Global Policy Forum

The (British) Empire Strikes Back


By Jonathan Duffy

July 13, 2004

It lived for centuries, covered a quarter of the world's landmass and radically shaped modern-day Britain, yet schools have tended to sidestep the thorny history of the British Empire. Now, slowly, that's changing.

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, like the very institution it was set up to commemorate, did not happen without a fight. Katherine Hann, one of the museum's founders, recalls the hostility she encountered when trying to whip up enthusiasm for the project in the mid 1990s. "Empire was a dirty word. You almost felt you were going to be spat at when you mentioned it in polite company," she says. "We couldn't get any government funding in those days. It was politically incorrect to talk about empire."

Yet the prevailing climate changed and today the museum is a reality, chronicling Britain's imperial history from John Cabot's first foray across the Atlantic in 1497 (where he discovered Newfoundland) to the handing back of Hong Kong to China 500 years later. For many children though, a trip to the museum will be one of the few chances they have to learn about this vast tract of British history. The word "empire" still does not issue easily from all lips. A parliamentary report into the honours system, published on Tuesday, calls the word, which figures in the OBE (Order of British Empire), "anachronistic" and "insensitive". Last year, the black British poet Benjamin Zephaniah famously spurned an OBE saying it stood for colonial brutality and slavery. For decades school teachers have shied away from tackling this unfashionable subject head-on, fearing stories of British power and oppression will stir up racial tensions in the playground.

But that is starting to change.

A small but growing number of classrooms are starting to fizz with tales of the British Raj, the Irish potato famine and Dr Livingstone's exploits in Africa. The issue remains highly contentious, but supporters sense the balance is shifting in their favour. Ofsted, which monitors school standards in England, has renewed its call for more teaching of the history of British Empire, believing it has been neglected in favour of subjects such as World War II. The Prince of Wales has also joined the debate and found a supportive voice in TV academic Niall Ferguson, who wants the empire to become the central organising theme of history lessons in secondary school.

Black British historian Steve Martin welcomes the idea of teaching children about the empire. But all too often it is told only from the "white perspective", he says. "I remember being taught this at school in the 70s and there was no criticism of the British and no attempt to understand the experiences of those they conquered," says Mr Martin.

Katherine Hann says the most difficult scenario is when there's a class dominated by white children, with just one or two pupils from other ethnic backgrounds. "Teachers are concerned that in these situations, the white children could use it as a way of intimidating the few black pupils."

Michael Riley, co-author of a new text book called The Impact of Empire, written for children aged 11 to 14, says one of the main obstacles to teaching the history of the empire is giving coherence to such a complex and vast subject. And, it's no longer good enough to tell just one side of the story. So, for example, children using his book are asked to consider the reputation of Lord Clive, whose warrior efforts helped conquer India. "In the 1950s, Clive of India was held up as a Beckham-like schoolboy hero. We want the children to reconsider whether he deserves the praise." In another chapter, pupils are asked to write a letter to Lord Mountbatten (the last viceroy of India) asking him to grant independence.

Mr Riley's book has been selling well and while teachers may be cautious about wading into these troublesome waters, children, he says, really enjoy the topic. "We finish the book asking pupils to consider whether the empire was a good thing or a bad thing. It's deliberately a non-question, one that can't be answered because there are so many different viewpoints." Nevertheless, it seems to be a question that teachers will increasingly have to grapple with.

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