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Department of History - Research Series

Date: 23 January 2013 Time: 5.00 pm

Venue: Bowland North SR23

Lent Term 2012-13

'Half the Story: Anti-Colonialism in the Making of Britain'

Dr. Pryamvada Gopal, Cambridge


In the middle of the nineteenth century and at the heart of a campaign being waged against powerful slaving interests, Frederick Douglass insisted that freedom had to be struggled for, not simply bestowed and passively received. What freedom had come the way of the enslaved in British colonies had come, at least in part, from their efforts to free themselves. This insight seems both intuitive and unexceptionable. Yet over a century and a half later, the story of emancipation and decolonisation continues to be told not as one of universal aspiration and struggles shared across spaces, as it was for Douglass, but as that of a capacious British franchise generously extended after some deliberation and opposition to include peoples across the globe. In this narrative, freedom principally derives from imperial British initiative even if it is embraced, appropriated and reworked by enslaved and colonial subjects. What happens though when we consider the possibility that Britain's enslaved and colonial subjects might have been not merely victims of the aspects of this nation's imperial history and subsequent beneficiaries of its self-sustaining crises of conscience (or indifference) but, rather, contributing agents in the shaping of its most cherished self-conceptions? Could the idea of a Britain's uniquely 'liberal empire' which was humanitarian in conception and had the liberation of its conquered subjects as its ultimate goal itself have been, at least in part, a response to the claims to humanity and freedom made by those subjects? This paper explores this question through the example of the Governor Eyre controversy which was sparked off by the suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion in October 1865.


Priyamvada Gopal is a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. Her primary interests are in colonial and postcolonial literatures, with related interests in British and American literatures; the novel; translation; gender and feminism; Marxism and critical theory, and the politics and cultures of empire and globalisation. Published work includes Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence (Routledge, 2005); 'After Iraq: Reframing Postcolonial Studies' (Special issue of New Formations co-edited with Neil Lazarus) and The Indian English Novel: Nation, History and Narration (Oxford University Press, 2009). Her work has also appeared in The Hindu Outlook India, India Today, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the Guardian. Her media work includes contributions to the BBC's Start the Week and Newsnight as well as programmes on NDTV (India),Al-Jazeera, National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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