Historiography: Postcolonial

Postcolonial history looks at:

  • Understanding the colonial period now from a fully revised perspective
  • The analysis of colonies in the process of and after their liberation.
These are different if connected.
The first is to understand now how imperialists and colonialists created the "Other" (Green, Troup, 1999, 280; see Said) based on evolutionary superiority of usually Protestant Christian or secularised people over the less developed and orientals, the strange alien over whom superior rationalised government was produced. This was the language of alterity of anthropologists (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 9-10, and see 98). Classification by academics produced a primitivism or exoticism of the lowest status peoples in Europe related to a past time (neolithic and mediaeval) contained within geographical space (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 100, 13). This was a dominant ideology justifying control, although there was a variety of academic thought, and it was used for legitimacy within governance.
The latter history type is itself divided:

  • Those countries where a colonial population created the subsequent sovereign political state.
  • Those countries where the colonial authorities left leaving behind a minority continuing ex-colonial population and it was their political forces who created a new state.
So the first white settler states (Green, Troup, 1999, 277), a static even misleading term (Green, Troup, 1999, 278), like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have a minority indigenous population who wish to recover their history. The second have a colonial past restored to the ethnic lines yet via the creation of often artificial colonial boundaries and cutting through ethnic geographical boundaries between states. The boundaries produce eventually the new state (unless there is war and/ or population movement). Boundaries in geography have come to signify self-determination and for many in this process they should contain some sort of ethnic definition with its cultural identity (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 101).
Countries with a minority indigenous population have a debate whether only those ethnic peoples from the original population can recover their history (Green, Troup, 1999, 282). For others to do their history is, in a sense, to continue the colonialisation, on top of the fact that the newer population retains its dominating presence. From a position of power in European ethnic lines and continued subjugation over the natives, there became negotiation over land and artefacts in museums issues between the populations. This has been fuelled by revisions among historians and cultural anthropologists. So this history draws on anthropological methodology and folk history and it is extremely difficult to find many written records (Green, Troup, 1999, 283). It is also problematic politically and practically with a hunter gatherer existence over vast lands reduced to reservations, or increasing mixing of once clearer ethnic groups where people make decisions about their ethnic lines. Some genetic work about patrilineal and matrilineal origins is often contrary or contradictory to an ethnic definition, or illustrate the realities of sexual behaviour between colonists and the actual attractions and powerlessness of the indigenous servants and slaves.
The main argument against this historiography is that it views indigenous cultures as frozen and static, and even mirrors what the colonialists did:
The imagery of the 'pure' primitive goes deep, and thus has political weight today... We have the bureaucrats of Brussels promoting with perhaps the best of intentions the idea of 'the indigenous community'a dutiful salvage job for the world of nation-states. The United Nations document, 'Article 21', calls for all nation-states to conserve the shared values, the united cultures, of their respective indigenous peoples. The understanding espoused is that natives live in homogeneous communities, the members of which share identical views of the world... (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 368)
This opens up continuing questions of primitivism and "an aggressive act of essentializing" (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 369) in its community stress compared with Western individualism. This is labelling and fixing native cultures in their past.
The hot topic of postcolonial history has indeed been that of essentialism (see Green, Troup, 1999, 282). It arose in analysing how Europeans understood the other oriental: their essential characteristics. It also arises with indigenous history, that there is recoverable only by descendants the folk history of that ethnic group. Some of this claim lies in understanding the language (Green, Troup, 1999, 282): the metaphors, metanomies, synerdoches an ironies of ethnic cultural speech. It is an emic approach meaning knowledge held by an insider to that culture. This matches the debate in anthropology where valid representation is said to be limited to coming from a home environment (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 20). The opposition to essentialism is poststructuralism or other forms of radical and structural (e.g. Marxist anti-imperialist analysis). This is part of an etic approach, the perspectives of cultural outsiders (who may, nevertheless, wish to draw on culture).
On the whole those countries who produced a state from its majority indigenous ethnic lines produce a Subaltern (after Gramsci - see Green, Troup, 1999, 283) studies (Green, Troup, 1999, 281) history not concerned with essentialism. A main example is India (Green, Troup, 1999, 283). Anyone (because these are generally etic in stance) can write these histories, and a methodology can be a poststructuralist analysis of colonialists' texts turning their biases back on to themselves and producing a value based history of the once colonised. These people can be anyone down the social scale, for whatever reason.
Some look from the inside, in an emic sense, rejecting grand narrative explanations that reduce people to systems within colonisation, whilst seeking a Subaltern etic analysis.

Some Personalities:

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 253-262.

Whiteman, H. (1987), 'White Buffalo Woman' in Martin, C. (1987), The American Indian and the Problem of History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, in Green, Troup, 1999, 288-296.