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  • Editors' NoteNew Histories of Twentieth-Century Decolonization
  • Maurice M. Labelle JR. and Chris Dietrich

Decolonization, tragically, is here to stay. It is an integral part of local, national, and international histories, presents, and futures. No longer explained as the end of European empires or as a celebratory event of national independence, decolonization is perhaps best defined as a mélange of four inter-related features: idea, process, structure, and practice. Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing into the twenty-first, decolonization was and remains dedicated to the practice of re-orienting imperial structures and their imbedded inequalities. It is also the ongoing story of the myriad ways in which people worked, in different places, to achieve the social, political, cultural, and economic equality that they held as their guiding ideal.

This recent opening-up of the study of decolonization would not have been possible without the International Decolonization Seminar. Generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and sponsored by the American Historical Association, its National History Center, and the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, this incubator united one hundred fifty scholars from across the globe from 2006 to 2016 in Washington, D.C. Initiated and led by the historian Wm. Roger Louis, the decolonization seminar's aim was simple yet daunting: engender the firm establishment of decolonization as a field of history. Far from occupying an antiquarian mandate, Louis used the summer seminar to emphasize the complexity of decolonization as an unfinished process, and thus argue for the contemporary importance of decolonization as a field of study.

Edited by two former seminarians, Chris Dietrich and Moe Labelle, this special issue of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d'histoire attempts to pick up where the International Decolonization Seminar left off. The authors here exhibit the interesting ways in which historians have taken up the history of decolonization and its ideas, processes, structures, and actions. Their approaches are as multifaceted as the field is itself and borrow from the insights and methods of diplomatic, intellectual, cultural, social, political, and comparative history.

The special issue's first essay, by Kate Burlingham, examines Congregational missions as an important point of origin for the decolonization of Angolan-Portuguese affairs. Focusing on the nascent League of Nations' Temporary Slavery Commission (tsc), she unearths the ways in which [End Page 417] Angolans used both the international community and transnational missionary networks to publicize the misdeeds of Portuguese colonists. The formation of Angolan community-based alliances with Western missionaries in the wake of World War I facilitated the movement of local critiques of Portuguese rule into the distant arenas of global governance. Informed by Angolan perspectives and formed by encounters with Angolan communities, the 1925 Ross Report to the tsc denounced Portugal's uncivilized and inhumane approach to Angolan labourers. From there, and in response to violent Portuguese crackdowns on Congressional missions, Angolans transformed the foreign-installed Protestant Church into an anticolonial institution of their own.

Meredith Terretta's contribution analyzes how transnational lawyering networks used African and European courtrooms to legislate decolonial change. Terretta demonstrates that, collectively, African anti-imperialists and their legal representatives used international law and its ideas about universal equality as a means to attack the practices of empire. Political cause lawyering, from the interwar period onward, sought to amend legal systems that sanctioned imperial inequalities and rightlessness, forcibly engendering the launch of parliamentary inquiries into shameful imperial activities in the colonies. But legal strategy cut both ways. Just as the international strategy of legal decolonization reached beyond imperial boundaries, so too did repression. We are thus reminded of a crucial, larger point: lawyers mattered not only in human rights history, but also in the histories of decolonization. Decolonization shaped the legal history of human rights as much as arguments about rights influenced decolonization.

Ethan Sanders's essay takes a different tack and places the sub-Saharan spice island of Zanzibar at the centre of the global history of decolonization. By turning our attention to Zanzibar, he reveals how a localized process of decolonization in a small place occupied by a mere 300,000 peoples during the first part of 1964 became the site for...


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