Historical Amnesia, Miseducation, and Empire

Cartoon: “Allegoria sull’impero Inglese” (An allegory of the English Empire) by Augusto Grossi depicting the British Empire as a snake, 1878.

In 2016, the Independent quoted a poll which found that 44% of British people were proud of Britain’s colonial history, with 21% regretting that it happened and 23% holding neither view. This is surprising for me to hear considering the problematic racialised history of the British Empire that included slavery, detention camps, and civilian massacres, amongst many other human rights issues.

After all, at its height, the British Empire consisted of one-fifth of the world’s population and one-quarter of its total land area, which some would consider being an impressive statistic on the face of it. However, it may be that Britain’s national memory of Empire has been positive because of an extreme lack of education on British imperialism and why they should think otherwise. I remember my own History education in which we looked extensively at the World Wars, the Tudors, and the Industrial Revolution. However, I remember studying little else and I definitely do not remember ever studying the Empire. Even for my History A-Level, Empire was not part of the course. People simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn about the negative impacts upon the communities and societies under Britain’s control.

The British national syllabus for Key Stage 3 level History (Years 7-9) was last updated in 2013. The syllabus states that pupils must learn, amongst other things, ‘ideas, political power, industry and Empire: Britain, 1745-1901’, but gives no definite direction as to what this should consist of. The syllabus makes suggestions that include the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Industrial Revolution in Britain, but there is nothing that makes it compulsory to teach the negative impacts of the British Empire.

The infamous Rhodes Colossus cartoon, published in Punch Magazine 1892, depicting British colonialist Cecil Rhodes standing over the African continent.

In terms of the GCSE syllabus, every exam board contains different options. Whilst most of them that I looked at (AQA, Edexcel, Cambridge IGCSE, and OCR) do contain one optional unit about some aspect of the British Empire, it is ultimately down to the school as to which units are chosen to be taught. Even then, some of these optional Empire units are extremely lacking. For example, whilst the Edexcel course does include one optional unit about the Empire, it focuses solely on America meaning that there is nothing in the course that looks at other areas of British colonisation such as the African continent or India. Similarly, OCR does have one optional unit concerning the British Empire but it focuses on the impact of the Empire on Britain rather than on the countries under Britain’s control.

Punch Cartoon, 1906, criticising atrocities carried out by the Belgian Empire in the Congo.

On the other hand, I think that the AQA unit about Empire looks to be the most well-rounded for it includes the slave trade, North America colonisation, expansion in India and Africa, and the legacy of the Empire. I wish more GCSE exam boards looked at Empire so broadly. I believe that this misses an opportunity to educate GCSE-level students on why the British Empire was not necessarily a force for good. In all honesty, the musical Hamilton taught me more about Britain’s role in America than my formal education ever did.

Yet, even then, there’s no guarantee that the school will choose to teach it despite the Empire spanning more than four hundred years of British history. This is why I believe that the Key Stage 3 syllabus should be, firstly, updated, seeing as it hasn’t been touched for five years. Secondly, I think it should be much more prescriptive as to what should be taught. I’m not saying that more pressure should be put on teachers as they are already completely stretched as it is. Nevertheless, I do believe that something as important to Britain’s history and contemporary Britain as the Empire should be taught with a huge focus. Britain needs to be accountable to its ugly colonial history. It needs to be a topic at the Key Stage 3 level so the students of the future can look at our past with a much more balanced view.

Susanna Goldstone