If the sun never set on the British Empire, why do we keep kids in the dark?

OULC BAME Officer Sulamaan Rahim explains why Labour’s plans to increase the amount of black, slave and colonial history taught in schools is so overdue.

Britain’s colonial history ought to be no secret: the Empire raged across continents massacring, pillaging, and exploiting as it pleased. Only 22 countries can claim to have never been invaded by Britain at some point in their history and, at its peak just after WWI, it covered 24% of the Earth’s landmass, ruling over approximately 460 million people. So why was I never truly taught about it?

Speaking from personal experience, the Empire was mentioned only in the most fleeting of ways – as either a side point to the substantive curriculum or an interesting fact to display a wider engagement with the subject. I was never taught about the tragedies of Empire, about the extent and systematisation of the oppression that hundreds of millions endured.

Although colonialism is technically included in the KS3 national history curriculum, and there are some examined questions pertaining to the topic on certain GCSE exam boards, there remains the problem with how the history of the Empire is actually taught. There is great variety in quality and depth, with certain classes being given a single lesson and others a term to go over the content. There are also no guidelines regarding the way in which the Empire should be portrayed and consequently it falls to history teachers individually to guide this complex narrative.

There is certainly a level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the Empire. We are constantly reminded of the triumphs of Empire and of British ‘morality’. We are told of the great strength of character displayed by William Wilberforce and how we ought to celebrate Britain’s paving the way to abolishing slavery. We are not, however, cognisant of the fact that the country was one of the main proponents of the slave trade for centuries. We ought to be lamenting this country’s involvement in the systematic exploitation and death of hundreds of millions of black people rather than painting Britain in the most flattering of lights. In school, we are taught of the Industrial Revolution and the turning point it marked for us as a society; but we are not taught that it was built on the broken backs of subjects of the British Empire.

“We need to recognise the way achievements of black Britons have been erased and correct this by bringing them to the fore.”

This focus on the positives of Empire is firmly reflected in public opinion polls. YouGov found in 2016 that 44% of Britons are actively proud of Britain’s history of Empire and colonialism. It would thus seem as though those in charge of guiding this narrative are failing to present a nuanced and honest portrayal of the tragedies involved in Britain’s colonial endeavours and their enduring implications.

As Black History Month (BHM) draws to a close, the pertinence of Britain’s colonial history is brought even closer to home. I mean this not just in terms of the atrocities perpetrated, but also in the lasting effects that the systematic dehumanisation of black people has had on their representation (or lack thereof) in our history books. This is why it is so refreshing to hear Jeremy Corbyn’s plans earlier this month to increase the amount of black, slavery and colonial history that is taught in schools.

A more nuanced and integrated study of colonial history is a fantastic idea, and one which is important for changing the context in which discussions about Empire currently take place. We need to recognise the way achievements of black Britons have been erased and correct this by bringing them to the fore. And we must strive for a Labour government to implement this policy.

This does not mean, however, that we ought to do away with BHM. In fact, such education would provide a greater understanding of why BHM is so necessary. It can help contextualise the present and help find ways to ameliorate the myriad problems stemming from Britain’s colonial history. BHM must therefore be preserved. It should be the month in which the contributions that black Britons have made throughout history are celebrated. However, it should not be the first acknowledgement to children of the existence of those contributions, as is now the case.

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