Decolonising History

As a department, we are working to decolonise the way we teach, research, and work with one another. Our expertise is among the most diverse and wide-ranging in the country, stretching from the beginning of the second millennium to the present, and spanning much of the world – and we are committed to extending our coverage even further. Our collective engagement with such a broad swathe of human experience encourages us to reflect on how the study of history can promote empathy and respect for everyone and the ability to recognise and challenge injustice where it exists. It also encourages us to think about how we understand the past in different ways and from a range of different perspectives and intellectual traditions. For us, decolonising represents an opportunity to work with new frameworks and approaches, enabling a richer understanding of the processes and structures that have made our world what it is today – and what we can do to make it better. We welcome students from all backgrounds, from all parts of the country and world, and we endeavour to support and work with them to create a truly universal space of learning. We aim to provide an education which enables students to become empowered, thoughtful and ethically responsible global citizens, aware of their pasts, equipped to meet the challenges of an interdependent world, and able to work for a better future.

We believe that History research and teaching at university gives us new ways of looking at the world and can help us to build a fairer and more just society. Studying history demands empathy and respect for the experiences of people whose lives were and are different from our own. Engaging with the past in a rigorous, fair, and intellectually honest way can be one of the most important steps towards making a better present.

We also recognise that the modern academic discipline of History emerged in Europe during a period of increased nationalism and colonial exploitation, and that many of the fundamental structures of knowledge upon which it is built are influenced by a colonialist world-view: one that privileges the ideas, rights, and dignity of some groups of people above others. This includes the question of whose stories we choose to tell, but it also goes deeper. The very ways we are conditioned to look at and think about the past are often derived from imperialist and racialised schools of thought.

We recognise that History – and the legacies of its colonial foundations – constitutes one of the ways in which some groups of people have been, and continue to be, oppressed, ignored, or abused in our societies today. In solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other decolonial and postcolonial movements around the world, we also recognise that History can be an important tool for positive social change.

We acknowledge that much writing and teaching in History departments today, even when purporting to have a ‘global’ focus, remains Eurocentric and thus skewed in its coverage, perspectives, and sympathies. Meanwhile, work focusing on Europe often ignores or downplays the importance of non-white actors in our shared past. We also recognise and abhor that racial prejudice continues to mar our discipline, from the under-representation of BME scholars on our reading lists and in our faculties to the day-to-day experiences of our colleagues. We recognise that the way we ‘do’ History, at Exeter as elsewhere, needs to change if we are to remain relevant, and help to address chronic and systemic injustices, in our increasingly connected and interdependent global society.

We are at the same time committed to a pluralist understanding of decolonising our curriculum and our research. Since the work of decolonising is not based on any particular political or ideological agenda, we recognise that there is no single way to accomplish it. Our approach rests upon the free and open exchange of ideas and perspectives in a common pursuit of understanding the past. This includes working with our students as co-producers of knowledge to create a collaborative and inclusive educational experience. At Exeter, ‘decolonising’ is about expanding, not narrowing, what we do as a history department.

We believe these changes need to go beyond simply diversifying our reading lists and footnotes. As a group, we are working to re-think our pedagogical and research methodologies to more fully avail ourselves of the tools developed by postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial scholarship, thus enabling a stronger and broader appreciation of the complexities of past societies and cultures.

This broad understanding is therefore important even in historical contexts where colonisation in its modern form did not exist. Indeed, crucial to our work is an examination of the non-western world on its own terms, including before the arrival of European explorers and imperialists. Similarly, the study of the world before the fifteenth century also requires placing western Europe in its proper perspective relative to contemporary ‘Great Powers’, such as the eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire or the Abbasid caliphate. This transnational approach to the medieval and early modern worlds also illuminates connexions of conquest, trade, and culture across the Mediterranean, the Eurasian steppes and ‘Silk Roads’, and the Sahara. Finally, decolonising reminds us of the fundamental work of historians of all geographical and chronological specialisms to uncover and re-present voices marginalised in our sources and subsequent historiography, for instance those of women, members of black and minority ethnic groups, peasants, and the urban poor.

Recent posts related to decolonising history:

Who Wants Yesterday’s Statues?

Colston’s Fall, Bristol’s Civic Identity and the Memory of Empire

Interview with the organizers of ‘The Avocado Dialogues’ – Part 1

Interview with the organizers of ‘The Avocado Dialogues’ – Part 2

Decolonising the curriculum: A conversation

As Leopold II statues fall, how do we ‘educate ourselves’ about his colony?

Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource