The teaching of colonial history

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I have been championing the teaching of black and colonial history in schools for as long as I can remember and was a member of the task force set up in 2012 under Baroness Meral Ece on Race Equality in Education and Employment. Through learning about the impact and legacy of colonialism, we can forge a modern British identity, bridge past divisions as well as better inform Britain’s dealings with the rest of the world.

I had previously held a benign view of the Commonwealth legacy.  Today Singapore students rank in the top 3 places on OECD’s PISA league tables for schools, while 16 and 18 year olds still subscribe to the Cambridge board examinations. It meant I could, when aged 18, move with ease to London to study law.

The legacy of empire is controversial but the spread and use of the English language as the lingua franca is undoubtedly a positive.  The introduction of maritime trade links, development of ports and rail infrastructure are other commendable outcomes. There is also a “Commonwealth advantage” where countries with similar legal systems, professional training and a common language are better able to trade with each other across continents.

On the flip side (as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharp focus), the slave trade promoted across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries has led to entrenched racism and inequalities. Though other colonial powers were involved, the British had played a key role in transporting 12.5 million Africans to plantations in the Americas, with some 2 million dying en route.  When the slave trade finally ended, it was the slave owners who were compensated, not the victims and their families.

Last week (21 July) a group of historians called for sections of the UK’s Home Office “Life in the UK” Citizenship and Settlement test to be amended.  They said that the official handbook is fundamentally misleading and in places false. Whilst we cannot judge the actions of the past by the morals and values of today, we must at least broach the subject with honesty, encourage debate and be prepared to hear from those who have been affected. Only in so doing will we be in a position to view the world as it is, not through neo-imperial blinkered eyes.

What we need is a review of the school curriculum with new thinking and sensibilities in a whole range of subjects, not just in history, but also in geography and science, literature and art, current affairs and citizenship classes.  If Covid19 is a trigger for a hiatus to build back better, then the school curriculum is definitely a good place to start.

* Merlene was co-founder of Chinese Liberal Democrats and on the executive of the LibDems Overseas. She co-edited “Rise of China – Fresh Insights and Observations” published by the Paddy Ashdown Forum (2021)

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  • Nonconformistradical 30th Jul '20 - 11:15am

    “The legacy of empire is controversial but the spread and use of the English language as the lingua franca is undoubtedly a positive.”

    Merlene – what are your views on native Brits going to live or spend a significant amount of time in another Commonwealth country and making little or no effort to learn the local language? I ask because it seems a fairly common problem among Brits living in other European countires without trying to do so.

  • Nonconformist
    English remains an official language in India and some wonderful English do the Indians have.(there are signs with not to pluck the flowers from the flower beds) Of course India is a very multi-lingual country.

  • I have been writing about some colonial history this very day, a piece about Sir John Bowring. He was the fourth governor of Hong Kong. A great Liberal, unfortunately he started the second Opium War.

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Jul '20 - 12:16pm

    “English remains an official language in India”
    Never suggested it wasn’t.

    “India is a very multi-lingual country”
    Yes – if one is spending a significant amount of time in a particular part of India which has a predominant language – willingness to learn to speak even a few words of that language might demonstrate a retreat from colonial attitudes.

  • Surely the role of education is to teach people how to think critically and assess the merits of different arguments?

    “Life in the UK” should be scrapped, it’s just a pointless bit of bureaucracy created to pander to xenophobia.

  • John Marriott 30th Jul '20 - 12:36pm

    In the run up to the 1959 GCE exams, our ‘History Master’ in my all boys Grammar school told us to prepare to answer questions on “a man, a crisis and a battle”. Pity that ‘Sharpe’ wasn’t around back then. I can see where Messrs Francois, IDS and co must have gotbtyeir ideas from. (My wife and I have been watching all Major Sharpe’s ‘adventures‘ on YouTube and Netflix.) Oh, happy days all round! What’s that you say? He wasn’t real.

  • Nonconformist
    Here is a few Indian words to get started: jungle, dinghy, chutney, pyjama, bungalow, veranda….

  • And I had Dal Makjhani for dinner.

  • John
    You had better stick to Gunga Din.

  • John Marriott 30th Jul '20 - 5:26pm

    Crikey, Mr Bourke, is there anything that you don’t know something about? You ought to be running for Prime Minister or Brain of Britain.Why not both. We are not worthy!

  • David Pocock 30th Jul '20 - 6:03pm

    I really do not like finger pointing on slavery, for all of history unfortunately it was more or less normal. States with caste systems generally is Europe at times and India I think too avoided having slave class due to having peasant or equivalent classes. It also risks going the other way and dominating all discussion.

    Rome, the ottomans, the Greeks, the European empire’s, china all had slaves but it wasn’t all they were and if should not dominate talking about their history.

    That said I am in agreement that taking off the rose tinted specs and being honest is needed too.

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Jul '20 - 8:12pm

    William Wilberforce was one of my heroes when I was at school because he tried to right a terrible wrong. However, like many others, I was taught less about Britain’s role in the slave trade. One thing that always horrified me about the holocaust was the industrial scale of it and the records that were kept. The slave trade was on an equally industrial scale and detailed records were also kept. Africans were packed into ships like sardines in a tin to provide maximum profit and many of them died due to the horrific conditions. Slaves were regarded as property so detailed records were kept about the slaves owned by those who were claiming compensation when slavery itself was abolished. They were valued according to age, skills and health.
    If we are going to overcome the ongoing results of this barbarity we must own up to it. It’s not enough to say that slavery happened in many countries and in many ages. That doesn’t excuse us from our retrospective responsibility. Facing up to the evils upon which much of Britain’s wealth was built should be the first step towards an integrated society.

  • On the flip side (as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into sharp focus), the slave trade promoted across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries has led to entrenched racism and inequalities.
    We need to be very careful not to perpetuate a distorted view of history, fuelled by those with a nihilist agenda.
    Interesting and relevant read: ‘My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves’

    What I suggest is actually needed is a better and more balanced teaching of the history of the modern world and globalization (ie. post c1750).

  • Peter Martin 31st Jul '20 - 6:55am

    And it’s not just those who are trafficked who are subject to slavery in the UK. It can happen to those born here too.

    It can often start with illegal loan sharks. They entrap victims into perpetual debt servitude, who then demand whatever they like from them. These victims may not be in chains but they are still not able to exercise their own free will.

  • John Marriott 31st Jul '20 - 8:06am

    A what about the WHITE workers, some of whom came from Eastern Europe and some from difficult backgrounds who were recently ‘enslaved’ by an extended traveller family in Lincolnshire?

    Exploitation takes many forms. You don’t need a massive knowledge of history or facts and figures to work that out. Given half a chance, it probably always will.

  • Cen Phillips 31st Jul '20 - 9:26am

    “The legacy of empire is controversial but the spread and use of the English language as the lingua franca is undoubtedly a positive.” Yeah, because that was a universally friendly, natural and benign process, wasn’t it! No systematic cultural suppression involved there at all! Perhaps what is also needed, in addition to teaching more/better BAME history and the Atlantic slave trade, is some teaching of ‘British’ history from points of view other than the governing classes of England.

  • Yeah, because that was a universally friendly, natural and benign process, wasn’t it! No systematic cultural suppression involved there at all!
    That’s history for you!
    The mogul’s did it, as did the Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Normans(*), etc. and in modern times, ISIS, Taliban…

    Yes, we should be able to take a more mature and balanced view of history, fortunately, what counts as modern history today is different from what counted as modern history back in the 1970’s, so we can bring in more about British social history, which is more about the ordinary person than the doings of kings & queens.

    (*) It is worth looking depth at the Norman takeover of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as in each case a different ‘integration’ approach was taken – which has lead directly to many of the differences and identity problems we have today…

  • Sue Sutherland 31st Jul '20 - 12:31pm

    Joe I’m sorry I didn’t mean to imply that slavery no longer existed. It’s just that my mind was back in the days of our colonial history. In fact the situation in Libya is dreadful and makes me critical of what the EU is doing with regard to refugees.

  • History should be more taught as an examination of core values at the time and how events caused and were influenced by these values. Paradoxically also how events shaped the values and beliefs at that time. Events happen and the culture we have moulds and reflects them.

  • Roland
    The Normans gave rise to a form of English in Wexford known as Yola (old). A dialect (now extinct) that contained Middle English.

  • Peter Martin 31st Jul '20 - 3:20pm

    @ Joe B,

    I’m not sure what your point is but Marx and Engels were opposed to slavery and supported the Union side in the US civil war.

    The British ruling class, including many Liberals of the time, didn’t. They wanted cheap imports of raw cotton for their mills. It was the organised working class in Lancashire who organised a boycott. I wish I could say I’m one of their descendents but I’m afraid not! There was an influx of people in the late 19th century due to the development of the railways and my grandparents and great grandparents were all a part of that.

  • Peter Martin 31st Jul '20 - 8:29pm

    I don’t want to get into a discussion about various theories. I would say that developing countries should avoid IMF imposed austerity policies in return for loans like the plague. They also need to collaborate without getting into each others pockets! No sharing currencies for example..

    Presumably, not too many of Karl’s votes for the ‘Thinker of the Millenium’ award came from the city’s Ukrainian population!

    Incidentally a friend’s father was a Ukranian “refugee”. Nice bloke. Until he’d had a few drinks and then he’d tell you what he really did in the war. Far from being a victim of the Nazis ( that was just a cover story he used to gain refugee status) he actually approved of them and fought alongside them against the Russians. He didn’t seem at all worried that the UK authorities would ever do anything about it.

    His wife was German. She, to put it mildly, hadn’t entirely shaken off her Nazi education. They didn’t like Marx and Engels either!

  • Peter Martin 31st Jul '20 - 11:15pm

    @ Joe B,

    Can you supply any examples of countries which have turned their economies around by accepting IMF terms and conditions on their loans?

  • Peter Martin 1st Aug '20 - 6:43am

    @ Joe B,

    So how is Serbia doing compared to a decade ago? Or even 50 years ago?

    As the IMF writes its optimistic reports the population is leaving.

  • John Marriott 1st Aug '20 - 8:42am

    Why bother about teaching history when we have Messrs Bourke and Martin arguing the toss! By the way, what was this thread supposed to be about? Come on, chaps, just spare a thought for us poor mortals. We are not worthy!!

  • @ Joe Bourke “England is one of the countries which has to at least some extent moved away from the traditional model of school history”.

    A question. Does “the transmission of ‘Our Island Story” include Scotland and Wales – or for that matter Ireland, not to mention the former colonies ?

    Part of the trouble is the rigging of the national curriculum by successive Tory Education Ministers ranging from Gove (with side-kick Cummings) back to Baker to present a biased right wing view of history. I’ve no doubt Spitfires and Hurricanes in Johnson’s little world get more attention than the post war welfare state.

  • Having said that, I still recall with some relish the derring do of one of my school teachers regaling the class with his experiences of the retreat from Mons to the Marne in August/September, 1914 and how he described the scary nature of the battle of Le Cateau….. thus triggering off what later was to become a career in history.

    Thank you, Sir. I can still remember the twinkle in your eye and the enthusiasm in your voice all these years later. R.I.P.

  • Peter Martin 1st Aug '20 - 5:33pm

    “Marxism tends to view the primary purpose of the teaching of national history as a device to maintain capitalism……”

    If they do think that I’d say they were incorrect. Modern capitalism has moved beyond the Nation State. The emphasis now is on the development of transnational organisations such as the EU. The nation states themselves have too much power for the capitalists’ liking. They want to neutralise that with the creation of irreversible treaty obligations.

    Unfortunately the left has fallen for a bait and switch trick. The bait was the unity of the European working classes via the EU. The switch was to the modern EU which severely limits their ability of to change policies via a democratic mandate. The modern left needs to reclaim the state based powers that it has relinquished.

  • “I had previously held a benign view of the Commonwealth legacy.”

    The commonwealth emerged as a voluntary club that countries could join as they gained independence from the British empire. Initially as Dominions where there was a shared head of state.

    The modern commonwealth emerged in 1949 when it was agreed that republics could become members upon gaining independence, following India’s independence in 1947.

    I’m not sure what Commonwealth legacy is being discussed here? I’m sure there are errors in any body but compared with the history of empires etc. I’m not sure I would judge a voluntary club of nations too harshly.

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