When we think of colonialism, we often envision images of sailing ships, bloody wars, and trading networks. Yet British settlers brought more than weapons, chains, and markets to foreign lands. They also brought their own cultural beliefs. When Britain formed colonies, it taught its language, its religion, and its literature to the peoples it colonized. These imposed education systems raise many questions. What influence did learning about British culture or reading British literature have on the students of the colonies? How does this education relate to the physical process of colonization? How were education systems in former colonies reformed after they gained independence?
The story of one Oxford alumnus who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, V.S. Naipaul, provides a few insights. Of Indian heritage, Naipaul grew up in the (then) British colony Trinidad and Tobago in the mid-1900s. He earned a government scholarship and attended Oxford to read English Literature before pursuing a career as a writer. Cultural tensions haunt his works.
In his Nobel lecture, Naipaul reflects on his cultural identity. He describes growing up feeling disconnected from Indian traditions and the Hindi language. In his colonial schooling, he recalls learning abstract facts about foreign lands and developing an identity filled with “areas of darkness”. He remembers having very few cultural models during his early writing career, for most of the authors he had studied in high school and at Oxford were European.
Naipaul’s experience is similar to those of many students growing up in colonies. In his influential essay, “Decolonising the Mind,” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o describes how Britain developed as the cultural center of its empire through imposing English language and literature in the colonies’ education system. In Kenyan schools during the twentieth century, for instance, schools beat and ridiculed children for speaking Gĩkũyũ instead of English. English, as he notes, “became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the science, and all the other branches of learning.”
To move up the colonial social ladder meant to distance themselves from their native cultures, which were deemed inferior by Britain. Mastering English at the expense of their heritage was the only way for students from colonies, like Naipaul, to excel.
This language and culture issue is a major topic of exploration in the works of authors from colonized societies in the 20th century, many of whom wrote in English. These works are termed Postcolonial Literature, which is an encompassing term referring to literature from nations shaped in any number of ways by colonialism.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o summarizes this issue succinctly: “The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized.” For the author, the solution is simple: write in one’s own native language. For others, such as the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, the solution is to adapt English for their own culture’s nuances.
For Naipaul, there appeared to be no solution. After his studies at Oxford, he later travelled to his homeland India, and around the Caribbean region where he grew up, to gain a clearer sense of his historical roots. He also spent time researching these countries' histories. These experiences inspired him to delve into racial and social complexities in his creative writing, illuminating areas of darkness and giving him insight into his heritage: aspects that his colonial education had severed him from. When reflecting on his writing career, Naipaul said that “the aim has always been to fill out my world picture, and the purpose comes from my childhood: to make me more at ease with myself.” His characters, however, never seem to feel culturally at ease. Yet, the author also cautioned against comparing an author’s biographical details with his literary creativity.
His novel Mimic Men (1967) explores a colonial politician’s life: it compiles snapshots of his education in London, his earlier childhood in the Caribbean, and his failed political career. A key theme in Naipaul’s work is the inauthenticity of his Caribbean characters, who are cut-off from their heritage. They lack cultural identities and mimic the condition of being human, for they are neither a part of their lost native cultures nor a part of European society. They constantly strive for the impossible aim of being political equals with their former colonizers, developing a loathing for other colonized people and a deep rage arising from powerlessness.
Another of Naipaul’s novels that addresses the colonized’s attempt to construct an authentic identity independent of British culture is his later work, A Bend in the River (1979). This tale follows the disillusionment of a businessman of Indian heritage living in an African nation. Many of his characters in this story similarly mimic the tastes and habits of their colonizers, including Indar, who heads to London for his education and idealizes British culture. Yet corruption lies at the heart of many colonized characters and of the new nation’s government. Though the independent nation attempts to distinguish itself from Europe, it remains a shadow. Naipaul’s characters appear never to escape colonial influences.
In “Decolonising the mind,” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o describes this sense of hopelessness and disillusionment as an inevitable consequence of writing in English and valuing British culture at the expense of one’s own. Yet the link between English literature and England’s colonial legacy continues to spark debate. Some, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, claim that literature is both a reflection of and a shaping force for a society’s cultural and political landscape. Others argue that literature and politics are distinct fields.
As the leading university in England during the country’s colonial period from the 17th to 20th centuries, Oxford was a hotspot for literary discussions and future writers. This prominent educational institution helped to define a collection of important English fiction called the “canon”. The literary canon represented the best literature of English culture, which was taught in the colonies. The institution’s prestige also drew and continues to draw ambitious students from (former) colonies, like Naipaul.
Today at Oxford, the field of Postcolonial Literature is a growing area of research that is drawing increasingly more attention. This rise in attention is in line with the ongoing process of global decolonization. Initiatives like the “Decolonising the English Faculty Open Letter” at the University of Cambridge in 2017 continue to advocate for a more nuanced appreciation of how language and literature shape politics.
Written by Lunan Zhao