I am Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex in the UK and Adjunct Professor of History at La Trobe University in Australia. I have been researching, writing about and teaching the British Empire for over thirty years. My aim is to bring the evidence-based and curiosity driven approach of academic historians to bear in what has become a politicised struggle over the legacies of the British Empire.

I am co-editor of the Manchester University Press Studies in Imperialism series, which has published well over 170 research monographs. I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, gave the latest Distinguished Historical Geography Lecture at the Association of American Geographers Conference, and have held visiting fellowships in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 

Personal Life

I was born and spent my early childhood in Haringey, North London, but my family were part of the ‘White Flight’ that took place as migrants, mainly from Cyprus and the Caribbean, moved into the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We moved to Enfield, where my parents thought that my brother and I would access a better education. My father was a Master Carpenter and builder, and my mother gave up working for a pharmacist to care for us full time. As a result of a good report from my primary school, I got into the selective Latymer grammar school in Edmonton.

My brother and I were the first generation of our family to attend university and I was lucky enough to get into Girton College, Cambridge. There, I accessed a travel bursary enabling me to go to South Africa to conduct research for my undergraduate dissertation. I was at last able to go to places that I had read about ever since I became obsessed by the film Zulu, which I had first watched aged about 10 or 11.

A ‘sliding doors’ moment came for me in 1988 when I went to the University of Natal (as it was then) refectory in Pietermaritzburg. Turning from the counter with my dinner tray I faced the choice of sitting at one of the many tables occupied by White students, or the one table occupied by Black students, whom the liberal university were admitting against apartheid law. I chose the ‘Black’ table. The first observation, as I asked if I could join them, was “you’re not from around here are you?”

I was immediately adopted by the students who wanted to seize this opportunity to show a visitor from the UK what apartheid was really like. I wrote an awful dissertation which badly let down my overall degree mark because I spent little of the next 6 weeks in the archive and much in the townships around Pietermaritzburg with the families of these students. It was a febrile time to be there, with the Zulu nationalist Inkatha movement, led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, being escorted by police and army vehicles into the areas where my new friends lived, and encouraged to burn down houses and kill the UDF and ANC – supporting youth: one of the last-gasp attempts by the apartheid regime to cling to power by sponsoring what it called ‘Black-on-Black violence’.

What I witnessed in late apartheid South Africa would set me on the path of becoming an academic interested in the ways that White colonial rule had been established and sustained, initially in South Africa. After writing about this my interest then broadened to encompass the wider settler colonial world, and finally the empire as a whole, everywhere and all at once.

In the meantime though, I had to find a way into academia without being able to afford to undertake a full-time PhD. I qualified as a school teacher and taught in a North London comprehensive school for five years while I took my PhD part-time at the Institute of Education, University of London. Having obtained it by researching and writing intensively in free periods and holidays, I got my first lecturing job at St Mary’s University College and my second at the University of Sussex, where I have stayed ever since, aside from time spent at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

My motivation for engaging more publicly stems from a new sense of what matters in my academic role since I developed a rare liver condition (PSC), had a liver transplant, and was then discovered to have cancer of the bile duct. My long stays in hospital coincided with the protests of Black Lives Matter movement, the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, and the backlash from a culture-war oriented government and conservative press. It occurred to me that, from within the ivory tower, I had acquired some expertise which might be useful in explaining how, as a result of colonialism, Black lives had come to matter less than White lives for most Britons. So, with my X posts, @aljhlester, and my book Deny and Disavow, I have started to try to write more for a non-academic readership.