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.

Gandhi at 150 symposium

Among the events organised as part of this ongoing project 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 RaoOther events have included a talk by Dr Rahul Rao (Balliol 2001), Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS, ‘What Do We Mean When We Talk about Statues’, and another by Dr Marisa J. Fuentes, Oliver Smithies Visiting Fellow at Balliol 2019/2020 and Associate Professor at Rutgers University. Each talk addressed different aspects of recent contestations over statues and memorials. Covering a range of such movements including Rhodes Must Fall in Cape Town and Oxford, Gandhi Must Fall in Accra, and protests against Confederate statues in the United States, these talks sought to better understand how and why public spaces have become sites of conflict over how the past should be remembered.

Dr Marisa FuentesDr Marisa Fuentes’s talk focused on the politics of statues and memorials representing slavery and the legacy of white supremacy in the United States, the recent momentum of historicising these legacies at American Universities in general, and recent work done at Rutgers University specifically. The talk was of particular interest to the Balliol and Empire project, as the first piece of research commissioned in 2019 was a study to evaluate Balliol’s links to the proceeds of slavery.

The research has focused on benefactions received by the College between 1600 and 1919, and it will publish its results in the coming months. This research will help Balliol better assess the extent to which the College benefited from the proceeds of slavery, and publication of the results will be accompanied by a seminar exploring what the findings mean for the College today.

This work will be followed by further research into Balliol’s connections with empire, as well as a range of other events exploring the broader legacy of British colonialism, including an exhibition curated by Professor Amit Chaudhuri (Balliol 1987 and Honorary Fellow) entitled ‘Sweet Shops of Calcutta and Other Ideas’; and an event to accompany the upcoming publication of Dr Sudhir Hazareesingh’s biography of the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture and his struggle against slavery, settler colonialism, and imperialism.

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.