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Balliol and Empire Project

In September 2019 the College launched the Balliol and Empire project, designed to provide a focus for students and Fellows interested in further exploring Balliol’s connections to colonialism. Establishing a series of lectures and events alongside a research programme exploring Balliol’s historical ties to different aspects of British imperialism, the project is helping us re-examine and better understand the College’s complex relationship to empire.


Slavery in the Age of Revolution exhibition catalogue cover showing title of exhibition of image of paper art illustrating slaves

The most recent event to be organised as part of this ongoing project is Balliol Library’s exhibition Slavery in the Age of Revolution, which examines the transatlantic slave trade at the end of the 18th century through the lens of the College’s collections and the scholarship of some of its academic staff. The associated Teaching the Transatlantic Slave Trade Project will bring together 20 teachers from schools in the UK and the USA at four online seminars. A 50-minute video has been produced to coincide with the exhibition and to serve as a discussion tool for the teachers’ project. The video narrates the story of the transatlantic slave trade through interviews with the exhibition’s co-curators alongside some of the exhibits, and includes interviews with the Master and a member of Balliol’s Black and Minority Ethnic Society about what the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and the racial injustices associated with it mean for members of the College today. For more details, see this page.

Gandhi at 150 symposium

The first Balliol and Empire event was a symposium to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahtama Gandhi. In collaboration with the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development at Somerville College, this symposium was divided into two panel discussions, the latter of which focused on Gandhi’s stay at Balliol during the Round-Table Conference of 1931 as the basis for an evaluation of his broader philosophical and ethical commitments. Attended by Her Excellency Ms Ruchi Ghanashyam, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, and Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of Oxford University (Balliol 1962), this panel discussion was chaired by Dame Helen Ghosh, Master of Balliol, and included contributions from Professor Rajeev Bhargava, former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Honorary Fellow of Balliol; Professor Judith Brown, Emeritus Fellow of Balliol and former Beit Professor of Commonwealth History; and Professor Faisal Devji, Professor of Indian History and Fellow of St Antony’s College.

Rahul Rao

Three lectures have addressed different aspects of recent contestations, from statues and memorials to the curriculum. In ‘What Do We Mean When We Talk about Statues’ Rahul Rao (2001), Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS (right), considered why statues are invested with so much significance. In the second talk, Marisa J. Fuentes (Associate Professor in History at Rutgers University and Oliver Smithies Visiting Fellow 2019/2020) focused on the politics of statues and memorials representing slavery and the legacy of white supremacy in the United States and the recent momentum of historicising these legacies at American Universities in general. In the third, Professor Robbie Shilliam (Hedley Bull Junior Research Fellow in International Relations at Oxford 20052007), of Johns Hopkins University, gave the 2021 Omar Azfar Lecture, ‘Decolonizing Politics’, based on his book of that name (Polity, 2021), which he wrote to help undergraduates to think critically and more precisely about current day controversies over decolonizing the academy. 


In 2019 Balliol commissioned a study in order to establish the extent to which Balliol’s endowment includes funds that could be linked to the proceeds of slavery. The study was researched and written by Dr Sebastian Raj Pender (Research Associate on the Balliol and Empire Project) and it has been peer reviewed by experts at the University of London.

The study researched the College’s archival records of benefactions received between 1600 and 1919 together with a range of other historical sources. It found that, of 379 benefactors who each gave the College more than £1,000 in total when adjusted for today’s prices, 39 were made by individuals with substantive links to the proceeds of slavery, whether directly or via inheritance. Taken together, these 39 benefactors contributed a total of around £300,000 when adjusted for today’s prices, or about £2m when adjusted for today’s average incomes; the higher figure would represent about 1.6 per cent of the College’s endowment. The Proceeds of Slavery study is available to read here. [PDF

The work will be followed by further research into Balliol’s connections with empire, as well as other events exploring the broader legacy of British colonialism. Over the course of Michaelmas Term 2021, the College will continue its discussions on how to engage with the finding of the report.

More about Balliol and empire

When people first think about Balliol’s connections with empire, it is usual to focus on the hundreds of men educated by the College who went on to help administer various parts of the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. Significant as this contribution to Britain’s imperial project was, closer examination of the subject suggests a more complicated and multifaceted relationship. As ongoing research is helping to clarify, Balliol also played some role in the process of decolonisation and anti-colonial struggles in the Global South. Balliol continues to be prominent in academic research on colonialism and responses to the historical injustice of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. The part played by its Fellows and students in re-examining what a more strongly global and post-Western world means for the curricula and teaching at Oxford, as well as in the academy as a whole, is also relevant. 

To read more about all these aspects of Balliol and empire, please see the menu below.