Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 17-18 (June 1989) p. 137.


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Re-presenting Colonialism

HPartha Chatterjee

A conference of anthropologists and historians. It is being held in a small town off the coast of southern Spain. Below, we can see the shimmering surface of the Mediterranean, while all around us the hills are being polished to make way for multi-storied apartments to house British tourists. The conference is organized by a research foundation with impeccable academic credentials and the participants, mainly from American universities, are in some cases at the very peak of professional eminence while others are in early middle age, already on a tenure track towards success. They are all eager, sensitive and radically liberal in their politics.

They are discussing the manifold mysteries of the colonial encounter. The received historiography, it is agreed, is built around two monoliths—of colonialism on the one hand and anti-colonialism on the other. The one talks of a purposeful, calculating colonialism, driven by an all-conquering desire to dominate the world, imposing its Eurocentric will upon non-European peoples, measuring up and ordering other societies and consciousnesses in terms of its own supposedly universal forms of rational knowledge. The other tells the story—again a single linear narrative—of anti-colonial struggle, from tribal and peasant resistance to nationalist political organization to decolonization or wars of national liberation. Monoliths are now passe; their oppressive centralism is a fetter on further progress in historical research. They have to be broken down, pushed from the centrality of their ground, their parts examined in-themselves. Once we have done that, we will discover not one homogeneous colonialism, but many, with no central directing principle. We can then unearth the many suppressed histories of colonialism—those of petty officials and lower ranks of the colonial armies, of missionaries, teachers, small professionals, of poor whites, and of European women in the colonies. On the other side, we will discover still more histories which modernizing nationalism would wish to erase: everyday histories of a supposedly colonized people, living their lives beyond the glare of nationalist agitation and party mobilization, where traditions continue, resilient and vibrant, providing the weak and the oppressed with the cultural means to protect, manouevre, evade, and sometimes to resist the onslaughts of the powerful.

In fact, say my colleagues for the week, we can then show the colonial encounter in its true light—not as an earth-shattering clash of two great monoliths, but an encounter in which both colonizer and colonized emerge as ambivalent entities, fragmented within, hardly held together at all. Colonialism, we will find, had only


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