By Nick Ward
“History may be about the past, but it is contested in the present, in a fight for a particular vision of the future,” says Audra Diptée, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University.
To reclaim the historical truth of the Caribbean, Diptée’s latest research project drags into public light a systematic scheme by white colonists to erase the violent records of British rule.
The programme, titled ‘Operation Legacy’, was executed by the British Colonial Office from the 1950s until the 1970s in an effort to save the British Government from embarrassment and incrimination.
Through Operation Legacy, government employees were instructed to destroy and hide official documents to ensure “that any histories that were written would serve them as they moved from a colonial power dynamic to a neocolonial power dynamic,” explains Diptée.
The result of this destructive action is a completely distorted historical narrative penned by the colonists – a fable wrought with colonial biases and self-interests.
“Operation Legacy is one of those cases when you cannot help but say ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’” says Diptée.
While Diptée has access to letters which give explicit instructions to burn records or to drop them in weighted containers into the Caribbean Sea, the challenge she and other like-minded historians face is that – as per the colonist Government’s intention – there is no way to comprehensively know which documents were destroyed and what information was enclosed within them.
Fortunately, not all documents were shredded and scattered to the winds. In 2011, the British government revealed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office quietly held in its possession 8,800 remaining files from 37 former colonies. Four years later, it reported that another 170,000 ‘legacy’ files were ‘found.’
“The fact that the British government denied the existence of these documents and only admitted to it after they were required to by the courts is revealing,” she says.
This presented Diptée with a rare opportunity to see the past through an unobscured lens. She quickly began a detailed review of the colonial documents, which detail unremitting violence, American-assisted coups of democratically elected progressive governments, and racist education curriculums intended to destroy local culture and impose counterfeit colonial memory.
In addition to examining these once-clandestine British documents, Diptée is also studying what some historians are calling ‘the counter archives’ – records of the past that were produced by the people of the Caribbean, including music, poetry, literature, non-official correspondence, and more.
These resources are crucial in Diptée’s curation of historical truth. Moreover, they serve as a reminder that the Caribbean people have long been fighting for their historical consciousness.
“Anti-colonial thought has been around for a very long time, and while the examples I will be examining are taken specifically from the Caribbean, you can find anti-colonial intellectuals all over the Global South,” Diptée explains.
"In the 19th century, the Haitian anthropologist Aténor Fermin challenged the racist assumptions of anthropology in 1885. Of course, there is the work of John Jacob Thomas, who challenged the Oxford-trained slavery apologist Anthony Froude in 1889. From the 20th century, we have Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Walter Rodney, George Padmore, CLR James, Eric Williams, Fernando Ortiz. I could go on…."Dr. Audra Diptée
"In the 19th century, the Haitian anthropologist Aténor Fermin challenged the racist assumptions of anthropology in 1885. Of course, there is the work of John Jacob Thomas, who challenged the Oxford-trained slavery apologist Anthony Froude in 1889. From the 20th century, we have Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Walter Rodney, George Padmore, CLR James, Eric Williams, Fernando Ortiz. I could go on…."
Given the unending examples of colonized peoples challenging white rule, racism and state-fabricated nationalism, Diptée says she often finds it frustrating to hear talk in contemporary academia about decolonizing knowledge as if it’s something new.
She stresses that the university still has a long way to go in this respect and—drawing inspiration from her Operation Legacy findings—has challenged herself to reflect on her own pedagogical approach in the classroom.
“Lately, I’m a lot less concerned with teaching historical narrative,” she says.
“My focus is on showing how history is used. I try to introduce students to methods that allow for the critical application of historical thought, so that they can analyze and critique the uses of history.”
Even if it is not a popular idea amongst other historians, Diptée argues that history students need to be equipped with an evolved toolkit and understanding to help them combat the ubiquitous phenomenon of the colonial rewriting of history textbooks. She’s using her Operation Legacy project as a case study to explore this larger issue.
“In a nutshell, my overarching research question is ‘how do we effectively mobilize historical knowledge?”Dr. Audra Diptée
“In a nutshell, my overarching research question is ‘how do we effectively mobilize historical knowledge?”
“I cannot recall where I read this, but someone once said that if you ever doubt the importance of history, then you should ask yourself why the first thing a dictator does is rewrite the history textbooks,” says Diptée.
With that in mind, Diptée maintains that the fight for the past is also the fight for the present and the future.
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