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Decolonizing Imperial College: a few suggestions

Decolonizing Imperial College a few suggestions
David Abulafia
Written by David Abulafia

Activists at Imperial College are targeting Darwin’s colleague TH Huxley. They want to rename the building named after him. But what about the name of the college? Activism is full of contradictions.

Now T.H. Huxley is under attack by members of Imperial College not because of his views about slavery – he was an ardent abolitionist – but because he shared a common view of his time, and believed in a hierarchy of races. A building named after him must, we are told, be renamed. Apparently one has to be wholly good to be accepted by the woke activists, but the term ‘good’ has, it goes without saying, a specific meaning of its own, meaning a twenty-first century belief in and agitation for what calls itself Social Justice. Specific meanings also attach to a whole range of terms the activists use, notably racism, capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.

But wait a moment: imperialism! We are talking about Imperial College. No one has suggested it should change its name. Or rather, it has happened, but ended on a sour note. It is said that when University College and Imperial College were negotiating the merger that never came about, one of the big issues was a choice of name. At that point, the story goes, the people from Imperial had a brilliant idea. The new university could take one word from each institution’s name: Imperial, a word they were certainly not willing to lose, and College, in recognition of UCL – making the new name ‘Imperial College’.

Not that woke activists are known for their sense of humour. One of their most noticeable characteristics is their insistence on picking not just on particular individuals among the very many with a checkered past, but on certain things that commemorate them, while ignoring a great many others. This has been pointed out again and again in relation to Cecil Rhodes: Rhodes House and Rhodes Scholarships are still very prominently there. Churchill College has been lambasted by its own Fellow, Priya Gopal, but she somehow never gets round to objecting to the use of the name, even though not long ago she chaired a notorious seminar in the college where Kehinde Andrews insisted Churchill was comparable to Hitler and the British Empire was worse than the Nazis.

So let’s think about a new name for Imperial College, as well as Churchill College. It’s important to get in first on this, in case it becomes an issue. Clearly Professor Gopal has earned her rewards, and no one in the past can really be trusted, so let’s make Churchill College Gopal College in her honour. And, since there are so many charlatans who have invested in the woke business, Imperial obviously needs to be named after one of their equally charlatan sources of inspiration, whether Jacques Derrida, Edward Said or the totally incomprehensible Professor Homi Bhabha, who according to that wonderful book Cynical Theories won second prize after Judith Butler in Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest.

About the author

David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Samuel Harvard Abulafia CBE FSA FRHistS FBA (born 12 December 1949) is an English historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He spent most of his career at the University of Cambridge, rising to become a professor at the age of 50. He retired in 2017 as Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[2] He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008. He is visiting Beacon Professor at the new University of Gibraltar, where he also serves on the Academic Board. He is a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin branch, Poland).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2013 he was awarded one of three inaugural British Academy Medals for his work on Mediterranean history. In 2020, he was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans