The language of coloniality

This week Buckingham Palace announced that King Charles was supporting research into the royal family’s links to the transatlantic slave trade. This is along the lines of investigating any links between America and lunar exploration. It’s bleeding obvious and the stuff of history books, novels and films, and in the case of the latter -living memory for most of us. Of course, the moon landings don’t carry the shame of the colonisation and enslavement of peoples. It’s this shame that has allowed for this trick of the mind where people talk of the monarchy as both integral to the British Empire, and therefore colonialism and slavery, and yet, at the same time separate from the Empire when it comes to the well-documented atrocities and the financial gains that still exist today.

What’s going on here I think can be found in understanding the terms colonialism and coloniality. The withdrawal of European countries from their colonies represented the end of colonialism, the political and economic structures enforced by the colonisers to govern and exploit the colonised. But that wasn’t the true end of it. Sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel explained back in 2011 that ‘we have come out of a period of global colonialism to enter a period of global coloniality.’ In contrast to colonialism, coloniality refers to the hegemonic ways of thinking, doing and being that show power of one group over another even if the colonial governments are no longer in force. Coloniality has its roots in colonialism but is far more subtle and is disguised in the language of progress, modernization and development – I’m paraphrasing here from an insightful article I read recently by Pinky Makoe (2022), a sociolinguistic studying coloniality in education in South Africa.

Here’s an example of coloniality at work. A recent article in Nature pointed out how biological species have been traditionally named after persons, real and fictional. ‘Eponyms typically reflect benefactors, dignitaries, officials, the author’s family members and colleagues, or well-known cultural figure’ at the time of their so-called ‘discovery’ by westerners. This point is illustrated in the names given to animal and plant species in the continent of Africa, a strong majority were named after British men, followed by German men, followed by French men, followed by Belgium men – you get the idea. The fact that these names stayed in place for so long points to the coloniality that remained long after the colonisers were gone. The article was about the drive to replace these names, these relics of colonialism, by adopting the names used by local people where these species can be found.

At least we are talking about coloniality – in concept, where we are not using the word. This idea has finally come out of the shadows of academia and is making its way into the popular press. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard of King Charles. His ‘bold’ announcement is a step in the right direction and in its naivety is only trying to fit into popular thinking.

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