A working hypothesis based on the resources brought together for this exhibition is that despite its relative smallness, limited student body, and lack of a hitherto recognised and well-documented history of entanglement with empire such as exists for some other colleges, any assumption that St. John’s College lacks significant past connections with colonialism and slavery has and must prove unfounded.
As Professor William Whyte has pointed out, once you begin to look, empire is everywhere. The College’s alumni, their origins, education, participation in and contributions to college, the trajectories of their lives and careers, their ideas, works and legacies reflect and reconfigure many of the aspects, effects, intersections and contradictions of the vast inchoate behemoth of British imperialism identified and analysed by historians of empire and colonialism. These include, for example: the many economic, intellectual, political and human legacies of slavery and indentured labour; the far-reaching yet often partial and ineffective role of a large and many tiered civil and colonial service with Britons and Europeans in top jobs, but in many cases non-Europeans and colonial subjects implementing policies and influencing them on the ground, who often moved across the empire to study, follow careers or find means of employment, resettling their families, creating, by choice or without it, new transcultural communities in new places; the transfer, reception and reinterpretation of knowledge, its control or resistance to control, the uses of institutional and cultural orientalism; the role of education in producing intermediary/comprador classes of western-educated ‘natives’ to run the empire; the mass forced contribution of subject peoples to British and imperial trade and profit, and the opportunities offered by empire to those who could and did benefit from prospects of economic, social and geographical mobility.
Through this exhibition ( and others to follow) we hope to recover some of voices and traces of integration, co-option, conflict and resistance amongst these individuals, while reflecting on their pursuit and reception of skills, learning, ideas, opinions, connections, conflicts and friendships, which were gained, or whetted and polished at Oxford, and brought to bear not only in varied, fascinating and far-reaching careers, but in multiple regional, national and transnational, political, economic, legal, social, cultural, and intellectual causes, concerns and struggles - back home and elsewhere in the empire and the world.