nick_owen_smaller_sqPlease send me a message.

Name: (required)

Email address: (required)


This was a short talk I gave at a conference to launch a book, Echoes of Empire, edited by Kalypso Nicolaidis, Berny Sebe and Gabrielle Maas.  

I tried to distinguish between three different echoes: (1) the echo of the coloniser’s voice; (2) the reply of the colonised; and (3) the echo that is not a reply.  Here’s what I said.

three echoes of empire

Where does anti-imperialism sit in a project to recover the repressed memories and legacies of empire?

From one perspective, anti-imperialists were the first to draw attention to many of the phenomena that the book explores: to the inequalities and exploitation of empire. Anti-imperialism then, and postcolonialism now, is the tool-kit, the key, a first draft of the solution to the problems that empire has left in its wake.

From another perspective, however, anti-imperialism itself might be analysed as part of the problem: itself a western or Eurocentric discourse, projected outwards from the metropole as a call. This could take the form of a summons to the colonised to rise up, fight for independence, and take their place among the civilised nations. Or it could take the form of summoning the colonised to do what western proletariats could not do in bringing capitalism to crisis.

Anti-imperialism, thus conceived, might elicit a familiar answering echo, or it might hear something that it was not expecting to hear. Or, perhaps, it might hear nothing at all.

The language of senders and receivers, sounds projected and echoes returning, is therefore perhaps problematic. Europe is the ‘sender’ of messages that are received, rejected, challenged by the receiver – the colonised – which may even ‘return [them] to the sender’. The initiative in such accounts lies in Europe, and the reactions occur elsewhere.

Indeed, almost all histories of European anti-imperialism – including some of my own – have been primarily histories of supply: of sending. We’ve tried to explain why some Europeans supported movements to reform or end systems of rule from which their nation apparently benefitted. We’ve assumed that demand from the colonised was constant and unproblematic. Being distant, weak and needy, they must have wanted all the European help they could get.   The only important question was whose help they got, and on what terms.

What this neglects is the demand side: first, very lively debates among colonised concerning the value or necessity of European anti-imperialism; and, secondly, the absence of reply on the part of very many.

To try and make this distinction clearer, let me try and distinguish three anti-imperialist echoes.

First, the voice which echoes the coloniser in his own voice. This, according to Sartre, was the echo that came from the French-educated colonised before the Second World War.   We ‘stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases’, Sartre wrote in 1961, ‘grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth’. When they went home, ‘whitewashed … walking lies’, they ‘had nothing left to say to their brothers’; they only echoed’. ‘From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam we would utter the words ‘Parthenon! Brotherhood!’, wrote Sartre, ‘and somewhere in Africa or Asia lips would open … thenon! … therhood!’.

Sartre thought that such echoes conveyed no serious anti-imperial force. That may not be quite right. The echo acts like a reflective surface.  It forces the coloniser to hear what he sounds like to others. Perhaps the words were not so glutinous. And perhaps the glutinous words included Sartre’s own Marxism.

According to Sartre, this first echo had given way to the authentic voice of the colonised native, which he found in Frantz Fanon. [T]he Third World finds itself and speaks to itself through his voice’, Sartre claimed. ‘If you murmur, jokingly embarrassed, ‘He has it in for us!’ the true nature of the scandal escapes you; for Fanon has nothing ‘in for you’ at all. [He] bends that language to new requirements, makes use of it, and speaks to the colonized only’. 

This is the second echo, which does not say what is expected, but still speaks in a recognisable language, and importantly, still in reply: to the broken promises and hypocrisies of colonial rule. What comes back is rejection, mockery, and critique.

These two echoes are familiar. The third echo, however, is not so well-known. See if you recognise it. It is the echo in a cave in India.

Boum is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or bou-oum, or ou-boum’.

‘Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce boum.’

‘Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof.’

This is of course, the Marabar Caves in Forster’s A Passage to India. Boum symbolises the impossibility of understanding, friendship and connection. This third echo is not a reply at all.

We’ve missed this third echo for two reasons. First, the best known anti-colonialists here, in Europe, were those who echoed Europe. They spoke to Europe, understood it, and moved to and from the colonial metropoles. In contrast, those whose anti-colonialism was not expressed in European languages, nor much addressed to audiences outside the colony, are much less well-known outside their own countries.

Secondly, we  – here, in Europe – are still too preoccupied with binary models of colonial relations, and hence too attuned to replies. The old metropolitan-centred models saw anti-imperial ideas radiating outwards from the metropole, stimulating echoes on the colonial periphery. They privileged those actors who replied, whether through imitation or challenge, to the stimulus. But nationalist models of colonial relations were hardly less binary. They privileged actors who first drew strength from, and stimulated, their own incipient nation, and then turned outwards to face their occupier. Both models focused on the engaged exchanges between coloniser and colonised. Even postcolonial thinking, analysing colonial relations from the perspective of the colonised, pays attention much more to those who returned the colonial gaze than those who refused to reply, or faced in other directions. It is bound to do so if it turns and places them in a celebratory ‘epic narrative’ of global anti-imperial struggle. Absences are harder to see. But if we are to engage fully with the legacy of colonialism, we have to try to see them.

I think we should look for – and I should like to find – an anti-imperialism we Europeans can’t celebrate.

Nick Owen