Pierre Singaravélou: History from the Perspective of the Colonized

In 2017, French historian Pierre Singaravélou took part in the Histoire mondiale de la France project, a publishing success that questioned the national narrative. In Decolonization, which has just been released in the United States, the Sorbonne professor has turned his focus to the fall of the leading colonial empires from the perspective of the people of Algeria, Vietnam, the Congo, and India.
© Claire Delfino

Just after the end of the summer, I met Pierre Singaravélou at a café a stone’s throw from the Sorbonne, where he was overseeing dissertation defenses. Since 2019, he has worked both in Paris and in London, where he was hired as a global professor by the prestigious King’s College. The French publication of the latest work he directed, L’Epicerie du monde, examining the history of globalization through several iconic foods, such as barbecued meat, dim sum, and pizza, has coincided with the English translation of Décolonisations, written with Karim Miské and Marc Ball.

This book follows on from a remarkable, three-part documentary of the same name. First shown on the Arte television network in 2020, it looks back over the history of decolonization from the perspective of the colonized, and showcases little-known figures – often women – who have been silenced by the dominant historiography. “We wanted to go against the traditional, popular history as it is presented to the public,” he says. “This history is disembodied, observed from a distance, and exclusively adopts the perspective of Western colonizers. Our idea was to offer an overview of research and how it is carried out, including in the United States, and focus on this cross-pollination of American and French historiographies.”

In the run-up to publication, Pierre Singaravélou is impatiently waiting to see how Decolonization will be received: “We wanted to resituate the colonial question at the heart of public debate by showing that the United States played a major role, both directly and indirectly, in European expansion. American entrepreneurs, for example, were key players in Britain’s colonization of India. What’s more, this European question is essential for understanding the history of slavery and the slave trade that affected the Caribbean and the American continent. Many people in the U.S. are unaware that their country expanded its overseas territory in the late 19th century, encompassing Hawaii, Porto Rico, and the Philippines to become a colonial power in its own right.”

While he avoids the word “calling” and, following on from Pierre Bourdieu, distrusts “retrospective biographical illusion,” Pierre Singaravélou confesses that his family heritage influenced his interest in colonization. He was born in 1977 to a French mother, a German teacher from Bordeaux, and a Tamil father, a geographer from Pondicherry. “My father was born in 1945 to a traditionally Hindu family,” he says. “But my grandfather sent him to a Catholic school, where he was the only Hindu. That helped build his character. He was then spotted by French academics and won scholarships to study in France. He’s a brilliant man. He’s the social miracle, not me.”

A Mixture of Influences

Raised in the Caribbean until he was six, and then in the Bordeaux suburbs, the historian remembers being exposed to a mixture of influences. “My father’s culture was present, but in a vague way. When I think back to my childhood, I struggle to differentiate between the sound of the sitar and the taste of oysters from Arcachon Bay. These diverse aspects are intertwined quite gently and discreetly. The feeling that identities are complicated and composite inspired how I approach colonial history. It seemed counterproductive to adopt a moral standpoint. This is why the objective of Decolonization is not to condemn or excuse, but rather to understand the motivations and innerworkings of colonial domination.”

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Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and Belgian King Baudouin on June 29, 1960, in Léopoldville (Kinshasa today), on the occasion of the proclamation of the independence of the Congo. © René Stalin/Collection MRAC-Tervuren
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Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister and daughter of independence leader Nehru, meets U.S. President Richard Nixon at the White House, April 11, 1971. © Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images
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Protest against the National Front, Britain’s neo-fascist party, in the predominantly Indian and Pakistani district of Southall, West London, May 24, 1979. © The Evening Standard/Getty Images

When he speaks, Pierre Singaravélou usually says “we” instead of “I.” The history that he loves, defends, and works on is global and often written collectively, “because a single researcher cannot know every language on earth, nor reproduce the diversity of voices, ways of thinking, and relationships with time.” By tackling a subject that was still marginal in France 20 years ago, but which has since become unavoidable and highly sensitive, he has pushed his approach into the political arena during an identity-obsessed period in which historical falsehoods have invaded TV sets and social media.

This was the clearly stated ambition of Histoire mondiale de la France, a collective work mobilizing 122 historians led by Patrick Boucheron and four coordinators: “We are convinced that history is by definition a critical field of knowledge. Publication was set for the 2016 French presidential campaign, with the idea of taking a stance in the public debate by providing scientific elements. The violence of the reaction from parts of the right and the far-right sparked a political and media controversy that gave the book a symbolic dimension.” An unexpected success, with more than 300,000 copies sold, this weighty tome comprised of short articles – on subjects such as the foundation of Marseille, the imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade, and the creation of the Alliance Française in 1883 – appealed to a vast readership.

Like other historians of his generation, Pierre Singaravélou wants to move his field beyond the world of academia. With this in mind, he is working with the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, and adapting his research to screens, as he did with the documentary Décolonisations. “In both France and the United States, where history majors are disappearing from universities, historians need to demonstrate the social role of history to the general public. In the opposite way, we can also advance research by making it more accessible. The stakes are both political and scientific.”

Decolonization: Unsung Heroes of the Resistance by Pierre Singaravélou, Karim Miské, and Marc Ball, translated from French by Willard Wood, Other Press, 2022.

Article published in the November 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.