Spray painted on the base of his Parliament Square statue in London, the new epitaph reads: “Churchill was a Racist.” The words were known to us but never spoken in wider society. It took George Floyd being murdered by Minneapolis state police and over two months of worldwide protests for us to reach this point.
Does this questioning of previously revered figures constitute what it means to ‘decolonise’? In part, yes. However, the mission to decolonise also extends to our school and university curriculums. Dr David Starkey argues to do so is to delegitimise British history, to see it removed or tossed aside, sinking to the bottom of the great oceans, gulping for air. Yet I would argue decolonisation is more akin to the peeling back of popular societal perceptions of both ourselves and the historical figures we model ourselves upon.
I have long believed we have a duty to teach an accurate history of the British Empire. Indeed, it is not hyperbolic to call it one of the most important and influential institutions to have ever existed. As such, it has had an incalculable effect on the modern world through language and innovation, but also suffering.
However, to understand this is one thing and to teach it another. We call for our institutions to teach the “TRUTH about British Colonialism & Imperialism” (as one Change.org petition puts it) without, elaborating upon the practicality of the slogans.
The first issue we must consider when striving to teach an accurate history of the British Empire is periodisation. AQA, for example, (one of the few exam boards covering the British Empire) dates it from 1857 to 1967, ending three decades before the handover of Hong Kong. Others have argued the British Empire dates back to 1497 with the first voyages of Italian navigator John Cabot, or even further back to c.927 when England was unified by King Athelstan, if one takes ‘British’ to really mean ‘English’. The Empire, therefore, is not just a modern phenomenon, but in fact spans, at most, 1,069 years. Obviously, such a breadth of time is impossible to cover in any real depth over the course of the academic year.
So, the second issue we must consider, concerned primarily with ethics, is that of focus. If we teach the history of the Empire, as we ought to, what do we choose to concentrate our attention on? Slavery and its associated horrors verging on genocide? Certainly. The continuing struggle for racial equality? Naturally. But we must also consider the other crimes against humanity: the partition of India, wherein 12 million people were displaced (the largest in recorded history) and indeterminable numbers of people killed, or the genocide against the indigenous people of North America and Australia. All history is worthy of remembrance, but by choosing what to focus on we are consciously deciding which parts of history matter more. No-one has the right to monopolise suffering, but we do it anyway. All the time.
The third and often most controversial issue is nuance. The British Empire, I’m afraid to say, does not sit in either black or white. Instead, it resides somewhere in-between. Does this mean we shouldn’t teach it, or we should tiptoe around the atrocities and the violence, in the hope we may draw a more favourable sketch of our imperial history? Absolutely not.
I am calling for an approach to teaching the British Empire which doesn’t result in a GCSE view of world history, an approach which advocates thorough engagement from multiple perspectives. The issues I have laid out above are by no means extensive, but rather an attempt to think critically about how we teach the British Empire in a historical context.
We have a duty not just to teach and to learn about the British Empire, but to do so properly, with clarity and conviction, with courage and vigour, and, most importantly, with honesty.