What did the British ever do for us?

2 Feb 2013

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History is written by the winners. Nowhere has this statement been truer than with regards to the British Empire. However, current trends in education suggest that this history may no longer be written at all. Michael Gove has recently announced that there will be a deep cut to the extent to which colonial historical figures will be discussed in the classroom. This will leave many children unaware of the hardships faced by British colonial subjects and of the contribution colonial subjects made to British society and survival.


After sitting through History lessons from the age of 5 to 16, I was firmly of the opinion that nothing even remotely worthy of note happened between the Spanish Armada and the outbreak of the First World War. For some reason I learned all about the marital habits of an obese monarch born over 500 years ago and military formations of the Roman forces occupying Britain almost 2,000 years ago (the flying wedge since you’re asking), but never was the period that really formed Britain as a nation and gave it the largest empire in history properly examined. It took me until my second year at university to start learning about the extent to which the British Empire influenced people around the world, both positively and negatively. 

According to the 2011 census, minority groups make up over 19% of the population. The British Empire once covered a quarter of the globe and a high proportion of Britons from an ethnic background come from former British colonies. However, the coalition is removing from the curriculum many of the historical figures to which these people could relate. Michael Gove has recently announced that Mary Seacole, an Afro-Caribbean nurse of the Crimean war, is to be removed from the school curriculum. Seacole was the heroic nurse whose actions were largely attributed to the more socially respectable (and let us not forget, white) Florence Nightingale. Mary Seacole is an inspiring and iconic figure with whom modern, young, multicultural Britons, many of whom may even be the descendants of former colonial subjects, can relate to and aspire to emulate. Gove also intends to cut from the curriculum figures such as Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who became a key member of the abolition movement. Gove has suggested that there will be a greater emphasis placed on national icons, such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.  Although these figures were highly influential on the course of British history, the viciously strict puritan Cromwell and the aristocratic druid Churchill are hardly relatable to modern schoolchildren. 

Michael Gove has previously said that he wanted school history lessons to portray Britain as ‘a beacon of liberty for others to emulate’, but Gove’s wishes seem to suggest a national narrative that does not exist. Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the starvation of between half to two thirds of the Irish population. Winston Churchill was an advocate of Eugenics, who believed in the compulsory sterilisation of what he called the ‘feeble minded’. Although British troops did indeed fight heroically under Churchill during the Second World War, during both world wars colonial troops suffered far worse casualty rates than their British counterparts. The heroic image that many, presumably including Michael Gove, attach to these figures does not necessarily correlate with reality and should not become the basis of school history lessons.

The concentration camps utilised by our enemies during the Second World War were invented by the British during the Boer war. These concentration camps were responsible for the deaths of 20,000 Africans and 28,000 Boer civilians. Professor Caroline Elkins of Harvard University claims that over 50,000 Kenyans may have been killed in British concentration camps during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. As the emphasis of Michael Gove’s restructuring of education is to provide beacons of liberty to be emulated, it is baffling that Gove wishes to replace those who fought against the most barbaric oppression with a genocidal leader and a eugenicist. By failing to properly educate young people about the history of the British Empire, we are preventing millions from understanding their cultural past and limiting our understanding of the world today.

Around 4.5% of the British population originally come from British controlled India. There are currently around 700,000 people living in Britain who were originally born in India. Many of the crippling economic conditions in India, that force millions to leave the country, can be attributed to British colonial rule and its engendered bureaucratic aftermath. When Queen Victoria celebrated her coronation as Queen of India with a feast for 60,000 guests, tens of millions around India were starving. Instead of protecting the traditional reserves that saved India during the frequent famines, British economic policy dictated that these reserves be exported. This led to what is now known as The Great Famine. Starving Indians were then corralled like cattle by Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India at the time, into work camps that were often more deadly than the famine. Around 8 million Indians died in the Great Famine of the 1870s and it has been estimated that around 30 million Indians starved as a result of British leadership from 1870-1890, with some putting this figure much higher. The British ushered India into an international economic system that continues to harm the country. According to a UN report, there are over 200 million people in India suffering from permanent severe malnutrition, yet the vast majority of the grain needed to supply bread to Switzerland (the world’s wealthiest nation by GDP per capita) comes from India.

There are dark secrets in the history of the British Empire, but they are secrets that have shaped the world we live in today. We should not invent a national history that better suits our ego as there is still a lot for us to be truly proud of. Britain is a multi-cultural nation and children will engage with history if it truly relates to them. There is much to be ashamed of in our colonial past, but the captivating tales of a Jamaican nurse radically changing medical science is not one of them. A nurse who broke racial prejudices and forever altered nursing care is a far more potent national icon than a religious fundamentalist who massacred the Irish and instituted fierce religious rule. In modern Britain, a saviour should not be usurped in the classroom by Central Government dictat; especially when that Government professes to liberality in name and deed.

By Jack Hillcox

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