Racism rooted in Victorian values

5th April 1996 at 01:00
A book warns of the danger of resurfacing race hatred as Britain faces anxious times. Susan Young reports.

Children's comics and history texts of a century ago are to blame for many of the racial stereotypes still found in Britain today, according to a new book.

While stories of a "hissing crew of Orientals, munching handfuls of rice as they fought" invading Brighton beach would be greeting with bemusement by today's children, author Dr Kathryn Castle warns of the danger of the resurfacing of xenophobic attitudes at a time of increasing concern about Britain's national identity.

"If you look at what gives rise to these racist stereotypes, in anxiety and concern from an earlier age people expressed their identity by vilifying others. In an age of stress and anxiety such as we are going through at the moment there is a rise in racial attacks and we must be aware that this is how the process works and we must not revert," says Dr Castle, a lecturer at North London University.

American-born Dr Castle, whose book is based on her doctoral thesis, believes Britain is undergoing worries over its national identity due to factors such as the approaching millennium, external problems such as Europe and Hong Kong and internal questions such as the drive for Islamic schools.

One of her concerns is increasing calls by politicians and Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority Dr Nicholas Tate for more Britishness and national pride to be taught in schools.

"I think these moves to reintroduce history as citizenship concern me. It can turn history to nationalist ends, which is a problem most countries have encountered. History gets used as propaganda and helps to establish identity. We need to be watchful," she says.

The most stereotypical periodicals and history tomes were published between the 1890s and the 1940s and although most have disappeared from the shelves, Dr Castle believes their attitudes were so powerful that echoes may still remain - as attitudes to possible immigration to Britain by Hong Kong Chinese after next year suggests.

History and literature seem almost interchangeable in many of the examples given by Dr Castle in Britannia's Children (Manchester University Press). The intention of both, she believes, was to teach boys and girls what their place would be in the world under the British Empire.

"Character formation became a primary objective of history lessons, and the successful text was one which emphasised the conflict, romance and heroism of the British past. Both potential leaders and followers, it was felt, could be secured in a shared community of values and 'Britishness' through the experience of an imperial identity, hopefully subsuming social and class antagonisms in the process."

The periodical Boys Of The Empire intended to "nurture and strengthen a spirit of patriotism and loyalty". The Board of Education, meanwhile, suggested students "should feel the splendour of heroism, the worth of unselfishness and loyalty to an ideal, and the meaning of cruelty and cowardice".

For instance, a textbook contained this assessment of the Empire's Warren Hastings: "He unfortunately allowed methods to be employed which were a matter of course in oriental warfare and oriental courts, but were thoroughly repugnant to European ideas. The lesson had not yet been learned that in dealing with people whose moral standards are different from those of Europe's, the white man must hold to the white standard that is not only the right course, but the course that pays best in the long run."

A periodical, on the other hand, had the following story from the North-West frontier: "His native name was Shija-ul-Mulk, but we British spoke of the chap as "Sugar and Milk". It was so much easier to remember and pronounce than the name with which his princely parents had burdened him. It suited his sweet and girlish nature."

Billy Bunter and the Remove acquired a "dusky" chum, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, whose creator Frank Richards believed would "help rid the youthful mind of colour prejudice".

However, Dr Castle points out that although to some extent this might have been true, Hurree rejects his own nationality, upholds the Empire, buys his way through school life with a supply of diamonds and is laughed at for his flowery English.

Richards also introduced a Chinese boy, Wun Lung, who was suspected of smoking opium, let down the side at sport, and fulfilled a couple of other stereotypes, cooking "the common glub in my country". "As the Remove tucked in with their usual gusto, Wun quietly inquired, 'What you tinkee of dogee?' calmly finishing the stew as his friends 'gasped and groaned in anguish'."

Boys' fiction also contained the sort of lurid detail which pops up in today's video nasties. "With smiles on their faces and black treachery in their heads, they lured confiding men to death... all were alike, not one of them but his hands were dyed in innocent blood. No mercy must be shown to such stuff. One native, severely wounded, heard the groans of a wounded Hussar and contrived to crawl to his side. With his knife he cut the white soldier's throat... the fatigue party cut the native to pieces; and if they killed some of the wounded, is it to be wondered at..."

Attitudes to "the natives" of different parts of the Empire were strongly defined. Africans - apart from Zulus - were seen as happy children, often given to cannibalism and not below selling each other into slavery. India, too, was seen as being civilised by colonialisation, with peace brought by the British. The Chinese, on the other hand, were cunning, clever, but decadent.

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