Teach children about the British Empire, warts and all

Nostalgia for the British Empire’s heyday – and ignorance of the misery it brought for the millions under colonial rule – persists in our society, so teachers must work hard to dispel the myths and enlighten students, says Sally Tomlinson
6th March 2020, 12:04am
Teach Children About The British Empire


Teach children about the British Empire, warts and all


The sun may be setting on the British Empire, but the nostalgia remains. The world maps with all those countries coloured pink because “they belong to us” have finally disappeared from classroom walls. But a Commonwealth of some 53 countries, 31 of them with fewer than 3 million people, can still produce some exotic locals to dance when royals visit, and an honours system still appoints people to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

While reasons for voting to leave the European Union were complex, nostalgia for lost imperial glories - and for a Great Britain that was comfortably racially and culturally “superior” - was present in the appeals for patriotic votes and resentments of immigrants of all kinds.

Civil servants suggested that an Empire 2.0 could be created, and a Brexit cookbook produced in 2017 (jokingly) asserted that “Scotch eggs and trifle built the greatest Empire the world has ever known, until the EU forced us to eat Danish pastries and pizza.”

The reality is that, over decades, what was learned in schools and higher education created and supported an imperial world view that divided humanity into “lesser peoples” and “subject races”, in ways still intruding in the lives of former colonial people globally and in Britain. Schools and textbooks have largely been places of myth-making and evasions of the truth. Legends of imperial triumphs and conquests formed the basis for the widespread belief in a superior British heritage. And all school subjects, especially geography, history and English literature, were inevitably imbued with imperial beliefs.

The final expansion of the British Empire coincided with the development of mass education from the 1870s, and much of what politicians later described as British culture and values became reflected in the curriculum. Despite an assertion from the Department of Education and Science in 1977 that “the curriculum appropriate to our imperial past cannot meet the requirements of modern Britain”, much of what are claimed to be British values and culture still reflect a world view in which military conquest, a sense of racial and moral superiority, and offensive views of other nations are part of “traditional British values”.

The values and beliefs incorporated into a curriculum underpin the selection of what knowledge will be passed on to young people. It is important to know who influences and writes the textbooks, and who decides on the knowledge to be passed on - and, just as important, to be left out.

In 2013, when Michael Gove, then education secretary, reformed the English school curriculum, he claimed that all children should know and appreciate “our island story”. But this was his understanding of the story, and seemed to reflect the contents of a popular book first published in 1905, entitled Our Island Story: a history of Britain for boys and girls.

This book, written by a middle-class Scottish woman called Henrietta Marshall, sold thousands of copies and was especially recommended for primary-school children. Her romantic and easily read stories of Britain, from Roman times to Queen Victoria and the “dreadful Boer War”, depicted the right of the “little island” of Britain to take over other people’s lands and labour in the name of “the brotherhood and freedom of the empire”. The book was reissued in 2005, with a foreword by Lady Antonia Fraser, who said that it had inspired her as a historian.

Race, romance and railways

Justification for imperial expansion, colonial wars and the continued subjugation of those whom Rudyard Kipling described as “lesser breeds without the law” was reproduced on a large scale in Victorian and Edwardian texts. Many of these were consistently reprinted into the later 20th century.

J R Seeley’s The Expansion of England, first published in 1883, was continually reprinted - the book defending the benefits of empire for those in conquered countries and in Britain. He is best known for the comment that “we have conquered the world in a fit of absence of mind”.

Many school texts, as well as juvenile literature, included the word “romance”. T C Jack produced a series titled Romance of Empire, and the Seeley Service Library of Romance included such titles as The Romance of Savage Life and The Romance of Missionary Heroism.

The textbooks written for upper-class public schoolboys in the later 19th century uncompromisingly reflected ideologies of empire, and schools aimed to produce military and administrative rulers of empire. A maths textbook, Arithmetic: designed for the use of schools, by maths teacher J W Colenso in 1874 (second edition, 1892) contained valuable arithmetic for future rulers of India, on conversion from rupees to francs and on shareholder dividends from railway building.

The values underpinning the public-school curriculum percolated down through the secondary grammar and higher elementary schools. A popular history textbook, issued by the Board of Education in 1902, suggested that lessons on Men of Renown: King Alfred to Lord Roberts, by author John Finnemore, presented the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (for Indians, the first war of independence) as “a savage crowd eager to slay every one of the English”. In a further edition, the outbreak of the First World War was attributed to Germany, who “brought the might of Britain against her by wrongdoing and treachery”.

Historical ignorance about empire persisted after the Second World War. A survey in 1948 found that only 49 per cent of people could name one British colony. The Association of Assistant Masters thought this should be rectified for grammar schoolboys by teaching them the development of Empire.

So, in 1950, a book called The Teaching of History suggested “possibly a lesson or two on the peculiar problems of India and its recent crisis”, meaning its partition in 1947 and the subsequent massacres. Historical texts usually ignored the famines in India under British rule, which, over the years, killed tens of millions.

Geography textbooks were influential in explaining the importance of imperial trade and patriotism. A University of Oxford professor, A J Herbertson, sold more than 200,000 copies of his 1905 The Junior Geography, and various editions of his A Commercial Geography of the World detailed trade statistics from “British possessions”. This noted the gold bullion, diamonds and even ostrich feathers that were exported from South Africa. (These last were for the large hats worn by Edwardian ladies of fashion.)

Herbertson wrote with his wife, who was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Together, they suggested that the study of geography should foster local patriotism, and an affection for country and Empire.

Jasper Stembridge, another geographer, encouraged by friendly headteachers, wrote The New World Wide Geographies: a first series for primary schools and a second series for secondary modern schools. The introduction to this series, in 1951, told children that “mankind is divided into three primary races: the Caucasian or White race, the Mongolian or Yellow race, the Negro race”, with a note that the “Red” Indians of America are now regarded as a branch of the Mongolian race. This book was used well into the 1970s, in both state and private schools.

An earlier Stembridge book, published in 1939 but with editions used into the 1960s, was The World: a general regional geography, which reminded colonies already fighting for their independence that “under the guidance of Europeans, Africa is steadily being opened up … The single fact remains that Europeans brought civilisation to the peoples of Africa, whose standards of living have been raised by their contact with white people.”

Great expectations

Another “fact”, graphically presented in Honeybourne and Robertson’s The Southern Continents (third edition 1973), was the enormous benefit imported goods from Africa were bringing to Britain, especially as “the mineral resources of West Africa are clearly important … and under British and French initiative, railways have been built and roads constructed under European guidance”.

The coal, tin, iron ore, manganese, gold and bauxite were presumably of more use to Europeans than to Ghanaians and Nigerians, who were now allowed to come to Britain “to study in our technical colleges and universities”.

Nostalgic notions of superiority may have overtly disappeared from textbooks, especially as publishers realised public attitudes were changing. The editors of National Geographic magazine have apologised for producing so many pictures of unclothed “native” women, while Europeans were always fully clothed. Some universities and students are at the forefront of criticism of their curriculum content. And there is a growing literature produced by black and minority ethnic scholars, documenting the past and current experiences of those of colonial and migrant descent, for whom the British Empire and its aftermath was not “Great”.

The University of Bristol has appointed Olivette Otele as a professor of the history of slavery, but schools and many publishers have not yet taken up the challenges.

The glossy series Eyewitness, with “titles perfect for school and home learning”, includes an attractive book on Victorians, ending with a well-known map of the British Empire, produced in 1886. This is decorated with a surround of Britannia as a goddess, uniformed British soldiers and sailors, and pictures of the “natives”, complete with bare-breasted women. The book tells children in 2019 that Victorian Britain became the most powerful industrial nation in the world, with no mention of the millions in colonies who helped to make this happen. It adds that “the British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen”, glossing over any realities of the conflicts and suffering as this empire came about.

It is unsurprising that, in 2016, the director of the South Asian Studies Centre at the London School of Economics could complain that “students arrive at university completely ignorant about empire - they have no clue about the history of immigration, and they don’t understand why people of other ethnicities came to Britain … They haven’t learned about it in school.”

Nostalgia flourishes in ignorance of the past, and a mythological presentation of the future of a Britain that is “Great” again.

In schools, a relentless emphasis on testing and exams leaves little time for concern about curriculum content: what is actually being taught and learned and examined. Textbooks, as the advert for the bestselling Geography Foundation books, produced by Waugh and Bushell, illustrates, are to “provide the support you need to deliver” predetermined programmes of study. Discussion and critical presentations are discouraged, as are texts that are honest about the realities of empire and its consequences.

Sally Tomlinson is an emeritus professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and an honorary fellow in the education department at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Education and Race from Empire to Brexit (Policy Press). During her career, she spent 20 years as a trustee of the Africa Educational Trust, working with the trust in Somaliland, Kenya and South Africa

This article originally appeared in the 6 March 2020 issue under the headline “Don’t look back in languor”

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