Decolonizing History, Provincializing Europe

Sumit Guha
University of Texas at Austin

The West is a world region that has often presented itself as the crucible of modern historical practice. It has claimed possession a continuous tradition of rational inquiry from Thucydides and Suetonius to Hume and Mommsen. Colonial rule then imposed faith in this genealogy upon imperial subjects world-wide.

I argue that a decolonial history has to provincialize Europe itself (as Dipesh Chakrabarti said twenty years ago). But to provincialize the West is not to deny its existence. Rather we should re-situate Western protocols of history in a comparative frame and investigate the actual working of collective memory there, past and present.

The first textbooks of South Asian history were written with the assurance that Europeans alone possessed  authentic chronological traditions. J.C. Marshman’s History of India appeared in 1836 and translations and textbooks based upon it were important in introducing Western historiography to schoolchildren in British India. Marshman dismissed all chronologies not compatible with his own holy books, declaring that with “the exception of the history of the Jews, in the Sacred Records, the authentic annals of no ancient nation extend more than two thousand eight hundred years beyond the present date.”

Regardless of the supposed heritage from Thucydides, the bearers of socially vital histories in the West were the heralds, who recognized the symbolic language of coats of arms that gave visible honor and status in heavily illiterate society. Beginning as genealogists and poets, they gradually developed into organized fraternities ultimately recognized or replaced by centralizing monarchies in England and France.  Thus, well into the seventeenth century, English popular tradition was content to accept the historicity of Robin Hood and King Arthur (neither of whom have ever been satisfactorily identified). Alfred Nutt, a leading scholar of folklore wrote of the Western historical tradition into the seventeenth century:

Now we know that the Troy Saga, the legend which places a fugitive from Ilium at the outset of some of the chief nations of modern Europe, is destitute of any and every kind of basis, historical, racial, archaeological, or linguistic. … Yet for centuries it was regarded as gospel truth; it was embodied in every national chronicle, in every princely genealogy; it was relied upon by statesmen and monarchs; it was accepted by the learned cleric and by the wandering minstrel. 

 The truly fierce contests were at a lower level and occurred over the truth of family history and consequent honorable status. This was connected to local honor and the display of insignia of rank, such as coats of arms. The latter were issues over which men of modest rank and means contended with great bitterness and no little expenditure.  By the sixteenth century, the ‘Kings’ of the College of Arms had allotted territorial jurisdictions and went out periodically to verify if those of ‘low degree’ were unauthorizedly displaying armorial bearings on their houses, clothes or sepulchers.

Armorial symbols

Men of modest means might spend considerable sums, if not spill blood in defense of their honor as in the case of Sandys vs. Willett

The Defendant [Willett] had said that Henry Sandys was base gentleman, and that he (the Defendant) was a gentleman and a soldier and as good a gentleman as Richard Sandys; was descended of the house of Warwick by the mother’s side, and by the father’s side from the house of Mortimer, Earl of March; and that his arms were …

The verdict delivered on 5th December 1639 awarded 100 marks damages (£ 66.66) and £ 20 costs, so the litigation cost Willett near £ 100 in an era when a soldier might be paid £1 a month.

Such was the lived and contentious history that agitated ordinary people, who would not seriously contest the lineal descent of the major dynasties, or even nations, from a single fugitive from the sack of Troy, or indeed from Abraham or Noah. Just as early modern science overlapped with astrology and alchemy, so too did heraldic study overlap with the beginnings of history. Only gradually was such familial history marginalized by new histories written by professionals and boiled down into school textbooks.

Similarly in Spain, Guillen Berendero indicates the growing influence of the literate bureaucracy in these processes: a treatise of 1567 specified that the petitioner was supposed to promptly submit a written genealogy with his mother, father and maternal and paternal grandparents. He adds that the energization of parish records and registers from the 1540s provided fresh materials for this process. It became more rigorous in later centuries, as the enlightened monarchy in Spain sought to shrink the number of poor nobles (hidalgos), now seen as an obstacle to economic growth. But it was only recently and in special settings that professionalized history begin to be supported in its own right.

Anthony Grafton has described how “Baudouin, Bodin and the rest convinced the erudite patricians who managed universities and learned gymnasia to see history, as they did, as a formal discipline, one comparable to law in utility and status.”  Even then, history had to be firmly set in the unchallengeable frame of revealed religion. Additionally, it had to conform to the political climate where the author found himself. The genealogical basis of monarchy in many parts of Eurasia made a certain kind of historical inquiry both necessary and perilous. The power that monarchs, bishops and patricians wielded in the seventeenth century drifted into the hands of university presidents and their ilk by the early twentieth century, especially in the USA. Through them, Peter Novick wrote, wealthy donors exerted a “generalized influence in defining the permissible limits of academic discourse though their membership on boards of trustees and via compliant administrators…”  Such influences are growing again in the USA as hard-pressed university administrations succumb to the pressure of donor agendas.

Finally Western historians frequently elide the family history and genealogy branch of their discipline. Its growth is now far outstripping that of professional history. There is today a veritable explosion in the commercial production of genealogical information via sites such as This testifies to a growing public interest in a kind of family history: not as in seventeenth-century England, to establish present privilege through gentle descent, but largely to connect with interesting ethnicities or worthy ancestors. Fittingly for the “me generation”, the subscriber to a genetic testing service seeks no trans-individual genealogical purpose, no line to connect the noble ancestors to honorable descendants. 

A team of three scholars who studied these commercial tests wrote that they “tend to employ samples from limited sub­groups and generalize findings to extended populations (like in the case of West Africans for all African population).” They studied the discussion pages of the white nationalist Stormfront and found discussions of “whiteness” and subjective evaluations of genetic tests, such as the following: “When you do 23andme, the results directly from 23andme are bull****, if 23 says you are 100 European that is not enough and you have to look at GEDMATCH for the real answer.” Another thread contained the following: “Once uploaded, you can run your data through a number of calculators, and find DNA matches. (. . .) I find it is best to use multiple estimations and explore via services like Gedmatch. For me, in the past 500 years, I’m pretty sure I’m 99.7%+ European.”

 A few centuries ago this writer might have been equally firmly convinced of his noble descent—perhaps from King Arthur, perhaps from Aeneas of Troy, and may have sought eagerly for authority in Virgil or Geoffrey of Monmouth. New, alternative microhistories are thus eroding the remaining authority of the professional historians who painfully ousted heralds  from the field a few centuries ago.

Ironically, racial descent categories (dolichocephalic, brachycephalic, ‘Aryan’ etc etc) were introduced into colonial textbooks in the nineteenth century and persist today. Decolonial history needs to look at the actual practices of East and West. My lecture (and the book on which it is based) begin that enterprise.

Sumit Guha is Professor of History at the University of Texas. His last book History and Collective Memory in South Asia, 1200-2000 was published by the University of Washington Press in 2019.