not possible to overthrow them and replace them with novel alternatives (the question of what kind of alternative being an equally difficult one). Instead, we need to be able to let postcolonial populations reclaim key structures and define them in their own terms. 

This can include practices such as questioning any harsh policing of the English language, or even its use to obfuscate knowledge (sometimes phrased as moving towards a ‘global’ English, even in academia). It includes accepting into syllabi postcolonial authors, as well as expanding syllabi to serve a larger population, making Oxford a truly international institution. We should also be willing to share the privilege the institution has acquired and has bequeathed on us, by making active choices about who and what we platform when here, as well as what we chose to do with this accumulation of ‘Oxford privilege’ over the rest of our careers. This includes adopting practices of decolonisation throughout our lives, and making Oxford a space that permits decolonisation as a process. The institution should be admitting people who can benefit from its privilege, at reasonable and comparable costs, not just removing statues that glorify its colonial benefactors. It should continue to expand the ambit of its research focus, substantively and geographically. 

Admittedly, the logistics of these issues are hard to settle, and many steps have already been taken, but I hope the aim of the article to shed light on the postcolonial perspective will increase participation in the suitable discussions towards exorcising colonialism from its haunt at Oxford.

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