Dr Eloise Grey completed a summer internship at the IHR in 2023 with the goal of looking at how to use the Bibliography of British and Irish History to decolonise research and history teaching. She reflects on this experience and the challenges of decolonising such a resource.

Painting of an India man in a white garment and a woman in a black garment with cotton manufacturing tools.
A Jain Cotton Manufacture Couple, unknown artist, Wellcome Collection

Eye-rolling and decolonisation

Mention the term ‘decolonising’ and you get a lot of eye-rolling. Formerly the term referred to the period of the end of empire, the process by which previously colonised spaces became independent nations. The current usage has precedents in the work of anti-colonialists such as Franz Fanon and Aimé Césaire writing in the mid-twentieth century, but in the last few decades, the term has taken on much wider usage. It directly challenges settler colonial societies such as Canada, the United States and Australia and metropolitan societies that were former colonisers, such as the United Kingdom and France. Decolonial theorists argue that colonial structures and practice continue to exist, and lives continue to be shaped by coloniality in detrimental ways.

 For practitioners who have been working in this field for decades the scramble by many institutions to decolonise smacks of the non-performativity of which Sara Ahmed laments: declarations of culpability but with underlying structures firmly kept intact. The argument made in an important essay by E. Tuck and K.W. Yang is that many decolonisation efforts are little more than ‘white moves to innocence’ which obscure the real issue of decolonisation: the restitution of stolen land. In the other camp, we have the ‘you can’t decolonise maths’ brigade, who, at best, find the desire to decolonise a distraction from their work, whether in the humanities or STEM. A sense of the non-performativity of some decolonisation efforts provides a relatable common ground between these groups.

These responses are in part a reflection of the unsettled nature of the term, decolonisation. It is at once a methodology, a critique, a practice that undoes Western European and North American imperial structures and ideas; and a reparative call to address human, cultural, material, environmental theft and destruction.

BBIH as a tool to do decolonial work

How then can we decolonise the BBIH without falling into a superficial display of culpability? Priyamvada Gopal’s provides a framework for academia which could be helpfully adapted to the BBIH. Gopal suggests highlighting the many ways in which knowledge was structured and produced to serve the colonial project. History writing is deeply implicated in colonialism. In Times Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, Priya Satia argues that it is precisely historicism (the idea of progress through historical periods, with Britain as the exemplar) that provided cover for centuries of violence, destruction, extraction, enslavement and more.

Watercolour painting of a tea plant.
Tea Plant (Camellia Sinensis): Flowering Stem, unknown artist, Wellcome Collection

BBIH is a repository of such content and can be analysed in critical ways for reparative ends. It is thus a powerful resource for decolonial enquiry into theft of knowledge, destruction of communities and resources. Much of the critique of historiography, science and indeed knowledge production more generally is that there is a common-sense attitude that progress and modernity are beneficial and originate from Western Europe. This attitude needs to be interrupted and the continuously disavowed influence of knowledge from colonised and enslaved people needs surfacing. Some of the work to show how innovation came from colonised and enslaved people is being published and recorded in the Bibliography. Jenny Bulstrode’s work, for example, shows how the skills of Black enslaved metallurgists were expropriated and yet foundational to the industrial revolution. Using the Bibliography to source older work with a firmly critical approach can highlight obfuscations and erasures.  This, it must be said, can elicit feelings of trauma, shame and pain. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s recent report on its colonial history is an example of the kind of research that can be done using BBIH as a record for new critical work with new voices. Thus, BBIH is a resource for finding new history that is decolonial in nature and for looking at older work with a critical decolonial lens.

Gopal calls for knowledge to be ‘relinked’ to its original progenitors from colonised spaces, and that opening such dialogue is reparative. Can BBIH contribute to such a ‘mutually transformative process’? During this internship, I have undertaken some cataloguing work on journal articles in History Australia. I can see first-hand that this process is filtering through as the environmental, legal and cultural knowledge of indigenous groups is being surfaced more visibly in scholarship being published today. This is particularly evident since 2020 from formerly colonised countries such as New Zealand, Canada and India. In this way BBIH can become a resource for re-linking.

One change that can be enacted is to look at the way in which communities are made visible in the Bibliography. In this internship I have been guided by the editor of BBIH, Jenny Lelkes-Rarugal, in some of the ways of cataloguing. I have learned about critical cataloguing, an approach that disrupts the way classification practices have historically reinforced prejudice and erasure. Part of thinking decolonially is to raise disavowed voices and treat communities with dignity.  BBIH is structured by people, place and subject terms. The structure holds ‘communities’ or ‘groups’ on a different level to named individuals, who are held in the ‘person as subject’ section. Even if indigenous groups have been named, these were often those the white historians and cataloguers gave to communities. This is being challenged by new work, which seeks to name individuals as well as communities. The language and categorisation of indigenous communities are also under review.   These are dialogues the BBIH can reflect and even participate in, and it is the communities themselves whose preferences count. Examples of this are using indigenous and settler names; New Zealand Aotearoa is an example where both names are used.

For BBIH to support decolonial work then new terms need to be introduced and coloniality surfaced more explicitly. These include discussing where legacies, violence or extraction were part of coloniality. Where indigenous communities have often been obscured, settler colonialists have been presented unproblematically, whereas now they need to be named or categorised more critically.

Interrupting inequalities

As Dalia Gebriel argues, decolonial work in academic institutions goes beyond diversity. Decolonisation includes attention to ongoing practices which can perpetuate inequalities and the ways in which they fall on marginalised communities. This must be part of our vision and everyday practice for the future of this incredible resource. BBIH continues to be free to members of the Institute of Historical Research Library. Content is now being added to BBIH that is not just chosen for its scholarly credentials (which can reinforce exclusionary practices). Community and popular content are also increasingly being included. It supports the call for structural change by being a place to find evidence of historical and ongoing coloniality, so becoming a tool to deconstruct it.

I would like to acknowledge conversations with Nadine Chambers and the labour of  indigenous scholars, scholars of slavery and all at the Institute for Historical Research, in particular, Dr Juanita Cox of the Windrush Scandal Project.

Dr Eloise Grey is an Early Career Historian and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen. Her work on eighteenth century families uses methodologies from the history of emotions to show how African-descended and Asian people were marginalised while British families came to embody whiteness in service to the colonial project.