Legacy or Residue? Rethinking Imperial and Colonial History during a Racial Crisis

Weiao Xing, University of Cambridge

While statues are being discussed and changes blocked, black people have to pass them daily, seeing the congratulation of slave trading, their horror and pain.”

Kate Williams, Professor of Public Engagement with History, University of Reading


The plinth that previously displayed the statute of Edward Colston

In a long thread on Twitter, Kate Williams elucidated the convoluted (and unavailing) discussions surrounding attempts to amend the plaque on the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. She argued that attempts to remove the sculpture through consensus had proven impossible. On 7 June 2020, the statue was torn down and thrown into River Avon.

Edward Colston, well-known in Bristol and an acquaintance of early modernists working on imperial and colonial history, has hit top trending searches as a consequence of George Floyd’s death. Although his statute has been debated for decades, its significance was magnified by the current racial crisis.

Likewise, in early June, many Belgian colonial-era statues were vandalised in protest. Amongst them are icons of King Leopold II, who was infamous for his bloodcurdling oppression in nineteenth-century Congo. As memorials, these statues are symbolic of powers in the colonial past, and such valorous or extreme behaviours reveal the eagerness to break away from the definition from imperial and colonial history.

In the meantime, a calmer revolution has occurred at Imperial College London. Dating from the mid-nineteenth century, the college unquestionably reflects the ‘glory’ of the British Empire. Its Latin motto, coined in 1908, recognises these imperial and colonial legacies – ‘Scientia imperii decus et tutamen’ which can be translated as ‘Scientific knowledge, the crowning glory and the safeguard of the empire’. The College recently decided to remove this motto from its coats of arms. As it officially confessed, ‘we choose not to deny that history but not to be defined by it either’.

This decision is reflective of laudable anti-racism, but such actions raise further questions given the importance of ‘empires’ that shaped the early modern and modern world. ‘Should the Rhodes Scholarship be renamed as well?’, one of my friends commented on this literal avoidance of imperialism. This is far from a joke. Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of the prestigious scholarship, accumulated his treasure from Africa at the same time Imperial College burgeoned in the nineteenth century. Appeals to remove the statue of Rhodes from Oriel College have been re-ignited after the protest in Bristol.

Imperial legacies reside and matter in higher education. From Oxford to SOAS, oriental studies have long served as a way of perceiving the wider world, as well as a means to train numerous colonial administrators, civil servants, and translators. Students and scholars now scrutinise this history in their own research, sometimes tracing the lives of earlier generations who studied in the same institution and casting their personal stories into the history of the expanding British Empire. For example, Rhodes’ personal papers, which are preserved at the Weston Library in Oxford, now shed light on Commonwealth and African history. Based on similar sources, Sze Pui Kwan, who received her doctorate from SOAS, illuminates British translators in nineteenth-century Hong Kong and their agentive roles in the Empire’s knowledge circulation.

In the past few decades, post-colonialism has given rise to transformations in academia. The rise of global history and the cutting-edge ‘oceanic turn’ also offer historians fresh impetus to interactively re-examine the past that has been usually written in colonial narratives. A glimpse of current senior chair professors of imperial and Commonwealth history partially denotes historiographical changes in the United Kingdom. Born in Guyana and raised in Barbados, Richard Drayton, a former Rhodes scholar, is a leading historian of imperial history. Other experts, including Samita Sen, Saul Dubow, and James Belich have similar postcolonial backgrounds. It is noteworthy that the professorship Belich holds has itself been renamed – the Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth History was established in 1905 as the Beit Professor of Colonial History.

Nevertheless, much more work needs to be done to reinterpret imperial and colonial history, and this work is in many ways harder than pulling down a statue or erasing a motto. Returning to the case of Edward Colston, we might now expect an updated entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In the current version, modified in 2008, Colston is introduced as a ‘merchant and philanthropist’, but in the whole piece, his role as a slave trader is only disclosed in a brief and caveated sentence – ‘much of his wealth is thought to have been made in buying and selling slaves’. Our comprehension of and attitudes towards imperialism and colonialism are also critical. Indeed, I am astonished to see the anachronistic term ‘suzerainty’ offensively used in relation to the crisis and tension in Hong Kong in personal conversations and a few media reports.

The current anti-racial movement compels us to critically reflect upon imperial and colonial history. The removal of statues and imperial mottos plays a part in this, but we must be careful not to radically terminate discussions regarding their existence, as it may result in an enormous loss of heritage and opportunities to comprehend the history. Protests cannot wipe out dark pages of the past, and we should rationally face up to their historical significance whilst participating in the history of our epoch. A series of conflicts define this time of global crisis, from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to discrimination against East Asians and female medical workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this sense, a more diversified and decentralised understanding of imperial legacies needs to be encouraged inside and outside academia.


About the author: Weiao Xing is a second-year PhD in history at the University of Cambridge. His current research is concerned with cross-cultural encounters in the early modern North Atlantic world, particularly in previous English and French colonies along the eastern seaboard of America. He is enthusiastic about interdisciplinary approaches in social and cultural history.

Special thanks go to Dr Henry Irving and Chen Zhang for their suggestions on this piece of writing.

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