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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bedford

How do We Find the Right Language and Tools for Decolonisation in Legal Education?

Foluke Adebisi

On and in the days following 29 November 1781, due to diminishing water and food supplies, the captain of the Zong ordered to be thrown overboard, approximately 130 African captives. Thereafter, the ship owners attempted to claim in court, those deaths in insurance as lost cargo – £30 per person. The underlying unquestioned presumption in the ensuing court-case, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), was stated by Solicitor General John Lee before the court, ‘a portion of our fellow-creatures may become the subject of property.’ Consequently, this case was brought to court on facts of mass murder but was decided on legal principles of insurance only. It has become the subject of many non-legal commentaries, yet it hardly ever finds its way into the law classroom. Thus, many consequent legal questions remain unanswered: for example: What role does the law play in determining which portion of humanity may become the subject of property, of disposability? So, the Zong illustrates what it has often meant to be human in this world. How the law (de)values life and the language it uses to do so – seemingly in perpetuity. So, the Zong tells us how in the colonial ever-present the time returns in various bodies of water – in various bodies in water. How everywhere we go colonialism still follows us. And why, for a better world, we are still hoping for decolonisation in the 21st century.

However, the implementation of decolonisation in UK higher education has been inconsistent, misunderstood and misused as institutions struggle to address the questions thrown up by it.  To be effective as a means to repair and prevent continuing injustice, we must find new language and tools to engage successfully with decolonisation. These are the questions that I respond to in my book Decolonisation and Legal Knowledge.

How is decolonisation relevant to the law school of the present? Can we rethink global structures and patterns of power?

First, we need to understand the present of the world we live in as a product of the past, especially in terms of racial injustice, global inequality, and climate change. Too often, our discussions of decolonisation are temporally or spatially limited. We need to also think on a planetary scale… the pandemic, environmental devastation, and the internet illustrate this necessity. Furthermore, through this wider lens, we must consider the possibility that the tools that we have been attempting to use to understand the world and repair current harms are either insufficient to the task or, worse, complicit in (re)producing misunderstanding and harm.  Looking to the past, to stories like the Zong, does not mean that we are stuck there. No.  Looking to the past, helps us understand the present, so we can craft better futures for us all and the earth upon which we at present just precariously survive. To survive at all, we need new ways of thinking, being and doing in the world.

Therefore, we need to rethink structures and temporal patterns of power through the lens of a history in which race and colonialism are entangled with what we teach, research and practice. In other words, to borrow a quote from the movie Tenet [2020],

“‘What’s happened, happened’. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”

What’s happened, happened. The question left for us in response is twofold. Firstly, what’s actually happened? A response to this question recognises that our traditional reticence in law schools to engage deeply with legal history often leaves vital truths ignored. The story of the Zong, is not just the story of the Zong. It is a story about the consequences of human/legal knowledge in space-time. It is a story of law’s nature. Once we understand this, we appreciate that we must do something, faced as we are with the reproduction and acceleration of racial injustice, extreme poverty, inequality, and environmental devastation… through the epistemic labelling of bodies as ‘disposable’. Evidently, we have an incomplete understanding of the nature of the world gifted us by the orders of power laid down by the colonial enterprise and its adjuncts. Yet, these orders of power have, since their inception, circa 1492, persistently attracted varied demands for their dismantling – decolonisation.

We can start our decolonisation journey by asking what this history means for the concepts of knowledge that underpin our research and teaching. What are they, how did they come to be, and how we can use them differently in the present and the future? In my book I unsettle three foundational aspects of knowledge – the body, space, and time. What does it mean to be human? How have spaces being conceived? How does law keep the colonial ever-present? These conceptual issues are a cumulative lens to understand our discipline in the present as a product of a particular history.  As a world-making discipline, our current knowledge structure in law includes and is entangled with racialised enslavement as well as exploitative colonisation, their continuities and their afterlives.


What are Law Schools For? Or to (not) decolonising the university but changing the world

The foregoing signals both the spatial and temporal breadth of colonialism-decolonisation, but also means that we must accept that decolonisation has had, continues to have, and will always have its own meaning outside of whatever we call what we do with our curricula. In saying we are “decolonising our curriculum”, we are merely borrowing decolonisation’s framework. So, if we want to engage effectively with decolonisation, our goal must always be simultaneously within our schools, faculties, universities and beyond. In essence, we must work from where we are to build new flourishing worlds beyond the university. This is what we owe our students and the world – a commitment to put into action, work that goes beyond declarative statements of inclusivity and equality. To paraphrase Ruha Benjamin, we need to imagine and craft the worlds all of us cannot live without, just as we imagine the undoing of worlds many on this planet cannot live, cannot move, cannot breathe, within... we must imagine the undoing of the endless night of the Zong.


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