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An Almost Secret History: Institutional Responsibility and the History of SOAS

by Cristyn Hughes

Today’s world is heavily influenced by the presence and actions of national and international institutions. This phenomenon isn’t new – large conglomerates, banks for instance, have existed for centuries and exerted immense influence on the economy – but widespread access to both their workings and their histories is relatively recent. What about universities then? Universities are relied upon to produce accurate, well-researched and useful information. They are also used as a measure of reliability – a particularly important role in the current climate where fictitious or factual information can be easily created and disseminated. We also rely on universities to train and educate a large part of our future workforce. There are myriad other institutions that play crucial roles in our day-to-day lives. The sheer power and social responsibility of these institutions today led me to take a closer look at the one that affects my life most directly, namely SOAS University of London.

SOAS is an important part of my life. It’s the reason I live in the UK and will (hopefully) help me access the jobs I’d like to have in the future. Judging whether SOAS is good at what it does is a complex question, perhaps better answered by university evaluation systems or the SOAS Student Union. But what I can do is analyse the history of my institution and examine how it markets itself to potential students, given that I was once a potential student myself. Being a student puts me in a good position to comment on my university, but being an intern for the SOAS History Blog and briefly becoming a staff member allowed me to broaden my perspectives on how SOAS is run. It takes an intimidating amount of organisation, communication and strategy to run a university. Although I am by no means close to understanding it completely, the Blog internship gave me the space to develop skills and insights rarely experienced by the student body. In combination with the skills I am acquiring through my historical studies, this opportunity influenced my outlook on SOAS as an institution, especially with regards to its history.

The SOAS coat of arms shows the university’s two mascots – the Arabian Camel and the Asian Elephant. This encapsulates the dilemma of SOAS quite well. Does this coat of arms imply connection to the regions these animals represent, or does it imply ownership and the breadth of colonial control? The slogan ‘Knowledge is Power’ also alludes to the relationship SOAS had to the subject matter of its knowledge. It is at once in praise of learning and education generally and a signifier of dominance – or rather: the learning done at SOAS was specifically designed to perpetuate dominance. (Image source)

The new SOAS logo is very different (ten years ago it replaced an older tree symbol that itself had been launched in 1989). The ten leaves that make up the shape of the SOAS tree are from different species representing the regions of the school’s expertise (for a more detailed description see here). Trees are commonly associated with connectivity, growth and life. It implies a much more respectful approach to learning from and about other cultures.

The primary way in which SOAS advertises itself to prospective students is through its website, which gives details on SOAS’ courses, lecturers, open days, national rankings and initiatives. It also makes sure to tell prospective students that its aims and values are distinct from those of other British universities. The website suggests that while ‘the world asks’ questions on how we grow our economies, SOAS asks how the world can look more equal and be built on sustainable fairness, including how histories of colonialism inform international politics. This sentiment is perhaps a little reductive with regards to other universities, but it’s true that no British university de-centres Europe in favour of a global approach quite like SOAS does. The wider SOAS blogs are a testament to this, covering all parts of the globe and integrating a wide range of topics from the politics of structural violence to the aesthetics of storytelling. The curriculums outlined on the main website also de-centre Europe, covering the majority of the ‘eastern hemisphere’. There is also a separate page that details the efforts SOAS makes to decolonise what it teaches and its teaching methods. This site covers research practices, public engagement, offers reading suggestions, teaching methods, and in many ways puts weight behind SOAS’ words. The general impression of the main SOAS site is that of a university committed to decolonial approaches to learning.

It is not unusual that SOAS highlights its contemporary initiatives and activities. The website’s purpose is to provide up-to-date information to attract students to the university. There is, however, something missing from the website. Being a history student interning for a history blog, perhaps my view is a little biased, but SOAS’ past is central to its position in academia today, yet it is not explicitly discussed on its website. The School was established in 1916 as the School or Oriental Studies to train colonial administrators to run the British Empire’s colonies (Brown 2016: 1). Though it has found a new purpose since the empire’s collapse, the School’s specialties are still defined by this history. Before the 1960s, when most British colonies became independent, SOAS’ curriculum was still determined by the British government. The focus was geared towards foreign languages and cultures rather than history, development and law (Brown 2016: 291). SOAS’s regional specialities are what form the basis of their top-rated courses (African, Middle Eastern and Asian Studies, according to the Complete University Guide) and its library is one of only five national research libraries in the United Kingdom (Spina 2010). This expertise has arisen from a colonial and imperial history that is distinctly at odds with SOAS’ mission statement today. In my view, it is precisely because of this disconnect that transparency is so important.




The School of Oriental Studies or SOS’s first director, Edward Denison Ross (1871-1940). Ross was a linguist who specialised in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages. As opposed to today’s focus on academic disciplines, languages were core and centre of the school’s mission initially. This very soon also included African languages, although the formal change of name to School of Oriental and African Studies or SOAS only happened in 1938 (Brown 2016: 75).

Portrait by John Lavery, 1922. Public domain.

For a photo showing him in action teaching Persian see here.


In 2017, the School’s Academic Board made a commitment to dissect and discuss SOAS’ role in maintaining colonial rule and to review the content and perspectives taught at the School. This was part of a “Decolonising Strategy”, which can be found on the SOAS website as part of its overall strategic plan. However, despite this commitment to tackle the school’s history, nowhere is this history described. This obfuscation was not always so. SOAS Emeritus Professor Ian Brown’s book The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of History, the publication of which was designed to coincide with the school’s centenary, directly confronts and evaluates SOAS’ role in the British Empire. Unfortunately, a news item (accessed 23 May 2022) on the SOAS website announcing its publication did not survive the website’s reorganisation in October 2022. This leaves a potential student reading through the website in the confusing position of seeing commitments to change and growth without any fixed reference points. Change and growth from what, exactly? Giving historical context would, I propose, give gravitas and depth to the extensive information the SOAS website provides on staff and student efforts to interact with and challenge the effects of colonisation today. In my view, transparency and accountability encourages trust in an institution, and for SOAS would make a commitment to improvement more meaningful and believable.

This isn’t to say that SOAS’ colonial history is a secret. It is common knowledge on campus and is discussed within and beyond the classroom in a variety of contexts. It is even directly confronted in one compulsory module of my own course, Colonial Curricula: Empire and Education at SOAS and Beyond, in which the colonial history of the school and the legacy of many of its founding professors are scrutinized and assessed. Dr Eleanor Newbigin, who designed the module, sought to establish an academic space for informed discussion on how the legacy of empire shapes the disciplines that are taught at SOAS. Rather than creating a finalised narrative of what SOAS was and is, the course is meant to stimulate conversation and deepen the understanding of SOAS’ role in colonial and decolonial education. Colonial Curricula engages with the complexity of the institution, and Newbigin encourages prospective and current students to look further than the SOAS website and Ian Brown’s book for definitions of what SOAS is. In our interview, Newbigin described these sources as having a relatively top-down view of the institution (Newbigin 2023). The SOAS archives, where she found some of the materials for the course, can provide much more varied and up-close views of what SOAS was for students and less well-known staff members. Nevertheless, much of this information can be tricky to access from outside SOAS. Creating direct links to the most relevant sources (in terms of SOAS’ colonial history) on the university’s website, would allow prospective students the opportunity to engage in a culture of transparency even before enrolling. In this way Newbigin’s approach of informed flexible discussion could be brought out of her lectures and into the wider ethos of the School.

Mr S. H. Chileshe, a SOAS student from Zimbabwe, in 1946. At the time, Zimbabwe was a British colony called Rhodesia. SOAS may have been an opportunity for education and employment for select colonial subjects, but this inclusion into British education was part of the colonial ‘civilising mission’ rather than an attempt to integrate and equalise the British with people of colour from the colonies (Newbigin 2023).

Image source: Public domain.

SOAS’ colonial history is an uncomfortable topic, particularly when contrasted with what SOAS is today, and it’s not completely unreasonable to assume that prospective students may choose to study somewhere with a less colonial history. SOAS’ two main selling points are its decolonial approach to knowledge and its expertise in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – whether that be in the cultures, languages or histories of these world regions. The former is the result of a vigorous school-wide effort from students, staff and faculty to critique and question what is commonly taught and understood in Britain. The latter, however, finds its roots in SOAS’ original colonial history and purpose.  A central facet of colonial knowledge production is the altering, adapting and warping of knowledge so that colonial institutions can continue to profit off their colonial history. I believe that transparency could attract more students than it inhibits. I believe that, by failing to explicitly display how SOAS’ history contributes to its existence today, SOAS is in fact using colonial knowledge production methods to promote itself, and this juxtaposition would turn prospective students away – and indeed it disappoints many students who do come to SOAS and only then learn about its history. To truly be a centre for decolonising knowledge, SOAS must be open about what it once was. Until it does, it is upholding its colonial character rather than uprooting it.

References

Brown, Ian. 2016. The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
“Decolonising Strategy.” N.d. (part of a five-year strategic plan approved in 2021). SOAS. Accessed May 9, 2023. https://www.soas.ac.uk/about/leadership/soas-vision-and-strategy/decolonising-strategy.
Newbigin, Eleanor. 2023. “Colonial Curricula.” Interview by Cristyn Hughes. 17 May.
Spina, Barbara. 2010. “SOAS Library: What Makes it Special?
[“SOAS University of London.” 2019. Soas.ac.uk. https://doi.org/812]
The Complete University Guide. 2023. “SOAS University of London Ranking UK 2022 / 2023 – Complete University Guide.”

Cristyn Hughes

she/her

Cristyn started her BA History at SOAS in 2022 and completed an internship with the SOAS History Blog in May 2023. During her internship Cristyn co-organised the annual Blog Women’s History Month event and contributed to the publication of two articles. Cristyn’s research for this article draws on her experiences during the internship and as a student of H103 Colonial Curricula.


SOAS History Blog, Department of History, Religions and Philosophy, SOAS University of London

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