By Kiran Shivalingam
When Britain voted to leave the European Union, the British Empire unexpectedly became a talking point. ‘Brexiteers’ presented a vision of Britain emancipating itself from the shackles of the EU and regaining its former glory as head of the Commonwealth. Rhetoric which played on myths of British exceptionalism, harking back to the days of Empire, emerged in full force. In reference to British colonialism, international trade secretary Liam Fox tweeted, “The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the EU that does not need to bury its 20th century history”. To the contrary, the UK is one of the many countries in the EU that already does bury its 20th century history.
Colonial history is by and large absent in school curriculums across Britain, and where it does appear, it is demonstrably one-sided, preaching the glory of the ‘land where the sun never sets’ and the supposed benefits it brought to benighted societies the world over. Missing are the multitude of atrocities committed in the name of Empire – the Bengal famine, the Boer concentration camps, or the Amritsar massacre to name a few. The results of this are worrying: in one poll, 44% of people described British colonialism as something “to be proud of”. Therefore there is, to say the least, a concerning degree of collective amnesia surrounding exactly what it is that Britain did during the 19th and 20th century. We can be fairly certain that if a more holistic approach to colonialism were adopted in British schools, significantly fewer people would describe colonialism as something to be proud of. For a topic as complex and enduring as colonialism, a superficial and vague knowledge of it is as dangerous as it is concerning. Indeed, many of the world’s contemporary racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts are fundamentally post-colonial in nature.
Understanding, for example, the internecine Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires an appreciation of the shambolic British mismanagement of the region in the early 20th century. British forces at the time promised the same piece of land simultaneously to not only both the Jews and Arabs, but also themselves – and when an agreement could not be reached on who was to ultimately administer the land, the British simply departed, laying the foundations for a conflict that would last decades. Alternatively, it could be considered that one of the reasons for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East is that it has yet to recover from the trauma associated with decades of colonial subjugation. Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorism because it was a country created by the British with arbitrarily defined borders, which subsequently locked together the conflicting Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds under one flag.
Disappointingly, what is also neglected in history curriculums is how some of Britain’s greatest historical achievements were only made possible because of its colonial possessions. For example, Britain was able to finance its industrial revolution by plundering some of the wealthiest countries in the world, thereby reducing them to some of the poorest. Or how it was able to tip the Second World War in its favour because over two million Indians (the largest volunteer army in history) volunteered to fight for the British.
Nevertheless, the most important thing to remember is that a focus on colonialism in an education syllabus would not be an exercise in national self-flagellation, but one of historical honesty, academic veracity, and necessary atonement. The act of studying history ceases to be a quest for a more enlightened worldview when it intentionally disregards the truth in favour of helpful myths and comforting narratives. The narratives of history should never be based on what we want to hear, because if this were true, the Holocaust would not be taught in Germany and slavery would not be taught in America. We teach and learn these things not to dredge up guilt, but because those who cannot understand it are condemned to repeat it.
So why should Britain’s colonial history be taught? Because it happened. Colonialism is as much a part of the British historical tapestry as the Tudors and the Magna Carta is – to deny this would be erasing over two centuries of world history. The story of the British Empire is one replete with slavery, torture, partition, famine, concentration camps, and massacres. Teaching this would be uncomfortable and often disturbing, but it is British history – for better or for worse. The most oft cited argument against this is that those who administered colonialism are long gone and that we should not live in the past. Yet, this is not about living in the past, but about understanding it. It is also important to remember that whilst colonialism is no longer an active force today, many around the world are still living with its repercussions.
Britain must take a more balanced approach to how it teaches colonialism: it should be remembered for what it was, not glorified or used as a talking point by ill-informed politicians. Ultimately, much of what Britain did during the 19th and 20th century is morally unjustifiable – but so too is forgetting that it ever happened.
Photograph: Eric Fischer via Flickr and Creative Commons