“Connected histories of decolonisation” workshop report

In this post, we report on the “Connected Histories of Decolonisation” workshop, which took place at Senate House, London, 13-14 November 2014.

Over the past few years, decolonisation workshops, organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in conjunction with King’s College London, have become a regular diary fixture for scholars of the end of empire. The workshops, which take place on a termly basis, provide an important opportunity for those working on decolonisation to meet and discuss their current research in a friendly and informal setting, with contributions from PhD students and early-career scholars particularly welcomed. The November 2014 conference, organised in collaboration with the Centre of European and International Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth, continued the existing, successful workshop format, with a two-day conference dedicated to the discussion of “Connected histories of decolonisation”.

After a brief welcome to delegates, day one opened with a interdisciplinary panel, chaired by Natalya Vince (Portsmouth), exploring the theme of ‘Creating spaces, connections and networks of resistance’. The first paper, presented by James Renton (Edge Hill), explored the global political space of the interwar years, embodied in, but not limited to, the League of Nations, in which the principal of national consciousness first came into being. According to Renton, although nationalist ambitions were not realised in the period between 1917 and 1940, performances of nationalism during this era laid the foundations for the post-colonial world order. Renton, therefore, moved beyond a post-war chronology for the end of European colonial rule, locating the beginnings of the decolonisation process much earlier in the twentieth century. An alternative temporal standpoint was also present in Uma Kothari’s (Manchester) paper, which explored the 500 anti-colonial nationalists exiled to the Seychelles by the British government between the 1800s and the 1950s. According to Kothari, by banishing perceived threats to colonial authority to this remote Indian Ocean archipelago, the British government inadvertently encouraged transnational networks of solidarity and resistance. By focusing on the Seychelles, Kothari also offered an alternative geographical perspective on empire in the Indian Ocean zone. New geographies of decolonisation were similarly at the heart of the final paper of the panel, in which Clemens Hoffmann (Bilkent) analysed Ottoman Turkey and Ethiopia as ‘anti-colonial empires’. Taking International Relations theory, and particularly efforts to decolonise IR, as his starting point, Clemens challenged the coloniser/colonised binary by comparing and contrasting these two examples of ‘successful’ state-led non-Western anti-colonial orders, which influenced the global decolonisation process.

Connected decolonisationClive Webb and Martin Evans discuss the global impact of the Atlantic Charter, in a panel chaired by Margaret Majumdar.

The second panel, chaired by Philip Murphy (ICWS), continued this discussion of the connected and ‘competing narratives of decolonisation’. Drawing upon a wide range of visual source material, including propaganda images from the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, Andrew Kuech (New School of Social Research) explored how alternative ideas of an ‘imagined American empire’ were used by both Communists and Republicans to construct a divergent idea of the Chinese nation. Alternating ambitions and objectives were also addressed in Tim Livsey’s (KCL) paper, which explored the role played by the UK and US in higher education reform in Nigeria during decolonisation era. By unpicking the tensions between and within the Anglo-American special relationship, Livsey’s paper shed new light on the complexities of the Western Alliance, whilst simultaneously painting decolonisation as both a competitive and a collaborative affair. The final contribution to this geographically diverse panel came from Robert Fletcher (Exeter) and focused on desert regions across the Afro-Asian landmass. According to Fletcher, the challenges of governing these hostiles regions contributed to a shared, distinctive experience of decolonisation and the Cold War in the arid world.

‘Connected histories of nationalism’ in Francophone Africa provided the unifying theme of panel three, chaired by Ed Naylor. Thomas Sharp (Oxford Brookes) spoke first on the campaigns led by the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) for the unification of French Cameroun with British Cameroon, and its independence as a united territory. In his paper, Sharp explored the ways in which the UPC crossed colonial boundaries to garner support for its cause, and how this ability to transcend borders, in turn, was dependent upon the extra-metropolitan framework of the UN Trusteeship system. The importance of international institutions in shaping the transfer of power from the coloniser to the colonised also came to the fore in Camille Evrard’s (Paris I) paper on the decolonisation of Mauritania. Camille presented a complex picture of the competing internal and external demands to this territory, describing, for example, the ways in which the presence of the French army was crucial to maintaining Mauritanian independence but, paradoxically, also undermined Mauritania’s claims to statehood.

The final panel of day one, chaired by Keith Somerville (ICWS), looked at ‘networks, models and interconnections’. In her paper, Marta Musso (Cambridge) explored the role played by the oil industry in the decolonisation of Algeria, particularly the struggle between Algerian nationalists and the French to control oil resources in the region. Joanna Warson (Portsmouth) presented her research on French participation in Nigeria and the Gold Coast, revealing previously unknown ways in which France sought to protect and extend its African sphere of influence. Different trans-imperial connections were explored in Bruno C. Reis’(ICS-UL) paper on the importance of the crisis in the Belgian Congo in shaping the Portuguese approach to its African colonies. These final two papers, therefore, demonstrated the importance of examining not only the connections between different nationalist groups but also the inter-connections between the different European colonial administrations.


Even torrential rain could not deter delegates from making their way to Senate House for day two of the “Connected histories of decolonisation” workshop on Friday 14 November. Andrew W. M. Smith (UCL/ QMUL/ Brunel/ Chichester) opened the morning’s proceedings. Smith’s paper analysed vernacular broadcasting in French and Hausa by the BBC in Francophone Africa as part of a wider strategy to re-frame Britain’s world role in the post-independence era. The re-formulation of Britain’s global role was also at the heart of Charlotte Riley’s (York) paper. Riley presented the Labour Party’s international development policies as a type of post-colonial diplomacy, which permitted continued engagement with the former colonies without undermining Labour’s anti-colonial traditions or risking being accused of neo-colonialism. The final paper of this panel on ‘diplomacy, development and domestic influences on British decolonisation and its aftermath’ was presented by Rosie Coffey (LSE). Coffey analysed British press coverage of the Sharpeville massacre, arguing that reports in the UK were neither moralising nor straightforward, with Sharpeville represented as the inception of the African struggle rather than its defeat.

The second panel of the morning, chaired by Sarah Stockwell, continued this discussion of South Africa from an alternative perspective, examining the relationship between ‘France and South Africa’. Anna Konieczna’s paper explored the contacts between Francophone moderate states and South Africa, initiated by African cell at the Elysée Palace, as well as the Afrique-Levant department at the Quai d’Orsay. Konieczna emphasised, therefore, the crossing-cutting influences that shaped post-colonial Africa. Roel van der Velde (Portsmouth) offered an alternative perspective on Franco-South African relations in his paper, which analysed arms sales from Paris to Pretoria as a source of insight into the military-industrial complex in France and South Africa.

Connected decolonisation2The forced labour panel: Romain Tiquet, Alexander Keese, Tony Chafer (chair) and Victor Fernandez Soriano.

Forced labour was the theme of the penultimate panel, chaired by Tony Chafer (Portsmouth). Romain Tiquet (Humboldt/ ForcedLabourAfrica) analysed penal camps in French-ruled Senegal, underlining the importance of forced labour to the colonial project, as well as the ways in which incarceration was resisted. Victor Fernandez Soriano’s paper (Université Libre de Bruxelles/ ForcedLabourAfrica) explored legal forms of forced labour in the Belgian Congo after 1945, in contrast to the British and French African empires, where forced labour was officially abolished at this time. According to Soriano, this ‘Belgian enigma’ can be explained with reference to the different African colonial experiences of Britain and France, on the one hand, and Belgium, on the other. Alexander Keese (Humboldt/ ForcedLabourAfrica) concluded this panel with discussion of the persistent practice of forced labour in Afrique Equatoriale Française, in spite of its official abolition by the French in 1946. Keese’s paper also moved beyond the colonial/ post-colonial divide, emphasising the continued importance of colonial discourse in post-independence strategies to integrate rural populations.

The final panel of the workshop, chaired by Margaret Majumdar, comprised of two papers from a wider project to map the ‘the global impact of the August 1941 Atlantic Charter’. Martin Evans (Sussex) looked at the spread of the Atlantic Charter in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. According to Evans, the diffusions of these ideas across North Africa formed part of a wider global anti-colonial moment, which shaped the development of nationalisms across the Maghreb. Clive Webb’s (Sussex) paper offered an alternative geographical perspective by exploring the ways in which the Atlantic Charter was received by African Americans. In so doing, Webb situated the early African American civil rights movement within the global anti-imperial struggle, whilst simultaneously bringing to light tensions between Britain and the US over the Atlantic Charter.

The workshop concluded with a short round table discussion, with remarks from Philip Murphy and Sarah Stockwell, bringing together some of the different themes discussed across the two days and emphasising the new possibilities available to historians of decolonisation by adopting a connected history approach.


We would like to thank everyone who participated in this workshop for their excellent papers and interventions. We would also like to thank the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, King’s College London and the Centre of European and International Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth for generously supporting this event.


The Battle of Algiers – Nearly 50 years later and still just as powerful.

In this post, Kelsey Suggitt (@Kelseysailing) reviews the film screening and panel discussion of the highly acclaimed, The Battle of Algiers, which took place at the University of Portsmouth on Wednesday 19th November, as part of the Being Human festival, a national event that aims to bring humanities to the public, and in collaboration with Portsmouth Film Society and Film Hub South East.

The evening began with an introduction to the panel by Dr Deborah Shaw (Associate Dean, (Research), Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries) and an introduction to the film by Dr. Natalya Vince (Senior Lecturer in French and North African Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences).

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was released in 1966 and is today considered to be one of the most influential films in history. Working alongside the Italian director as a co-producer and actor, was Yacef Saadi who played a key role both in the FLN (National Liberation Front) and in the film. Set during the Algerian War of Independence, a war that was fought on several fronts, the Battle of Algiers takes place in a very short, yet important, period, when Algeria arguably had its heaviest impact on the international conscience. The film recounts what is described as the “Battle of Algiers”. Yet, although this phrase continues to be used more than fifty years later, it is problematic because a battle implies two equal sides rather than unequal opponents, as in this case, where the might of the French army stood against a relatively small group of urban guerrillas.

Battle of Algiers© Alan Grant

The Battle of Algiers initially experienced limited success, with a muted reception in France, where limited screenings were subject to right-wing attacks, and a wary acceptance in Algeria where, according to Vince, many claimed that “it was not bad, but not a masterpiece”. Despite this, it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966 and was even nominated for three Academy Awards in non-consecutive years.

Following the screening of the film, which, as the credits rolled, prompted a round of applause from the audience, Natalya Vince introduced the panel which was comprised of Neelam Srivastava (Senior Lecturer in Post-Colonial Literature at Newcastle University) who interviewed Pontecorvo before his death and has published a number of articles on his work, Walid Benkhaled (Production Manager of the School of Media and Performing Arts, University of Portsmouth, and co-author, with Natalya Vince, on a forthcoming volume on Algeria) and Martin Evans (Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sussex and the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War).

Srivastava opened the panel by contextualising the film, which she describes as “classic anti-colonial cinema”. She placed particular emphasis on how the film was produced during a period of economic boom and intense anti-fascism in Italy, and how this is reflected within The Battle of Algiers, particularly the depictions of analogies of Italian resistance. Pontecorvo also uses violence throughout the film and was clearly influenced by Frantz Fanon since the film draws on the ethics of political violence. This is highlighted in the film through the character Ben M’Hidi, who states that terrorism does not wins revolutions, but it is the first step to achieving revolutionary change. Srivastava also highlighted how Italy was beyond its colonial days by the time of the Algerian War, and supported the FLN’s desire to liberate their country, evidenced by young Italians voicing staunchly anti-colonialist views and the release of books such as Henri Alleg’s La Question. This, in turn, led public opinion in Italy to shift against the French. Pontecorvo had long desired to make a film about the ongoing war. He even visited Algeria prior to 1962 and spent time in the Kasbah and with members of the FLN. With the documentation he collected he began to film Paras, a project that eventually fell through. Pontecorvo was then approached by Yacef Saadi, who had previously contacted other left wing Italian directors with a script he had written based on his Memoirs de la Bataille d’Alger. Although the script was markedly altered by Pontecorvo, this began the partnership that would lead to The Battle of Algiers.

Following Neema Srivastava’s paper, Walid Benkhaled spoke not only of the history of the film and its context within Algerian history, but also his own personal connection to the film, emphasising especially how, in spite of more than 60 viewings, it still provoked strong emotion in him. Benkhaled also underlined the importance of the film for a newly independent Algeria and the opportunities provided by countries, such as Italy, though its co-productions. He also praised the aesthetics of the film and the techniques used, such as using a 16mm frame to create a grainy effect and a hand held camera with a photo lens, which create a “tone of truth” and lead some viewers to wonder if the film is in fact fiction and not a documentary. It is for these reasons, and others, that The Battle of Algiers has become not just a representation of history, but a historical document itself in memory of the war.

Martin Evans concluded the panel by analysing the trans-national history of the film. One example he gave is the character of Ali la Pointe, an illiterate revolutionary from a modest background, who has been represented as a hero of the revolution, contributing to raising the profile of heroic proletariat revolutionaries, a character that has been appealing for workers across the world since the 1920s. Evans’ work has begun to map the impact of this film across the world during the five decades since its release. This is a film that has had a marked impact on multiple filmmakers including Paul Greengrass, Spike Lee, Ken Loach, Mira Nair, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. Evans also emphasised the importance of the film as an icon of counter-culture canon, as it has been used by multiple insurgent groups including the IRA and the Black Panthers, and also lit up Algeria as a beacon of anti-colonialism. The film also speaks to subsequent generations, particularly post 9/11, and influences how we view terrorism today. This is repeatedly underlined by various parties who use the film for their own purposes, from its screening at the Pentagon in 2003 to demonstrate how to conduct a war amongst the people but also how to win their hearts and minds, to its screening for the Algerian football team in 2010 in an attempt to inspire a win in their World Cup match.


Battle of Algiers_1© Alan Grant

This was a great event and which shed new light on the context in which Pontecorvo produced the film, and also its trans-national nature of its memory and impact which can be traced through the years.

From a personal perspective, although I have watched The Battle of Algiers many times over the past six years, I learnt many new things about the film from the panel. I would like to express my gratitude, therefore, to the panel for their time and their new perspectives on this well-known film. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the organisers for putting together this brilliant event.

The Being Human festival continues at Portsmouth with the Story of Revolutions Exhibition by Patrick Altès (until 26th November 2014).