Complicating Leonard Woolf’s Anti-Imperialism: the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend


Although he’s more often remembered for his contributions to international relations, and of course for the fact that he was married to the legendary novelist Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf had an important literary career of his own.


Leonard Woolf (1880-1969)

Recently I assigned his short story “Pearls and Swine,” which appears in the 1921 collection Stories of the East, for a class discussion in “English 316K: Survey of World Literature.”


Stunning cover art by Dora Carrington; wood-cut print

In class, we talked about the short story in the context of Woolf’s political and advocacy activities following his return to England from a stint in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) from 1904-1911.  Woolf’s colonial fiction was inspired by his tenure as a colonial administrator, during which he observed the exploitation attending British economic policies aimed at “modernizing” the Ceylonese economy.  “Pearls and Swine” is based on Woolf’s experience superintending the pearl extraction industry at the Marichchukkaddi Fishery in 1906.  The story is notable for its multiple layers of narration.  It opens in the mahogany-paneled smoking room of a British club, where a character known as the Commissioner, thoroughly ambivalent about empire after his experience administering it, relates a visceral tale of the human suffering he witnessed while overseeing the pearl harvest on the north coast of Ceylon.  The unidentified narrator of the story listens silently and attentively to the Commissioner; he doesn’t speak out loud, but makes editorializing internal comments about the story and the other members of the Commissioner’s audience in the smoking room.  These characters include three men who, like the narrator and the Commissioner, remain without proper names over the course of the story.  The Colonel, the Clergyman, and the Stockjobber represent, respectively, British military, religious, and economic justifications for imperialism; collectively, they object to the anti-imperial edge of the Commissioner’s tale.

Woolf’s story takes an anti-imperial position in part by narrating pro-Empire characters in sheerly contemptuous terms.  For example, the narrator describes the Colonel as a “tubby little man” with “stupid red lips” and “kind choleric eyes bulging out on a life which he was quite content never for a moment to understand.”  Judging from his short story, it would seem that Woolf’s anti-imperialism was unequivocal.  Letters written to Woolf between 1915 and 1918 by E.W. Perera, Ceylonese lawyer and nationalist, seem to corroborate this interpretation of Woolf’s resistance to empire.  The letters, available in the Leonard Woolf Archive at the University of Sussex, indicate that Woolf participated in a media campaign Perera engineered in England to advocate civil and political rights in Ceylon.  Strikingly, the letters reveal that although Woolf’s name was in the byline of opinion pieces published in The Labour LeaderThe New Statesman, and The Manchester Guardian, Perera often dictated their content.


E.W. Perera (1875-1953)

In class, we discussed how the portrait of Woolf that emerges from Perera’s letters squares with the ethics and politics of Woolf’s fiction.  To further enrich (or more accurately, complicate!) the discussion, I introduced Woolf’s association with the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society.  We examined the cover art of the first issue of the periodical of the Society, the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend, which has been digitized as part of the British Periodicals Collection of ProQuest’s Periodicals Archive Online.

Anti-Slavery Reporter Cover

Students compared and contrasted the cover art of Stories of the East and the cover art of the periodical above.  The class considered the ethical relationship the visuals of the Anti-Slavery cover set up between colonized subjects of Empire and sympathetic Europeans, anti-slavery advocates and self-proclaimed “Aborigines’ Friends.”  Woolf’s experience in Ceylon inspired his earnest participation in Ceylonese and Indian campaigns for independence during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, but he was not immune from the orientalism (Edward Said’s term and a key concept in E316K) that so strongly inflected even the most progressive British attitudes of the day toward colonized populations.  Indeed, the April 1918 issue of the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend includes a report that challenges assumptions that Woolf was strictly opposed to imperialism.  According to the report of an Anti-Slavery Society delegation to the Colonial Office, “Mr. Leonard Woolf referred to the importance of regaining the confidence of the people of Ceylon” (5).  This brief report of Woolf’s testimony is a reminder that in the context of late British imperialism, the progressivism of even the most politically active and articulate allies of colonial nationalists must be carefully examined for historically-specific nuance.  Is Woolf’s objection to economic exploitation and political repression in Ceylon the same thing as anti-imperialism?

Image 1: credit, Gisèle Freund/Photo Researchers; source,

Image 2 source: Smith College Libraries,

Image 3 source: National Archives of Sri Lanka,

Image 4 source: The Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend, 1:1 (1909)

J.E. Casely Hayford and The African Times and Orient Review: “Militantly” Anti-Imperial?


Recently in “E316K: Survey of World Literature,” we read excerpts from J.E. Casely Hayford’s Ethiopia Unbound, an expansive work of experimental fiction praised for its sophisticated analysis of social, political, and economic conditions in Africa under British imperialism.  Casely Hayford himself was Ghanaian.  Born in 1866, he wore many hats over the course of his career as an educator, journalist, lawyer, editor, fiction writer, and statesman.  He led the first meeting of the National Congress of British West Africa in 1920, headed up delegations of African leaders to London, and was elected to the Ghana Legislative Council in 1927.


J.E. Casely Hayford (1866-1930)

Published in 1911, Ethiopia Unbound tries on a variety of genre conventions.  Our class focused on two segments of the novel anthologized in Elleke Boehmer’s excellent Empire Writing.  “African Nationality” takes persuasive essay form, and “As in a Glass Darkly” is a parable.  The title of the parable is a biblical reference to Corinthians; it means to see a poor reflection or a dim image in a mirror.  The parable satirizes the colonial powers that came together for the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, which resulted in a General Act that formally instituted the Scramble for Africa.  Through his use of the parable–a Christian narrative form–Casely Hayford exposes the hypocrisy of imperial conquest justified in terms of a Christian civilizing mission.

To contextualize Casely Hayford in terms of the Pan-Africanist networks of which he was a part, we discussed “As in a Glass Darkly” alongside Hayford’s contribution to the August 1912 issue of The African Times and Orient Review.  This periodical was published out of London from July 1912 through December 1920, and is currently made digitally available by the primary source database Empire Online.  According to the Oxford Companion to Black British History, The African Times and Orient Review was a “militant magazine.”  “The first political journal produced by and for black people,” it was committed to the “exposure of various colonial injustices.”

The cover art of the inaugural issue, however, tells a different story about the identity of this ground-breaking periodical.  Does this look like a “militantly” anti-imperial publication to you?

African Times Cover

The first issue of the African Times and Orient Review, July 1912

Here’s a higher-quality PDF version of the African Times Cover.  That’s right–you’re seeing a white angel hovering benevolently above two imperial subjects representing, respectively, Africa and the Orient.  The three figures join hands around a globe with a banner proclaiming “CONCORDIA.”  The editorial foreword of the first issue sheds further light on the orientation of the publication: “We, as natives and loyal subjects of the British Empire, hold too high an opinion of Anglo-Saxon chivalry to believe other than that African and Oriental wrongs have but to be made manifest in order that they might be righted.”  Language like this indicates that the publication was invested in reforming rather than ending imperialism.

There is a lot to observe about the provocative cover art as well as the rhetorical content of the first issue.  Students made several insightful points comparing tone and content in “As in a Glass Darkly” and Casely Hayford’s letter “A Tribute From Africa,” published on page 67 in the second issue of the periodical:

“The appearance of the African Times and Orient Review in the field of journalism is an object lesson of great value to the teeming millions of voiceless peoples within the pale of the British Empire… A time has come, in these days of airships and universal unrest, when East must directly make itself heard and understood by the West in order to promote and establish that spirit of concord and goodwill which is dear to the hearts of all good men.”

Reading Casely Hayford’s fiction alongside The African Times and Orient Review offers a nuanced perspective on how anti-imperialism was theorized and practiced by important Pan-Africanists like Casely Hayford, his mentor Edward Wilmot Blyden, and his colleague Dusé Mohamed Ali, founding editor of The African Times and Orient Review.  In this case, rather than unequivocally opposing empire, Casely Hayford was willing to publicly support the ideals of imperialism, even as he opposed its exploitive practice.

Image 1 source:

Image 2 source: The African Times and Orient Review 1.1 (1912).

The Indian Progressive Writers’ Manifesto as an Introduction to Anglophone World Literature


Students in my “English 316K: Survey of World Literature” classes explore a variety of traditions in Anglophone literature, from Afro-Caribbean intellectualism, to Irish literary nationalism, to Indian social realism.  Although we also study works in translation, our focus is often on writers who make a deliberate choice to write and publish in English.  This allows us to tap into the rich history of English-language world literature as intimately tied to legacies and contexts of British imperialism.

On the first day of class, I distribute copies of the Manifesto of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, published in the February 1936 issue of the London-based literary-political periodical The Left Review.

Left Review Cover

The Left Review won the dubious distinction of George Orwell’s disdain. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he complained of “the ‘proletarian’ cant from which we now suffer. Everyone knows, or ought to know by this time, how it runs:… bourgeois culture is bankrupt, bourgeois ‘values’ are despicable, and so on and so forth; if you want examples, see any number of the Left Review.” Orwell’s pithy criticisms notwithstanding, The Left Review did important work to distribute the work of Indian writers to a British readership.

The main research library at UT-Austin has a complete collection (in re-print form) of this periodical, which was published monthly between October 1934 and May 1938.  The Manifesto was first brought to my attention by Mia Carter, a faculty member of the English department here at UT-Austin.  Her recently published Modernism and Literature: An Introduction and Reader, co-edited with Alan Friedman, includes yet another foundational statement of the goals of social realism in Indian literature: Munshi Premchand’s “The Aim of Literature,” translated from the Hindustani and originally presented at the inaugural All-India Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow, India, in 1936.  Like Premchand’s speech, the Progressive Writers’ Manifesto exhorts Indian writers to reject romanticism in favor of representing the material conditions of life in India.  According to the Manifesto, “the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence to-day–the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection.”

Indian writers like Mulk Raj Anand, who drafted the Manifesto, hoped that social realist literature would contribute to ongoing movements in India to resist British imperialism on one hand and religious orthodoxy on the other.  Anand’s evocatively (or provocatively?) titled novels Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) feature young protagonists marginalized by the Hindu caste system and British colonial economic policy, respectively.  In Untouchable, the socially ambitious Bakha repeatedly tries and fails to transcend his caste identity; in Coolie, Munoo, an intrepid itinerant laborer, works tirelessly to integrate himself into the colonial economy.  (You guessed it: neither story has a particularly happy ending.)  What would compel a writer like Anand to pen these novels in English?  And what does it mean that the Manifesto of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association was published in English in a London-based periodical?  Questions like these drive our discussion in E316K.

For a first-day discussion, the Manifesto does a great job of setting up the central question of the course: how has English-language literature historically been used as a tool of imperial assimilation and as a tool of anti-imperial resistance?  Before asking students to read this historic document for the points of context it supplies in a preliminary discussion of Anglophone world literature, I contextualize the Manifesto itself.  For example, I provide some background on Angaaray, the polemical collection of Urdu short stories that challenged both Islamic conservatism and British imperialism.


The first English-language version of Angaaray, translated by Snehal Shingavi, is forthcoming this spring from Penguin Classics. (Image credit: Snehal Shingavi)

The collection was burned and banned upon it publication in 1932, and the controversy catalyzed the Indian progressive writers’ movement.  Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmed Ali, two of Angaaray‘s contributors, would emerge as influential figures in the movement.

To further contextualize the Progressive Writers’ Manifesto, I note the proliferation of international leftist conventions during the 1920s and 30s: the World Congress Against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, associated with the Communist International (or Comintern), met in Brussels in 1927; in 1932, the World Congress Against Fascism and War was held in Amsterdam; 1935 saw both the International Conference of Writers in Paris and the formation of the Anti-Imperialist United Front, also affiliated with the Comintern; and the International Writers’ Association Congress was held in London in 1936 and Madrid in 1937.  Anand and other members of the Progressive Writers’ Association were in attendance at several such conventions.  (Incidentally, a talk Anand gave at the 1936 Conference of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture in London is reported in the July 1936 issue of The Left Review.)

I invite the students to spend about 10 minutes carefully observing the visual and textual details of the Manifesto as it appears in The Left Review.  Then, we have a conversation in response to this series of questions:

  • What strikes you about the graphic art of the cover of The Left Review?  What can you discern about the identity of the periodical based on the visuals and text you observe here?
  • What do you notice about the advertising that appears alongside the Manifesto?  What does it tell you about the identity of The Left Review?  How do the features and details of the advertising influence your reading or understanding of the Manifesto?
  • Let’s turn to the text of the Manifesto.  Where was it written?  How is it organized?  To what audience  or audiences is it addressed, and how can you tell?  Can you identify any underlying assumptions or premises in this document?  What social and political problems are identified in the Manifesto?  What general values emerge?  What strikes you about the specifics of the language?  What do you note about tone and patterns in phrasing?

The Manifesto is succinct and its style straightforward, so the document allows for an inclusive discussion on the first day of class–most students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and observations.  In addition to introducing students to the task of archival analysis, reading the Manifesto  together is a useful way to open up the semester’s conversation about the social and political implications of world Anglophone literature.  A month into the semester, the Manifesto remains a touchstone.  Whether we’re analyzing Indian poetry, Irish plays, or Trinidadian essays, we continually refer back to the issues and values laid out in the Manifesto.  As I secure permission from students, I look forward to sharing some of their fantastic insights in a piece I’m contributing to an ARIEL special section on “Global Pedagogy,” forthcoming in spring 2015.  Stay tuned!

The Story of This Blog


I recently completed my PhD in English at the University of Texas at Austin.  Currently, I teach World Literature classes at UT and co-Chair the Rapoport Center Human Rights and Archives Working Group.  Over the course of writing my dissertation on fiction of the British Empire, I continually looked to archives for the incomparable sense of context they offer.  Archival materials including the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines’ Friend, published out of London from 1840 to 1931, Leonard Woolf’s unpublished correspondence during the mid-nineteen-teens with E.W. Perera, Sri Lankan lawyer and activist, and various typed and handwritten drafts of Coolie (1936), published by Anglophone Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, all provided valuable insights into how novelists like E.M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, and Winifred Holtby oriented themselves to literary and political collaborators in areas of India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.

The more I used archives as a student, the more interested I became in using archives as a teacher.  During a Graduate Assistantship at the UT Bridging Disciplines Programs, I learned about the growing trend toward inquiry-based learning in higher education.  Recognizing the utility of archival research tasks for facilitating undergraduate research skills such as thinking critically, identifying and summarizing main ideas, recognizing the contingency of knowledge, delineating fields of inquiry, and building research questions, I initiated a project to expand support for undergraduate archival research at UT’s many glorious archival institutions.  I created a series of resources for both students and educators on archives and interdisciplinary education, and developed an interactive Archival Research Workshop, which I have presented to undergraduate classes in English, History, and Government.

This semester—spring 2014—will be a fun one in terms of archives and education.  I’m integrating a substantial archive component in the two world literature surveys I teach.  And as Archives and Education point-person for the Human Rights and Archives Working Group, I’m collaborating with Rebecca Lorins of the Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) to offer a team of UT undergraduate interns a meaningful opportunity to learn about digital archives by building them.  The students are processing interviews with people who have been affected by the death penalty in Texas, and archiving them at the UT Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI).  Rebecca and I hope that the project will provide a rich internship experience for the students while substantively advancing the mission of the TAVP.

I established this blog to document and reflect upon these projects, as well as to chronicle events and opportunities of interest having to do with archives and education at UT and beyond.  I hope you’ll visit often!  I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions for content.

Welcome! About This Blog.


Welcome to the ArchivesEducate blog!  I am co-Director of Digital Scholarship Services in the Skillman Library at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.  Previously, I was a Mellon/Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Scholarship in the Department of Research and Digital Scholarship at the Smith Library Center at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.  I started this blog in Spring 2014 to document and reflect upon my projects having to do with archives and undergraduate education.  In the process of relating some of my adventures in archives and education, I hope to gain insights that will improve my own work in academic libraries and contribute to the broadening body of theory on the roles archives can play in higher education.

I’m very excited about the capacity of archives—both digital and material—to enhance undergraduate education.  Are you interested in archives and education?  Let’s talk!  E-mail me at, follow me on Twitter @CharlotteLNunes, or contact me here: