22 September 2020

The Legacies of Empire: introducing the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize shortlist

Posted by Patrick Wright

The Bookshop is delighted to be supporting this year’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding. This non-fiction prize, run by the British Academy and worth £25,000 to the winner, is awarded annually to a book that contributes to public understanding of world cultures and to the creation of more positive inter-cultural relations worldwide. Chair of judges Patrick Wright introduces this year’s shortlist.

The books we look for may come from very different disciplines. They may be written by scholars, journalists, independent writers or even poets. They must, however, combine a commitment to research with a reasonable degree of accessibility. Having reviewed nearly one hundred entries, this year’s judges – Channel 4 News presenter, Fatima Manji; Professor Rana Mitter, historian and political scientist; Professor Dame Henrietta Moore, social anthropologist; and writer Madeleine Bunting – have selected a shortlist of five excellent books variously concerned with the legacies of empire and colonisation and the attention these still demand in the present.

Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso) starts by rejecting any suggestion that independence was the intended aim of empire, or that it was made possible by colonised peoples’ adoption of British ideas of liberty. Exploring key moments from around the globe — her examples include the Sepoy Uprising of 1857-9 in India, the Pan African Conference held in London in the 1900s, and the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya during the 1950s — Gopal shows how anti-colonial thinkers and movements within colonised lands have both claimed and redefined the idea of liberty and freedom, and emphasises that they have done so with the participation of dissenters who have taken up the cause within Britain. Gopal’s is an anti-colonial book, to be sure, but its importance for the present lies in its careful delineation of this difficult and sometimes awkward interaction and exchange.

We selected two books addressing the history and present situation of indigenous peoples living in colonised lands and territories. The historian Pekka Hämälainen opens his study Lakota America (Yale University Press) by insisting that two dynamic nations were born in North America in 1776: not just the triumphant one that was founded in Philadelphia, but another created by members of a Sioux tribe in the Black Hills of Dakota. Using an impressive variety of sources, including recovered objects and the ‘winter count’ calendars in which the key events of many decades were registered pictographically on buffalo hides, Hämälainen detaches the Lakota from their role as more or less picturesque ‘props that bookend America’s westward expansion’, and reveals them as the creators of a ‘Great Sioux Nation’, which originated under pressure in the late seventeenth century, and developed through the extraordinary and dynamic history traced in this book. It is a history of accommodation and diplomacy as well as of violent encounter, in which the Lakota are seen responding to pressures exerted by other indigenous tribes as well as by French, British, and white American incomers. It is, in other words, a story of flexibility and transformation. As Hämälainen demonstrates, the members of Lakota America turned themselves into river dwellers as they moved out along the Missouri River, and it was in their later manifestation as horse-riding people of the plains that they overwhelmed ‘Custer’s last stand’ at little Bighorn in 1877.

By the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), many Lakota were already living on reservations. Their children were being sent to boarding schools designed to remove them from their culture, and their land was being divided into allotments in a connected attempt to impose an individualised and settled way of life. The ongoing consequence of such policies is explored by Tanya Talaga, a Canadian journalist of Polish and Ojibwe descent, who is the author of All Our Relations: Indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism (Scribe). Having opened by describing the shocking frequency of suicide among the children of Canada’s First Nations, Talaga goes on to provide an urgent survey of the plight of indigenous peoples around the world. Everywhere she finds Aboriginals suffering disorientation and ‘a loss of connectiveness’ under conditions that amount to ‘physical, cultural, and spiritual genocide’. The problems include enclosure of land, deliberately destructive schooling, dire neglect in the employment and health systems, discriminatory legislation, high levels of imprisonment and family breakdown, and the continuing failure of state agencies, which may by now have learned to make their own internal use of the language of human rights and diversity, to make enough substantial difference in the world beyond their offices and programmes. Such optimism as the situation allows may be found in the ways in which scattered aboriginal peoples have recently managed to bring their causes together.

Hazel V. Carby, who has for long taught African American Studies at Yale, grew up in a mixed-race working class family in South London. She was the child of a white working class mother from Wales and a father who was recruited from Jamaica to serve in aircrews under both Bomber Command and Coastal Command during the Second World War. Imperial Intimacies (Verso) is a work of autobiographical ‘life-writing’ which quarries deep into British and Jamaican history as it explores the backgrounds of Carby’s parents’ lives and attitudes, and also the hostile conditions under which their marriage failed and she herself came of age. Carby follows the thread of empire through many domains – the conventions of book-keeping, the plantation system, even the classification of lichens – as she explores the interconnection between the ‘two islands’ and confronts the politics of ‘race’ as they continue to deform lives in both worlds, whether in Jamaica or in rural Lincolnshire, whence she finds that her fathers’ slave owning ancestor Lily Carby had travelled two centuries previously.

The issue is approached differently by Charles King, a professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, in The Reinvention of Humanity: A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture (The Bodley Head). This book surveys the contribution of a group of contrary and in some cases professionally marginalised anthropologists, who pioneered a new understanding of human culture in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, thereby challenging the imperialist ideas of anthropology and the ‘scientific racism’ that remained dominant in America for long enough to be inherited by Nazi thinkers in Germany. The originator of ‘cultural relativism’ is Franz Boas, who had left Germany long before his books were burned by the Nazis, and, after some difficulty, established a base for himself and his students at Columbia University in New York. Boas’s early field work was conducted among indigenous peoples on Baffin Island and the Pacific North West, but King follows the research as it was taken forward in new territories by his students. Of these, King concentrates on the accomplishments of the best known, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, while also emphasising the participation of the Native American Ella Deloria, who was recruited by Boas to work on Dakota/Lakota Sioux dialects before she moved on to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also writes tellingly about the contributions of the African-American writer, Zora Neale Hurston, who is better known as a novelist associated with the Harlem Renaissance than for her researches into the role of folklore in African-American communities in Florida or her later work in Haiti, where she made the first photograph of a ‘zombie’, in this case a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor, walking in the space Haitian culture had opened up between life and death. People with power and security may not need such magical presences in their lives but Hurston, as King tells us, was exploring the experience of those who lived in ‘a world of unmoored forces, sudden miracles, and windblown tragedies.’ And that too surely remains a thought for our time.

The winner of the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize is announced on Tuesday 27 October.