Crusades coloured by prejudice

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
SLAVERY: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE AFRICAN HOLOCAUST. By the Black History Resource Working Group. Distributed by The Race Equality Management Team, Liverpool Education Directorate, 22 Sir Thomas Street, Liverpool L1 6BJ. Pounds 19.92 INDIA FIGHTS COLONIALISM. By Sarbjit Johal. LONDEC, Instrument House, 207-215 King's Cross Road, London WC1 9DB. Pounds 6.50, Age range 11 - 14

John D Clare on two books which, in different ways, challenge Anglocentric views of history. Re-writing history is the proper task of historians - even at school level - and nowhere is this more essential than in the area of non-British history. As the authors of The African Holocaust point out, to read some books on slavery, you might almost think that the British began the slave trade in order to give themselves the satisfaction of abolishing it.

A similar picture of colonial independence is often given in textbooks, where a "decent" British government is seen as giving way gracefully to non-violent protest and a "wind of change". It is a representation of history where rights are conferred on non-white peoples by gracious white activists. The emblematic image of the suppliant black slave, kneeling, begging and often naked, appealing to his British owners: "Am I not a man and a brother?" serves only to reinforce this view.

Both The African Holocaust and India Fights Colonialism challenge this Anglocentric view of non-British history. They are both essential reading for history teachers.

Of the two, The African Holocaust is by far the most disturbing. It is at once a tirade and a crusade; confrontational in its approach. The book is divided into a first section which provides "information" for the teacher, and a second part of exercises and learning materials. It is full of interesting ideas and perspectives.

Slaves were sold in 18th-century England openly, through the newspapers. The slave trade kickstarted the Industrial Revolution - half the cotton made in Lancashire was produced specifically to be traded for slaves in Africa. Most of all, the authors emphasise the pro-active part played by black people in the abolition of slavery - from the Jamaican Maroons, who caused the plantation system so much expense it became non-viable, to activists such as Olaudah Equiano, who not only campaigned against slavery in his own right, but also introduced more high-profile campaigners such as Granville Sharpe to their informants and caseload.

Yet The African Holocaust is a terribly biased book. It is one thing to argue that many non-European peoples had a valid civilisation before Europeans discovered them. It is another thing altogether to promote the Aztecs as a people who "enjoyed a full cultural life of poetry, dancing and organised games".

The book's agenda is openly stated. Its primary aim is to give a view of the slave trade in which black people determined their own destiny. Beyond that, it wants Liverpool's museums and public institutions to accept that "every brick of the town was cemented by the blood of Negroes". And it wants pupils to grasp that colour prejudice in Britain today is directly related to the ideology of slavery (which saw black people as subhuman) and that black pupils today have a "commonality of experience" with the slaves. It is this last aim which I find disturbing.

The African Holocaust is not a book of materials for pupils. The "pupils' section" is a chaos of instructions for teachers, discussion questions and answers. Pictures are pages away from the text to which they relate. The designer's determination to put text over background pictures means that sources are often unreadable, and certainly unphotocopiable.

This is a book for teachers, to challenge and confront them, and to inform and invade their teaching.

The basic aim of India Fights Colonialism is clearly the same as that of The African Holocaust - to present an account of Indian independence in which Indians are the heroes; to see independence as something which was won, not given.

But the approach is completely different. India Fights Colonialism presents a series of six case studies - including less familiar events such as the Santal Rebellion of 1855-57, as well as the First War of Independence of 1857 (not, note, "The Indian Mutiny" as in British textbooks) and the Quit India Movement of 1942-43.

The text is restrained and provides a narrative thread into which the author inserts a large number of moving primary sources. Thus, the book presents a powerful, Indo-centric account of how Indians won Indian independence. It is clearly designed and suitable for more able pupils.

The pupil activities directly confront racism. Unlike The African Holocaust, however - where pointed questions invite pupils to fume about slavery - India Fights Colonialism suggests a series of role plays, in which pupils take the part of Indian leaders campaigning for independence. The pupils are thus guided to empathise with an Indian view of events. This approach is more subtle, more gentle, and ultimately, I suspect, more effective.

But do I prefer it precisely because it is more gentle with me - because it lets me off the hook?

John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield comprehensive, County Durham

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