Amnesia, Melancholia and the Legacies of Empire

The trauma and impact of decolonisation on post-colonising states has been relatively overlooked when compared with the experiences of post-colonised states. This in part is due to a lack of academic sympathy and an enduring negative stigma associated with modern colonialism. This noted, the legacies of empire are closely intertwined with those of post-colonial national identity, and politicians, academics, and other interested parties have proven increasingly prepared to debate in public about how the colonial past influences the present and future of post-colonising nation-states. The immediate period after decolonisation has though been typically associated with a post-colonial ‘amnesia’ whereby the spatial and psychological disjuncture experienced by post-colonising states negated significant post-colonial scrutiny or critical re-evaluation of the colonial mission and its inherent values, ideologies, and identities.

This post-colonial ‘amnesia’ is understood to manifest in a diminishment of the resonance and celebration of empire in political discourse and public life. As with newly emancipated post-colonised states who undertook anti-imperialist nation-building to justify their new-found stateness, many post-colonising states also sought to focus on synchronised and interconnected nation- and state-building projects in the wake of empire. The cauterisation of imperial statehood thus encouraged a shift from colonial transnationalism to postcolonial nationalism, this being reflected in the refocusing of academic and public debate about the relationship between national identity and national past.

This process necessitated a centripetal shift in the historical lens of the post- colonising state to emphasise the nation in the framing of historical past and a concurrent peripheralising of centrifugal transnationalism associated with the state’s colonial period. This was often reflected in a marked decline in the production of academic colonial history in universities and elsewhere. Approaches to designing and teaching history education programmes would appear to be also redefined in response to this post-colonising ‘amnesia’, with history curricula and textbooks similarly prioritising national history while also avoiding sustained critical re-evaluation of colonial past.

Grindel (2013) suggests an ‘imperial amnesia’ persisted in British school history curricula and textbooks until the late 1980s that segregated and relegated (still largely nostalgic) colonial history in favour of its national counterpart. Haydn (2014) notes that the celebration of Empire Day, together with banal visual representations of empire such as maps, flags, and other symbols, also quickly disappeared during and after decolonisation in British schools. In France, a lack of focus on empire and post-colonial immigration within the French school history curriculum and textbooks was part of an ‘amnesie collective’ (Noiriel, 1988). This, according to Ait-Mehdi (2012: 192), meant that the teaching of the history of colonisation and decolonisation was ‘abandoned’ between 1960 and 1980. Van Nieuwenhuyse (2014) notes that ‘colonial amnesia’ proved a prevalent feature in post-colonial Belgium, with historians, politicians, and broader society largely overlooking the history and legacies of empire after decolonisation. This, in part, was attributable to the rise of Flemish nationalism and growing concerns about the potential division of the Belgian state, and the relatively small numbers of post-colonial migrants settling in Belgium. Spanish school textbooks also omitted essential issues on colonisation of the Americas, particularly the subjugation of indigenous people or slavery (Carretero, Jacott, & Lopez-Manjon, 2002).

In some states, the so-called post-colonial ‘amnesia’ was a product of enforced decolonisation due to external interventions. Cajani (2013) notes there was little attempt to maintain transnational links or encourage significant migration from Italy’s former colonies after decolonisation was imposed in the aftermath of the Second World War. As such, a post-colonial ‘silence’ on empire in school history persisted in post-war Italy due to its connections with interwar fascism, this reflected in a lack of widespread nostalgia for the colonial period. In Germany and Japan, defeat and occupation deferred postcolonial reflection and the nationalising of history education curricula or textbooks (Semmet, 2012; Taylor, 2012). In post-Soviet Russia, the early period of post-communist transition saw a refocusing of the state history curriculum and many textbooks to focus on Russian nation- and state-building with little attention given to the former Russian or Soviet empires (Zajda & Zajda, 2003).

Rothermund (2015: 5) argues however that ‘amnesia’ is an convenient but imprecise metaphor as, while humans usually seek to recover loss of memory, post-colonising states have instead engaged in a ‘conspiracy of silence’ that has determined their collective memories of empire. This ‘conspiracy’ is often informed by post-colonial guilt and an unwillingness to repent for the colonial sins of the past. Gilroy (2004) agrees that post-colonising states are not amnesiac but instead adopt a ‘post-colonial melancholia’ in response to the profound change in circumstances realised during the experiences of decolonisation and the consequent loss of colonial prestige. This brooding reluctance to accept the end of empire retards (but does not obviate) the potential for post-colonial mourning of its loss or critical reflection of its contemporary legacies. Where metropolitan histories of empire were often a source of pride, ensuing postcolonial shame appears to limit proactive exploration of its complex and plural historical or contemporary manifestations.

The post-colonising experience has thus proven for many states to be one defined by a ‘selective myopia’ whereby collective acts of ‘temporal forgetting’ involves the deliberate relegation of transnational colonial history as part of the process of reimagining post-colonial national identity and citizenship (Mycock, 2009). This would indicate that although the history and memories of empire may fade in the public imagination after decolonisation, they are not eradicated completely—a phenomena that Bessinger (2008) defines as the ‘persistence of empire’ within post-colonising societies. He notes that colonial state institutions, traditions, rituals, and symbols continue to resonate across metropolitan societies, implicitly and explicitly informing and sustaining revised post-colonial constructions of national identity and citizenship. Continued (and sometimes intensified) patterns of population migration within the former imperial space and the establishment of post-colonial political, military, economic, and/or socio-cultural networks, such as the (British) Commonwealth or the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, also maintain transnational relationships between former colonisers and colonised in the post-colonial period. Population exchange and emergent supranational organisations provide historical and contemporary reference points that extend elements of transnational colonial identities and citizenship into the postcolonial age.

The ‘persistence of empire’ is also evident in the content of state-sponsored history education curricula and textbooks in post-colonising states.

For example, while history curricula and textbooks in the United Kingdom often segregated British colonial history from its domestic counterpart, students had significant opportunities to study various aspects of the empire still largely depicted as benevolent, paternalistic, and civilising (Grindel, 2013). Similarly, although Waldman (2009) notes French school history’s pivotal role in the consolidation of the post-colonial republican nation-state, this provided students with opportunities to study some aspects of colonial history and decolonisation. In Belgium, the regionalisation of national history curricula meant that diverse approaches were adopted but that various aspects of colonial rule and decolonisation were still studied by young people (Van Nieuwenhuyse, 2014). Belgian historical textbooks in immediate post-colonial period sought however to prioritise the liberal origins and values of the colonial state without seeking to critically explore its complex history or legacies (Vanhulle, 2009).

German history education after 1945 was as divided as the state itself. West German curricula and textbooks continued to project largely positive narratives that emphasises the civilising modernism of colonisation. Conversely their East German counterparts sought to frame the West German state as economically colonialist and displayed their sympathy for independence movements (Dierkes, 2005). Taylor (2012) notes that although state-sponsored Japanese school history often sought to explore the less positive aspects of colonial expansion and rule, particularly in Korea and China, representations of the imperial period were a continuous and often-controversial element of the history curriculum and textbooks. Attempts to renew Russian nationalism saw that politicians increasingly utilise history education to provide positive affirmation of the ‘historical greatness’ of the imperial Russian and Soviet colonial past (Zajda, 2012). This highlighted the enduring resonance of transnationalism in framing Russia’s post-Soviet and post-colonial transitions which overlapped and informed a complex response to decolonisation whereby history textbooks and curricula continued to draw on the colonial histories of the Imperial Russian and Soviet empires.

A common theme amongst post-colonising states in the immediate period after decolonisation was the reductive national focus of history which typically overlooked critical exploration of the end and perceived failure of the colonial mission and also its coercive and exploitative motivations and practices. This nationalising of the historical lens after empire was reflected in the revision of the content and structure of historical narratives informing school history, with scant recognition of the implications of post-colonial critiques either across the former colonial space or within the post-colonising state. This situation may well reflect a lack of significant political or public dispute about the historical past or what should be taught in schools. But while the resonance of empire may well have diminished, the proposition that some form of ‘colonial amnesia’ materialised during and the immediate period after decolonisation is misleading. Empire continued to influence school history curricula and textbooks, ensuring that the colonial past was not eradicated entirely.

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