Keep a close eye on the facts of Empire

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Can Britain claim the sole right to the history of the British Empire, or do we share it with countries once coloured pink on the globe? This question has become pertinent since a furore erupted over the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's decision to include the British Raj in the new history curriculum for secondary schools. Many still regard as heresy any attempt to teach the Empire from anything but the "positive"

British perspective.

As part of the unit on British India, schoolchildren aged 11 to 14 will learn about the 1919 Amritsar massacre, during which British soldiers fired on an unarmed crowd of Indians, including women and children, who had gathered there for a religious celebration.

A considerable body of Raj historians argue that the massacre was an insignificant incident during several hundred years of an overwhelmingly positive British presence in India. That is not how the Indians see it. It happened almost 90 years ago, yet the massacre is indelibly etched on the Indian psyche. Amritsar was Britain's Tiananmen: it marked the moment when Indians woke up to the notion that the British were not a benign force, but capable of a brutal assertion of superiority.

Historically, it is significant because it fuelled the Indian independence movement, which was arguably the beginning of the end for the Empire. Not only in India, but also in multicultural Britain, the horror over Amritsar has been passed down the generations. Indians are willing to forgive the British for many colonial excesses, but not that one.

During the Queen's symbolic visit to the site of the massacre in 1997, irate protesters demanded a public apology. There was uproar when the Duke of Edinburgh suggested that the Indian record of the numbers killed might have been exaggerated. This is not just an example of royal crassness, but a symptom of general blindness about the Raj. Empire history is not like the history of slavery, which has never been glamorised by British historians. The Empire lives on in people's minds as part of "Great"

Britain's glorious past, and many want to keep it that way by ignoring the negative parts.

Chris McGovern of the History Curriculum Association believes the tone of the new history unit is "anti-British", with "little about positive consequences of British rule". But it is not anti-British to examine the facts. Pupils must make up their own minds about colonialism, based on evidence from both British and Indian sources, as the QCA suggests.

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