How Birmingham research into cultures of empire feeds into worldwide debates about Colonialism

In recent months, there has been considerable controversy around a provocative article in Third World Quarterly by Professor Bruce Gilley, entitled ‘The Case for Colonialism’. The heated debate that followed  has ramifications for research undertaken by Dr Berny Sèbe, Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at Birmingham.

In the introduction to his article, as well as further on, Professor Gilley referred Dr Sèbe’s work on the post-colonial revival of European imperial heroes in Africa. In the process, Dr Sèbe’s research and his arguments were misrepresented, and this was detected independently, analysed and confirmed by Dr Sahar Khan, a Fellow of the leading Washington-based think-tank the Cato Institute. 

The Cato Institute subsequently invited Dr Khan, Dr Sèbe and Professor James Stacey Taylor to offer a critique of the ‘Case for Colonialism’ as part of the organisation’s monthly discussion ‘Cato Unbound’. In October their three articles were published, challenging the claims made by Professor Gilley and the wider arguments made in favour of colonialism. 

Dr Sèbe says, ‘This case brings to the fore three important principles of research. First, misrepresenting someone else’s research is a short-term strategy that usually backfires. As Sahar Khan remarked, ‘Handpicking arguments that fit into your own theory is bad methodology’ and this was exactly what happened in Professor Gilley’s selective engagement with my article.

‘While my research certainly offered an innovative framework of interpretation in an attempt to make sense of the resurgence of European imperial heroes in Africa, my argument that this new trend reflects a ‘post-racial form of cosmopolitan nation-building’ cannot be interpreted in any way as supporting, implicitly or explicitly, a ‘case for colonialism’.

‘The second important element here was the careful review spontaneously undertaken by a peer that confirmed the misrepresentation of my research. In spite of regular attacks on the robustness of peer-reviewing, this case proves that it does work, even if, in an ideal world, it would have been desirable to see this happen at an earlier stage, before the publication of Dr Gilley’s article so that the final, published piece could be more accurate.  

‘Finally, it is not enough to point out and prove misrepresentation, especially for such a controversial topic as colonialism, the legacy of which can still be felt all around the world today, as my research demonstrates. The Cato Institute enabled the three academics to offer strong and definitive counter-arguments to those put forward by Professor Gilley, from three complementary perspectives. In so doing, the University of Birmingham was taking part in a prominent worldwide debate around the highly controversial question of the costs and benefits, on both ends, of the colonial experience which Western countries started in 1492, with the European discovery of the Americas.

'Research is about many things, but it relies on honesty and scholarly debate, as this recent example demonstrates. The discussion was recently re-ignited by an article in the Times by Professor Nigel Biggar from Oxford University, and I received several media enquiries in the wake of its release. Pertinent humanities research also contributes to, and is enriched by, key debates in civil society.’