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The Empire writes back

More than 100 years after it was set up, the Royal Commonwealth Society's essay competition is thriving - although the subject matter has moved on since pupils were asked to analyse the Empire's fruit supply or the North-West Frontier.With two weeks until the closing date for this year's entries, Sean Lang delves into the archive

It used to be "Great sea ports of the British Empire". Today teenagers living in Commonwealth countries are more typically asked to write about:

"What makes you laugh?"; "Can war be justified?"; "What does the modern man woman want?" This year, under-12s will be composing essays that answer questions such as: "Your headteacher is ill and you are in charge for a week. What happens?"

The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) was set up in 1868 as the Royal Empire Society to spread the good news about British imperialism; today it works to promote knowledge and understanding between the huge variety of cultures and peoples that make up the modern Commonwealth. The RCS's first essay competition was held in 1883, but it was not firmly established as an annual event until after the first World War, during which thousands of troops from India and the Caribbean had fought on the Western Front - a contribution long overlooked in British history textbooks.

Using the Empire and Commonwealth to promote international understanding seemed a good way of ensuring that the next generation would not have to endure war. The hope may not have lasted, but the essays did; judges'

reports and winning and commended entries since the 1920s are stored in the RCS collection in the Cambridge University Library, and they tell a fascinating story.

In the competition's early days, the youngest children were set descriptive tasks about brave deeds or journeys by air between various parts of the Empire. Their work, often illustrated with colourful maps and drawings, is a reminder of how exciting air travel once seemed.

Fourteen to 16-year-olds were given standard topics from history or geography: in 1929 it was "Great seamen of the Tudor period". The class of 1930 were the lucky bunch who got to discuss sea ports; they were more fortunate than the class of 1926, who were asked to discourse on "The Empire's fruit supply". The competition came into its own in the top age category, where 16 to 19-year-olds wrote on weightier topics. In the early years it focused on aspects of the Empire story: the Pacific; the Mediterranean; tropical disease. Entries for 1931 suggest a poor year, which is perhaps unsurprising given the title: "The problems of the North-West Frontier, with special reference to volume one of the Simon Report".

By the 1940s, the themes were broader. The Second World War brought a consideration of the role of the English language as a bond between the peoples of the Empire and of the importance of links with the United States. After the war, the focus moved to nationality and citizenship and the Commonwealth's contribution to the future peace of a post-colonial world in the grip of a Cold War.

In the early years most of the prizes went to British entries, with an occasional showing from elsewhere, usually New Zealand. This changed after the Second World War; by 1946 the judges were complaining that British schools seemed apathetic, although the explanation offered in 1947 - "there is also an increasing reluctance, most forcibly expressed by teachers in the UK, to encourage pupils to write anything outside the overloaded syllabus" - strikes a loud chord.

British schools had it easy; many entrants from elsewhere had to overcome considerable logistical difficulties. The head of a small school in Canada wrote: "The little girl who wrote the enclosed essay has received all her schooling in a one-roomed, one-teacher school in Alberta. She lives over 20 miles from the tiny hamlet of Bowden. The only reference books available to her were those in her own home and in our small, inadequate school library."

Today's winners receive prizes of between pound;500 and pound;100. In the early days, as well as cash they were given books chosen by the RCS: patriotic British histories, Oxford books of English verse or histories of English literature, nature books on British birds and wildlife, and plenty of Shakespeare, all embossed with the RCS crest. But the winners, often in tiny, isolated communities, received these books with rapture. Their thank-you letters still make moving reading. "Thank you so much for your short note," wrote a Burmese prizewinner in 1941, "which provided my hut with exceeding joy."

Even more striking is the evident pride felt by pupils and teachers in being associated with Britain. A pupil at North Sydney girls' high school in 1948 ended her account of a plane journey round the Commonwealth: "I feel more proud than ever that my passport will always be British."

The Britain these children imagined was an exotic country: a girl in Kenya in 1951 described it as "studded with a profusion of trees, all of them giving beauty and grandeur to the countryside". How different from this ideal post-war Britain must have seemed to some of those Commonwealth citizens who came "home" to live.

Where once 300 or 400 entries would have been considered a record, last year's competition attracted 5,194 entries from around 1,000 schools in 54 countries. Long gone are the days when the top prizes went to white entrants, with a few consolation prizes for others ("The Africans who are eligible for the special prize," wrote one judge in 1949, "are about as bad as they can be.") Prizewinners in 2002 came from Bangladesh, India, Singapore, Canada, Mauritius, Namibia, Ghana, Australia and Pakistan. There is now a prize for students with disabilities. The emphasis is on inclusion, on a truly global scale.

Back in 1931 a judge complained of the impression left by many of the UK entries of "'little Englandism' and an unreasonable feeling of English superiority". We don't have to look far to find modern instances of such sentiments, but an essay competition such as this has its part to play in countering them. As Jacquelin Kataneksza, a 16-year-old mixed-race girl from Zimbabwe, explained in her prizewinning entry last year: "It pains me to see my country in the state it is now and I hoped that by writing an essay I would be taking some sort of action, however small, towards bringing about a difference."

The RCS essay competition is open to young people in any part of the Commonwealth. Closing date is March 1, 2004. Rules, essay titles and details of recent winners are at, or contact: Karen Webb, Write Around the World: Commonwealth essay competition, Royal Commonwealth Society, 18 Northumberland Avenue, London, WC2N 5BJ. Tel: 020 7766 9204; n Lang is a director of the Historical Association curriculum project

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