Beyond Contested Memories
Marc Ball, Karim Miské and Pierre Singaravélou’s Décolonisations
Memories of European colonization and decolonization are, to say the least, contested: whether points of view are progressive, radical, conservative, they are likely to strongly differ—to the point that it has become challenging, if not impossible, to provide an inclusive historical narrative for them. History as we know it is an inquiry into establishing facts in order to create a common space. Décolonisations, Pierre Singaravélou’s recent French television project, offers an attempt to bridge the gap between contradicting views. A 43-year-old French scholar of Indian descent, Singaravélou comes from a new generation of historians who understand their practice both as collective and as political: the manifestation of their rise was the election of medievalist Patrick Boucheron to the Collège de France, in 2015—Pierre Singaravélou being one of Boucheron’s fellow-travelers.
Already very distinguished for such a young historian, Singaravélou is a professor both at the Sorbonne and at King’s College, London. His earlier work was devoted to shifting viewpoints between Asia and Europe: he produced remarkable research on the École française d’Extrême-Orient, which, in the 19th century, was considered both a beacon of scholarship and the birthplace of colonial viewpoints. Over the last decade, his academic work has focused on the role of geography in the building of colonial thinking and politics, notably curating an exhibition on Asian maps at the musée Guimet, which allowed the museum to discover and catalog its outstanding collections, and invited the viewers to think from the outside—as Foucault famously said: maps may be documents in Europe, but they were art in Asia.
This raises tremendous questions: where does art lie? Where does truth lie? Is history a history of art, truth, fiction? Singaravélou also wrote a book on Tianjin, a city off the coast of China, the first to be governed by several countries at once (Tianjin Cosmopolis, Une autre histoire de la mondialisation, Le Seuil, 2017). His work, as it has unraveled for fifteen years now, brings together philology, geography, politics.
Politics is an important factor, and it leads us to Décolonisations. Singaravélou was one of the coordinators of Patrick Boucheron’s 2017 book Histoire mondiale de la France, an editorial event in its own right: France was no longer seen from the perspective of a self-centered, self-building narrative, from as an entity conceived always in dialogue with the outside, consistently porous. The Histoire mondiale made it to the bestsellers list, but it was also a major political event: a moment when history opened-up, when it became political in a way it had not been since the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution in 1989. Décolonisations carries on that approach: it is a documentary, released on the French-German network Arte, quite an ambitious one, in three episodes, each of 54 minutes. The first episode is dedicated to the early period of decolonization, until WWI; the second goes until the aftermath of WWII; and the third to today. They follow individual figures through their fight, bringing together archival documents, computer generated imagery, films, to give a lively sense of their struggle.
The film is a collaboration between Singaravélou and film directors Karim Miské and Marc Ball, his coauthors, along with actor Reda Kateb, the grand-nephew of legendary writer Kateb Yacine. Collaboration is at the center of a historical methodology in which different capacities are assembled to produce a specific sort of knowledge: the film brings together the different techniques in order to produce one epic narrative. It is designed to reach a large audience, and it is co-produced with Senegalese television. It does not look like the usual, low-budget historical documentary made exclusively from archival documents, with the voices of historians coming on over the images. As a matter of fact, all that is said is of a historian—Singaravélou—but he never speaks. The voice of the historian is replaced by the voice of history. History—the telling of facts and life, in a voice sympathetic to the decolonizing fighters—is its own narrative and does not seem to need the “voice of the expert” to support itself.
Part of the success of the film is to allow for the multiple voices of history to appear: the film follows a very clear methodological shift. Instead of looking at decolonization from the point of view of the so-called “metropole,” and going from Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, to the whole world, this films aims to look at the whole world in itself, or, to be more accurate, to invoke the many histories that made the decolonizations, all across the world. Decolonisations are in their plural form, very distinct from one another, and are treated as such. The centers have moved away from where they were traditionally located to find themselves in every part of the world where the struggle appeared. Its narrative is based on events, as well as heroic figures: the purpose clearly is to write a heroic history of the decolonizing forces rather than of the colonizing forces.
Many figures—men and women, princes and poor—appear on the stage of Decolonisations. In the first episode, Manikarnika Tambe, rani of Jhansi, who fought the British at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, truly is a heroine: the blending of synthetic images, images of Bollywood movies, highlights her as an epic figure. Her epic is a voice as loud, as strong, as prominent as any other; except that its loudness and power was in India, not in France. In Décolonisations diverse traditions meet on the self-considered central stage of historical discourse, as they did in decolonial summits of the 1940s and 1950s: Ho Chi Minh and Frantz Fanon share the stage, the narrative, and history, with Iloo 1st, makoko of the Bateke, with Anténor Firmin, a Haitian scientist who refused the colonial narrative provided by Paris’ Société d’Anthropologie, Alice Seeley Harris, the English woman who, alongside with her husband, gave evidence to the world of the atrocities committed by the Belgians in the Congo; the soccer players of the Mohun Bagan, who defeated the English and stated that a team in colonized India could be stronger than their colonizer; Mary Nyanjiru, who fought the forced labor of the Kikuyus; Lamine Senghor; Abd el-Krim, who created the first Republic of the Maghreb, in the Rif region. Their names are invoked and integrated into the narrative of history—of a shared history, in which the rule of domination no longer censors other narratives. The “small voice of history” that Ranajit Guha invited us to hear, a couple decades ago, is no longer “small”: it is the founding stone of an open manner of writing history. It comes therefore with no surprise that this documentary is going to be accompanied with the release of a book edited by Singaravélou, Ball and Miské, on the same topic, which will be the expanded, even more polyphonic and multiple illustrated history of the decolonizations. It includes biographies and narratives: its polyphony does not only lie in the content, it also lies in the methodologies, the different ways of writing.
As Singaravélou himself says, “decolonization started at the same time as colonization”: this narrative goes from the 1850s to today. It is a politically committed way of writing history: it begins in India and ends in a global world where the newly built regimes and empires are the children of a decolonized world. It includes many figures and brings them to the stage where they belong. It traces narratives that include facts, discourse, and images: the emphasis on both Bollywood and Nollywood, in Mumbai and Lagos, is highly significant. The purpose of this enterprise is to touch the nerve of commonality, the shared space in which we all exist, which has always been the final goal of history.
There are parts where the political, progressive movement of historiography might be met with disagreement: such as the page of an early draft in which a comparison is drawn between Charles De Gaulle and Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the founding fathers of Indian nationalism, who during World War II gathered Indian soldiers in Germany in order to fight for the Third Reich against the Allies—against the British colonizers. Disappointed with Germany, he then sided with Japan against the British. In the complex, layered history this project establishes, such relativism can come across as problematic. The comparison is based on an analogy drawn from Western historiography itself: but one might wonder if the new way of writing we hope to see—evidently in modern studies, but also in history overall—will avoid these analogies, and will look into history for what it is: facts, and representations.
The essence of history might lie in the separation of these two components, too often entangled within one another, in the persistent study of each of them, and of their interactions; in the purification from our preconceived ideas, and in the analysis both of facts and of representations, seen as what they are: representations. In that sense, history is political. Pierre Singaravélou’s Décolonisations is a step towards the moment when history will be seen as what it is, and its presence will be offered, not as a basis for appropriation, but for the sharing of all of the world’s pasts, presents, and futures.