An often-cited quote about the lack of colonial history in the British curriculum comes from Dr Sashi Tharoor, who stated that “it’s a bit of an embarrassment that you can get a History A Level in this country without knowing anything about colonial history.” The lack of colonial pedagogy is a symptom of a much larger issue in British culture at the moment, the yearning for an idealised colonial past. A survey by YouGov reveals that today, 49% of Britons believe that the British Empire was a force for good that improved the lives of colonised nations, with only 15% believing that it left them worse off. It is evident that a great deal of the British public are unaware of the real impact that colonialism had, and continues to have today.
To state that the colonial era has ended is to me, a flagrant lie. Colonialism’s legacy continues to impact former colonies, who endure conflict, poverty and underdevelopment because of a lack of resources or artificial borders drawn up by former colonisers.
A romanticised notion of colonialism has also pervaded our culture. TV period dramas like Downtown Abbey and Indian Summers offer a tone of wistful remembrance of a bygone era other than a confrontational look at how the lifestyles of the characters depicted were paid for by those enslaved by the British Empire. Its logic continues to pervade foreign policy. It is why I believe we must study it in our schools so as to better understand how it has impacted our world today.
“The curriculum dedicates plenty of attention to the violence of others”
The government recommends that students are taught about “the first colony in America” and the “first contact with India”, but there is nothing mentioned about students being taught the nature of British colonisation, its effects on indigenous peoples, or the ways in which it shaped Britain and other countries’ perceptions of Britain. The curriculum dedicates plenty of attention to the violence of others – in Nazi Germany or during the American Civil War – and goes into detail on a few events in medieval English history, but the true nature of British colonialism is erased.
“4,000,000 Bengalis starved to death after Winston Churchill diverted food to British soldiers“
The violence, exploitation, racism and catastrophes caused or exacerbated by British colonial policies are rarely touched upon, if at all. Students today will not be taught that in 1943, 4,000,000 Bengalis starved to death after Winston Churchill diverted food to British soldiers despite there being a famine in Bengal at the time.
They won’t be taught that almost 30,000 Boers died in concentration camps during the Boer War, as well as an unknown number of Africans. And they won’t be taught how an unarmed crowd demonstrating against British rule in India in April 1919 were fired upon under the orders of Brigadier Reginald Dyer, with between 379 and 1,000 protesters being killed within 10 minutes. The shooting only stopped when the soldiers ran out of bullets.
“The slave trade was mentioned briefly, but the focus was more on the experience of slaves rather than Britain’s role in it”
My own academic experience was similarly restricted – the slave trade was mentioned briefly, but the focus was more on the experience of slaves rather than Britain’s role in it, except for its role in ending slavery. (A great deal of exaggeration was instead placed on other countries’ role in it). Though I do not deny that focusing on the slaves’ experience was an important and necessary aspect of study, it glossed over the reason why these people went through what they did. It also had a somewhat triumphalist narrative – with slavery apparently ending with no enduring legacies. Growing up, I realized that this was a lie, and that colonial legacies have shaped and continue to shape Britain today.
Of course, some might argue that teaching colonial history is too controversial. Parents might complain colonial history is an unnecessary part of the curriculum, but that’s not what history is about. Concepts need to be debated upon – it urges students not to accept as fact what they are told and encourages them to adopt an inquisitive, open mind, something that is not only essential for academic development but for personal growth. We cannot teach children the entirety of the history of Britain but we can ensure that what we do teach has a balanced perspective. Failing to do so risks raising a single-minded generation.
“If colonial history is taught in schools in a way that doesn’t reflect its entirely, then it’s not history, it’s propaganda”
A balanced curriculum is essential to progress. Professor Daniel Branch, Head of History at the University of Warwick, said: “An unwillingness to engage with the ‘warts and all’ of imperial history makes Britain particularly blind to how governments and the people of other countries view British society.” If colonial history is taught in schools in a way that doesn’t reflect its entirely, then it’s not history, it’s propaganda.
We need to understand our past to understand our world today, and understand how we are perceived by others. With a more balanced curriculum that acknowledges both the good and bad elements of the British Empire, students would have a better reference point for considering such events.
Of course, this is not the only part of the curriculum that needs changing. British education in general should ideally be less Eurocentric and include more experiences of women and people of colour. Changing a culture is not going to happen overnight, but recognising the need to is, at least to me, a good place to start. Informing children of the social, political, and economic advantages they enjoy today as a result of colonialism is not an attempt to change the past, but an attempt, through understanding our past, to make the world a better place.
The only way to avoid repeating our mistakes is by learning from them.