Decolonisation of the mind | Sunday Observer

Decolonisation of the mind

5 February, 2023

“Decolonisation actually boosted slavery. As foreign powers withdrew from the colonies, people were enslaved by their own countrymen. And we see it in Africa, we see it in Asia.” - Loretta Napoleoni

Sri Lankans just celebrated what they have come to accept as the ‘independence’ marking the day on which the last colonisers, the British, granted what they defined as ‘independence’ seventy-five years ago. That was a few years after the WW II when the colonisers, mainly the British and the French were pressurised by the rest of the international community led by the United States, to give their colonies up allowing the people in those countries to manage their own affairs.

While we celebrate February 4, 1948 as the day we became independent, we still had to consider the British Monarch which appointed the Governor who pledged allegiance to the Queen, as the supreme leader of the country till 1972.

Though Sri Lanka supposedly became independent in 1948 it has been a member of the Commonwealth of Nations which used to be the British Commonwealth of Nations prior to 1949. What exists as the Commonwealth now without the word ‘British’ at the beginning of the name is supposed to be an organisation of ‘free and equal members’.

There are 56 member countries in the Commonwealth at present including developed economies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand and populous countries as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Considering the list of countries in the Commonwealth whether it truly is an organisation of ‘free and equal members’ may not be an easy concept for people to understand. It is also interesting to observe that these so called ‘independent’ nations often invite the ruling elite of the colonisers as their chief guests or special attendees of the ‘Independence Day’ celebrations.


Not being second to any such nation, Sri Lanka this year had Patricia Scotland, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth in attendance at the Independence Day celebrations. Secretary Scotland’s statement “I look forward to further exploring areas of future collaboration between Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth during my visit, and to reiterating the Commonwealth Secretariat’s commitment to supporting Sri Lanka as it looks towards a more prosperous, equitable and sustainable future for all its citizens” might generate some doubts whether the organisation recognises Sri Lanka as an equal partner with all other members.

While some countries were released from the colonisers’ grips countries such as Britain and the US retained control over still more territories. Settler colonial countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US have institutionalised colonisation of indigenous lands.

The power and wealth the colonisers gained tragically came at a huge price paid by the indigenous peoples, tribes and communities who have lived in those lands for centuries.

Local people were taken advantage of, by greedy traders, and faced violence and death at the hands of the colonisers.

India suffered some of the worst famines during the WW II, mainly due to policies of the British rulers that ended up shipping vital supplies out of the country to support the British troops elsewhere. Colonisers took valuable materials such as gold, ivory, and salt out of the colonies and sent them back to their own countries. Indigenous peoples lost not just their land, food, and possessions, but their traditions, beliefs, languages and cultural identities.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade which continued for over 400 years through which Europeans and Americans bought and sold over twelve million Africans, was a proud achievement of the colonisers.

Colonisers became incredibly wealthy through the slave trade and the usage of slave labour in their farms. Part of that accumulated wealth funded the industrial revolution which made them even richer. Colonial roots of the social orders, where hierarchies of race, class, and gender were entirely normalised, are common in so called ‘independent’ countries. Even after slavery was outlawed the ancestors of former slaves continue to suffer all types of discrimination in racist societies of those colonisers.

When slavery was abolished former slave owners were paid compensation by the governments for the loss of their ‘human property’. As recently as 2015, the British taxpayers were still paying off some of those loans taken by the Government to pay those compensations. No compensation was paid to ancestors of enslaved people.

The most important area of domination was the mental space of the colonised, the control through culture, through how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.

As Prof. Ngugi wa Thiongo of Kenya puts it, colonialism detonated a ‘cultural bomb’ that almost annihilated people’s belief in their language, heritage and environment and made them regard their own cultural background as “a wasteland of non-achievement” that had to be left behind as quickly as possible.

Colonisers’ ways of knowing became and remain the benchmark, against which all other traditions and knowledge are to be measured and ranked. Colonised could and most probably would strive for those benchmarks but never achieve them because of their cultural and racial inferiority that had been sanctioned by the very same traditions of knowledge established as ‘the knowledge’ by the colonisers.

This is where the ‘Decolonisation of the mind’ comes in. In his book by the same title Ngugi says that the process will require a change in educational system that gave precedence to colonisers’ traditions and knowledge at the expense of all others.

Human beings

It can be achieved through a liberating perspective that will project new ways of seeing one’s place in the world through new forms of unity among human beings.

This will end the false globalism in the guise of colonisers’ form of knowledge production and create space for all possible perspectives to be explored and given equal importance. Such a decolonised mind would not recognize celebrating Independence Day as a necessity especially to show the colonisers that we have the strength to celebrate and therefore you should not be afraid to come, visit us and spend your tourist dollars so that we can buy bread for our people. Though it may be justifiable in the post-colonial minds, it certainly will not be so in a ‘decolonised’ mind.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and fifteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]