IPD '24: A History of Decoloniality Research at IASH

Since our foundation, IASH has welcomed researchers examining colonialism, Empire and coloniality, but like most Global North institutions, our Fellowship appointments privileged White scholars and failed to encourage research rooted in formerly colonised nations. It is our recognition of this history that informs our present Institute Project on Decoloniality 2021-2024 (IPD ’24). 

Back in 1971, in IASH’s second year of hosting Fellows, Dr James Walvin of the University of York visited the Institute to conduct research into the English popular societies of the eighteenth century and racial attitudes from the first explorations of West Africa to the emancipation of enslaved peoples in the British Empire, leading to his 1973 book, Black and White: The Negro and English Society, 1555-1945 (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press). Additionally, Dr Thomas P. Gorman of the University of Nairobi used his 1972 Fellowship to investigate language policy in the Global South. Later, in 1977, Professor James A. Casada visited IASH from Winthrop College, South Carolina, to study nineteenth-century British colonists in Africa, in work that later became part of his mammoth Annotated Bibliography of Exploration in Africa (Oxford: Hans Zell Publishers, 1990). Then, in 1980, Professor W. Stitt Robinson looked at the early Colonial era in the United States, laying the groundwork for a 1996 book on James Glen, Royal Governor of South Carolina from 1743 to 1756. 

By the early 1990s, the focus of some IASH Fellows had shifted towards the roles played by Scots in the British Empire. Dr Thierry Ruddel’s 1991 project investigating trade between Scottish merchants and British colonies from 1750 and 1850 was followed a year later by Professor David Richard Armitage’s research into the Darien Venture and the Union of 1707. The same year, Elizabeth Hulse, Archivist of the Art Gallery of Ontario, spent time at the Institute exploring the life and work of Scots-born pioneer ethnologist Sir Daniel Wilson; Professor Suresh C. Ghost of Jawaharlal Nehru University began researching the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff's role in the imposition of Western education into India. Research centred on the Caribbean also took place at the Institute, including renowned musicologist Dr Olive Lewin visiting twice to work on her 2000 book, Rock It Come Over: The Folk Music of Jamaica (Cave Hill: UWI Press).

Research on India, in particular, has played a significant role at IASH, from our first Fellow from India, Dr Dilip K. Chakrabarti in 1974, to Dr Gerald J. Bryant’s 1980 research into the East India Company's army, and then to the foundation of our long-running Charles India Wallace Trust Fellowship in 1995 for Indian scholars aged under 45. These Fellows, more than twenty to date, have delved into topics as wide-ranging as Christian missionaries, agricultural innovations in colonial India, the role of the sepoy through to postcolonialism, and translations of contemporary Indian novels. Other Fellows from India include Dr Poonam Bala in 1992-93, researching Scottish doctors and their contribution to the medical profession in British India, and Dr Sudhir Chandra of the Surat Centre for Social Studies, who examined Hindu converts to Christianity. We were also proud to host former Chief Justice of India, His Excellency Mr Justice R.S. Pathak, in 1993 as a Distinguished Visiting Professor. 

Dr Poonam Bala

Case Study: Dr Poonam Bala

IASH Fellow: 1990-91

Poonam Bala received her doctorate (PhD) degree on a Commonwealth Scholarship (1983-87) from the University of Edinburgh, postdoctoral research at the Universities of London and Edinburgh, University College London (UCL), an MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and graduate/undergraduate from the University of Delhi. She has held Visiting Professorships at Jawaharlal Nehru University and institutions in Germany, South Africa, India and Greece.  

She lectured at Harvard University, is former faculty at the University of Delhi and Professor at Amity University, and has taught and lectured in various universities in Canada, the USA, Australia, South Africa and Germany. Currently a Visiting Scholar at Cleveland State University and Nominated Fellow at UNISA (South Africa), she has lectured at the University of Queensland, and delivered the Distinguished Dr Upendranath Brahmachari Endowment Lecture at the University of Burdwan. She has authored and edited several books and articles on medicine and its historical trajectory under colonialism, including Imperialism and Medicine in Bengal: A Socio-Historical Perspective (Sage), Medicine and Colonialism: Historical Perspectives in India and South Africa (Routledge), and Learning from Empire (Cambridge Scholars), amongst several others. Her doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh, published as the first book, Imperialism and Medicine in Bengal, was a pathbreaking study on medicine in colonial India which opened up a new area of research...

Contemporary African issues have also been of interest to our Fellows in the last two decades. In 1997, the much-loved Yorùbá poet, actor and postcolonial writer, Dr Femi Fatoba, spent time at the Institute, researching the stage art of playwright Ola Rotimi and giving a reading from his short story collection My ‘Older’ Father and Other Stories. His University of Idaban colleague, Professor Femi Osofisan, was also dramaturg-in-residence at IASH as part of Scotland Africa '97, a nationwide initiative started by the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. From 1997 to 1999, Maj. Dr Richard Sezibera visited IASH to research the Rwandan genocide; in 1999, he became Rwandan Ambassador to the USA, later serving as Minister for Foreign Affairs. More recently, Professor Tunde Opeibi of the University of Lagos was an IASH-SSPS Fellow in 2017, researching the use of digital technologies in Nigerian politics, and in 2019, Professor Lilian-Rita Akudolu from Nnamdi Azikiwe University was appointed as our first Africa Fellow, working on feminist pedagogy for girls' education in Nigeria. Subsequent Africa Fellows include Professor Imraan Valodia studying inequality in South Africa, and Dr B Camminga, whose work looks at the digital diaspora of Africa’s transgender refugees.  

Many Fellows have examined the lives of intellectuals, politicians and activists who led anti-colonial movements around the world. In 1985, Professor Richard D. Ralston visited from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to work on his biography of African National Congress leader Dr A.B. Xuma. Then, in 2006, Irene Ng MP came to IASH to conduct research for her biography of S. Rajaratnam, Singapore's first Foreign Minister who played a crucial part in the momentous and crisis-ridden transition to independence; she is currently writing a second volume. Most recently, prior to being elected as an MP in 2020, Dr Harini Amarasuriya worked on a history of conscience in Sri Lanka focussing on the women’s movement and the influence of radical Christians on dissent from the 1960s. 

Wole Soyinka at CHCI 2009
Dr Wole Soyinka at CHCI 2009

Scholarship at IASH has also sought to examine and challenge aspects of Enlightenment thought that encouraged and propelled racism, imperial subjugation and economic exploitation. From Australia, Professor Iain McCalman visited IASH to investigate popular radicalism and anti-slavery in England between 1780 and 1834. In 2009, we were proud to host Nobel Laureate Dr Wole Soyinka as the keynote speaker for our Dialogues of the Enlightenment conference, where he discussed how post-Enlightenment nationalism amplified racism and inequality as part of his Enlightenment and the New Enthusiasms lecture. Former Hume Fellow Dr Felix Waldmann gained international recognition for his research into David Hume's life and manuscripts, which uncovered the philosopher's ideological and financial support of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, sparking much debate about Hume's legacy.  

Ultimately, IASH's beginnings replicated long-standing British attitudes to race and colonialism, privileging visitors from the Global North and overlooking Indigenous knowledges in favour of hegemonic Western thought. As IASH's Fellows broadened the aperture in what could be seen and understood from their relative position, and as our Fellows become more diverse, new areas of scholarship began to develop, deviating from the long-standing Eurocentric standard and capturing a wider breadth of thought and lived experience. Today, we acknowledge the Institute's shortcomings and lack of academic inclusivity, and how this maintained the centring of Whiteness in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This, indeed, is the motivation behind our working definition of decoloniality developed with RACE.ED

Informed by the work of a variety of writers in both the Global South and Global North, and spanning Indigenous rights, Africana thought, and movements for reparatory justice, decolonial inquiry contends that knowledge generated within what is termed a ‘colonial matrix of power’ has left us with a narrow, patriarchal and contested understanding of ourselves and the world. One means of addressing this is to challenge accepted theories of knowledge about the modern and the global, understood as ‘epistemic disobedience’, with a view to re-imagining and reconstructing our world, something in which university-based teaching and learning, research and wider community engagement is pivotal. 

We hope the Institute Project on Decoloniality can begin to mitigate the disproportionate favouring of White, English-speaking scholars and serve as an opportunity to do better, with an aim of sustaining and enhancing this work beyond the three years of the Project as a critical friend of the university and a supporter of diverse and engaging scholarship.