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Decolonising the History Tripos

The history faculty should make world history compulsory in Part I – and here’s why


For those of you who don’t have to suffer the Seeley Library’s leaking ceilings, Part I of the History Tripos currently consists of five examined papers and one long essay. Out of the five, three are compulsory – British political history, British socio-economic history, and a European paper. It is completely possible in Part I not to touch anything outside of Europe at all.

The Cambridge history faculty has a remarkable offering of papers broad in variation and focus. It is consistently ranked top in the country (alternating, as usual, with Oxford) and in the top five around the world. We are privileged to have the resources that we do, with world-class historians reading our clumsy weekly essays.

And yet following Lola Olufemi’s remarkable and – in my opinion, wrongfully – attacked plea to the English faculty to decolonise their curriculum, I find my own criticisms of the history faculty hard to swallow down.

To argue over the relevance of one historical subject over another might open up an entire rabbit hole of mounting hysteria – and yet I find it difficult to justify the importance of my essay on lay piety in the early middle ages over my reading on the impact of the conquest of the Americas on both hemispheres.

Perhaps it’s a matter of interest, but in the current political climate I think it’s an arguable case that historians have a moral responsibility to debunk "alternative facts" with as much alacrity as possible.

Arguably, the training we need for this task, as 21st century historians, lie within the two world history papers – as opposed to ten British ones and six European. They are intensive courses, squeezing a lot of content into eight weeks of essays. They focus on particular regions, some of which are overlooked in mainstream historical interest, such as South Asia, or the Pacific. They also explore transnational and international themes.

Herein lies the critical. More and more, modern historiography demands more international synthesis, it is no longer acceptable, for example, to treat the Cold War as a phenomenon tip-toeing the Iron Curtain. You only have to read the works of O.A. Westad to see that we can only explain the Eastern Bloc itself by looking beyond Europe, more specifically in the Middle East.

When I was studying Paper 18, or European history since 1910, my supervisor told me quite paradoxically that it was not enough to read on the European Cold War. He’s right, on a broader level than he meant. It is no longer possible or, indeed, useful, to study European – or British – history in a Eurocentric fashion.

How can we understand 18th and 19th century British society and economy without understanding world history? On one level, we can understand that the consumption of tea and sugar increased over the period. On another, studying the developments of trade diplomacy and war in China affecting the supply of tea and the construction of slave plantations in the Caribbean gives us a much broader and realistic understanding of what was going on. It is shocking how understudied the British empire remains in this country, and our universities are where we need to tackle this.

Before the Sun gets a hold of this, I’m not calling for the history faculty to abolish the British and European papers at all. Rather, an understanding of medieval kingship and twentieth-century Europe has only broadened my understanding, especially as recent studies on gender, ethnicity, and other important topics fill in gaps left by "great man" historians. But for the sake of proper historical training and general knowledge, world history should be in my opinion be made compulsory, perhaps alongside one British and one European paper. Cambridge claims to be an international institution. It might as well prove it.