London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, one of the world’s great centres for research and teaching Asian and African affairs, is 100 years old. Trevor Grundy reports

The School of Oriental Studies – Africa was not added to the name until 1938 – was officially opened on February 23, 1917 by the King-Emperor George V.

At that time, the outcome of the First World War was uncertain. Empire and monarchy were under threat from the English king’s military-minded relatives in Germany, and revolution was soon to break out in Russia. Throughout the vast British Empire, cries for independence were heard, but for a long time ignored.

Over 500 of Britain’s top diplomatic and parliamentary figures, including Lord Curzon, the Japanese Ambassador, the British Minister to China, the Persian Minister, the Russian Chargé d’Affaires, the High Commissioner for South Africa, the High Commissioner for Australia and the Director of the Ecole Speciale des Langues Orientales Vivantes in Paris attended a quintessentially English ceremony in the heart of London.

The Orchestra of Trinity College of Music, conducted by Sir Frederick Bridge, performed Two English Dances by the now largely forgotten Frederick Hymen Cowen, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 by Edward Elgar and in a nod towards the Orient, or at least the Orient heard through French ears, a movement from the Suite Algerienne by Camille Saint-Saens. (This account is from Ian Brown’s new study, The School of Oriental and African Studies – Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning, Cambridge University Press, 2016.)

The Africa Department at SOAS, standing on the front steps, July 1948
The Africa Department at SOAS, standing on the front steps, July 1948.

Founded by the British state – and paid for by the British taxpayer – the school now commonly known as SOAS was designed to strengthen Britain’s political, commercial and military presence in Asia and Africa. Its teaching programme for its first two decades was determined by the school’s founding function: to train colonial officials, military officers and business people for work in Asia and Africa.

SOAS Library under construction
SOAS Library under construction

Initially, training of the Empire’s administrators took place outside the universities. ‘In the first half of the nineteenth century,’ writes Brown, ‘young men, intended for service with the East India Company, first attended Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, established by the Company in 1806, where they received a general education – in mathematics, philosophy, classical literature, history and law – but they were also taught the rudiments of Oriental languages, in particular Arabic and Persian. Then, on arriving in India, they attended the College of Fort William at Calcutta, established in 1800, where they were expected to achieve a firm competence in two oriental languages.’

The result was an Empire run by often very young men, who were well-versed in the classics, but not so familiar with the languages, customs and religious beliefs of the people they ruled. The School of Oriental Studies was set up to remedy this, but during the first half of the twentieth century, it was dominated by languages. Provision of humanities was modest, mainly history, which until recently, though it covered vast areas of the world, was seen through European eyes and interpreted through the filter of European Christianity.

Since the end of the Second World War and the birth of so many new nations in Asia and Africa, there has been a significant extension of the school’s activities, especially in the fields of science, economics and politics (of which the study of religion is now such an integral part). As Brown puts it, ‘In the middle of the twentieth century… SOAS lost an empire, but (unlike Great Britain) found a role.’

Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS

‘The world faces some complex challenges, many of them deep-rooted. To resolve them, understanding of history, place and context really matters. We would be making a big mistake as a nation to think that because English is our first language, we can be complacent. For example, 425 million people speak Hindi as a first language, over 800 million speak Mandarin and 280 million speak Arabic.

Protecting and promoting free speech is important at SOAS. Our students and academics on our programmes which link to subjects related to the Middle East, to Israel and Palestine, will tell you that looking at different reflections is crucial. There have been criticisms of some of the conversations which take place here at SOAS. We defend the right of our students and academics to have their conversations as long as no laws are being broken. We have been criticised by some sections of the media when our student societies have hosted events that criticise Israel.

We have over 100 academics working on Middle East issues at SOAS. We have the UK’s first Professor of Israel Studies. We have been home to the Jewish Music Institute for more than 10 years and host the European Association of Israel Studies, an independent, international and scholarly association devoted to the academic study of Israel. Our students have had the opportunity to attend An-Najah National University in Nablus to learn Arabic. We offer an MA in Palestine Studies, and have the Centre for Palestine Studies, which hosts a wide range of events during the year.

We know that colonialism was brutal, violent and de-humanising. So making sure that our history is told from all perspectives is crucial. At SOAS we look at the world from the perspectives of our regions. We challenge conventional orthodoxy – that is at the heart of who we are as SOAS today. We pride ourselves on the fact that we ask the questions no one else does.’

Baroness Amos was answering questions from Trevor Grundy


Today, SOAS is a college of the University of London and a major centre for research and teaching related to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It is the only higher education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa, and the Near and Far East. It has over 5,000 students from 133 countries on campus, just over half from outside the United Kingdom. About 3,600 people around the world are taking one of SOAS’s distance learning programmes. Its director and instructors rightly boast that they are helping students grapple with some of the major issues confronting two thirds of humankind, from climate change to the rise of religious fundamentalism.

SOAS boasts an unparalleled range of non-European languages, all of which may be studied without prior knowledge. The school was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary prize in 2009 for the excellence, breadth and depth of its language teaching.

Graduation Day, 2016
Graduation Day, 2016

More than 40 per cent of undergraduate degree programmes offer the opportunity to spend a year studying in another country. The SOAS library – recently refurbished – has more than 1.5 million items and extensive electronic resources for the study of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. ‘The school may well have been founded to train men to run the Empire,’ writes Brown, ‘but imperial training and its modern equivalent have almost always been less important than the expansion of learning.’

Today, the vast majority of students entering SOAS are the grandchildren (even great grand-children) of the British Empire. To renew its intellectual drive, and secure greater state funding and increased student numbers, the school has had to change direction in recent years, and deal directly with the problems and the ambitions of contemporaries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The result is that social sciences now dominate SOAS in terms of staff and student numbers, while the number of languages taught as part of degree programmes – with the exception of Chinese, Japanese and Arabic – is much diminished.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (l) with SOAS Director Baroness Valerie Amos
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (l) with SOAS Director Baroness Valerie Amos

Brown tells us that after 1945 there was a tacit understanding among historians in Britain and other parts of the Commonwealth that the story of Empire had been seen through the eyes of the colonisers – the British, the Dutch, the Germans, the French and the Portuguese. The focus was no longer on the actions of the colonial ruler, but on the impact of those actions on the local people. This once again demanded a command of local languages, and knowledge of religious beliefs and events as seen and felt by the victim, not the conqueror.

According to Brown, ‘It gave the school’s historians, but also its political scientists, anthropologists and economists, confidence that they possessed unmediated access to the beliefs and perceptions of the people and cultures that they were studying, enabling them to speak directly, both literally and figuratively, to and for Asia, Africa and the Middle East.’

And over the last 100 years, the school’s central contributions have been in the language and research training of academics, large numbers of whom have occupied posts in university departments in Britain and across the world, and in the volume, range and quality of its published scholarship.

On the centenary of the school’s foundation, one can but imagine the faces of the King-Emperor George V, and his confidant and friend Lord Curzon, if they could have known that the acorn they planted so long ago would be described by The Times Higher Education Supplement in July 2015 as ‘arguably the UK’s most left-wing university in terms of its staff and its students’. But perhaps they might merely have smiled, and congratulated a long list of directors on their clever survival tactics in a world that never stops changing.

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in central, eastern and southern Africa from 1966-1996

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