A Watershed Moment?
Isabel Murray discusses how recent movements have the potential to rewrite Britain’s imperial history.
After the homicide of George Floyd spurred the dawn of a new civil rights movement, Britain’s relationship with its colonial and imperial past has rightfully been brought to the forefront of an important debate involving our treatment of history. As a nation, do we struggle with idealising our country’s past, do we fetishize the historical figures who had roles to play within it and how has this affected us culturally? To answer these burning questions, it is crucial to carefully review how Britain’s history, politics and culture are tied up with colonialism and imperialism.
History curricula across the country are currently coming under fire for not being inclusive or extensive enough when covering imperial or colonial topics. Many students feel there is a gap in their education where the British Empire should be covered in more candid detail. This detail would include a higher level of scrutiny being applied to the events that led to, and occurred during, the rule of the British Empire. It would also entail fresh BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) perspectives on the impacts of the Empire rather than the repeated focus on white, colonising voices which have been heard time and time again. Although Labour has promised to ensure that the cruelty of Empire will be taught in accordance with a new national curriculum if they come into power, the current Conservative government is now being pressed by the public to also introduce this policy.
This pressure is primarily being applied through myriad petitions and campaigns calling for changes to the UK curriculum to be made, introducing mandatory elements of black history. Mandatory teaching of a more well-rounded and in-depth account of the British Empire in curricula spanning from primary education to GCSEs, one that doesn’t skip over colonial horrors, seems the obvious place to start in correcting the long overlooked realities of colonial and imperial rule and the subsequent whitewashing of history. In response to calls for a decolonised education, the Department of Education stated “racism in all its forms is abhorrent and has no place in our society. Schools already play a significant role in teaching children about the importance of having respect and tolerance for all cultures.”
History is not simply a series of isolated incidents that remain static in the past, rather it travels with us in terms of ideology
Although history curricula are the current target for many, it is also being recognised that colonial and imperial thought is still prevalent in politics today. As Maya Goodfellow points out in an article for The Guardian, “some regard teaching about colonialism as simply too political, as if the way we tell history now is somehow neutral.” History is not simply a series of isolated incidents that remain static in the past, rather it travels with us in terms of ideology. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to politics, which is a sphere in which colonial and imperial thinking has appeared to persist. For example, Boris Johnson is facing criticism for a piece he wrote in 2002 where he presents the belief that colonialism in Africa should not have ended, arguing “the problem is not that we were once in change, but that we are not in charge anymore.” As of yet he has not commented on whether he still agrees with this sentiment, but in light of the call to remove statues of slave traders, he stated that he thought this would be “to lie about our history.”
An article in The Guardian notes the inconsistencies within this statement given Johnson himself has been fired not once, but twice on account of him lying about history (the first instance being an invented quote from his godfather and the second being lying about his personal history). The opinion that to acknowledge both sides of colonial history (both coloniser and colonised) would be censorship of history that can be faulted for ignoring that on a larger scale, Britain has consistently edited its own history to give the best image of itself, for example by destroying records about the Empire and Britain’s slave trade. It also suggests that by just acknowledging a broader picture, British history would be eroded rather than be expanded.
Accepting both the successes of Churchill during the Second World War and the consequences of his racist beliefs is not erasing British history, it’s being honest about it
This argument seems particularly rife in the discussion surrounding statues of figures such as Edward Colston, whose was recently pulled down and thrown into the River Avon. While the statue had long been the centre of debate by locals, efforts such as the idea to implement a plaque to contextualise Colston’s role in the slave trade had led to no action – that is, until it was removed during a protest. Arguably, it was this act that led to a more widespread knowledge of Colston’s large part in the slave trade, his company having trafficked 84,000 men, women and children from West Africa, with an estimated 10-20 per cent dying onboard the ships while sailing to the Americas. Similarly, graffiti that found its way onto the statue of Winston Churchill in London branding him a racist, led to many for the first time researching and finding out about his racist comments and his role in events such as the Bengal famine in 1943. Accepting both the successes of Churchill during the Second World War and the consequences of his racist beliefs is not erasing British history, it is being honest about it.
Alongside the lack of knowledge or selective cultural amnesia concerning colonial and imperial history, it can also be argued that there’s a strong sense of nostalgia in Britain, even in those who were not alive when the Empire reached it’s peak. A YouGov poll published by The Guardian reveals that of 1,684 adults surveyed in June 2019, 32 per cent of Britons held the view that the British Empire is something to be proud of. In addition, 33 per cent answered that they thought previous British colonies were better off having been colonised, with a further 21 per cent saying they thought they were neither worse nor better off and 28 per cent admitting they did not know.
It is hoped that teaching more BAME history is one way to tackle Britain’s problem with omitting its own faults, after all the UK is not innocent. An improved history curriculum has the potential to help students better understand systemic racism and how it creates inequalities that otherwise, those with privilege would never have to confront.