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The history of the British Empire is missing from our education system

ByVaishnavi Ramu

Feb 25, 2020

In my last written piece for Voices, I wrote about the importance of teaching people of colour in Scotland – and the UK – about their heritage. So, when I found out that a group of London based sixth form students had created mock newspapers with headlines such as “Boris Backs Empire Education”, and distributed them across multiple tube station, I couldn’t have been more thrilled about what could have – technically – been called fake news. The group, known as “Fill in the Blanks,” are campaigning for colonialism to be made compulsory in the British curriculum.

One student remarked that it was “ridiculous” that they learnt about Henry VIII and his six wives, but that the heritage of their own people was deliberately missed out. As someone born and brought up in the UK, I couldn’t agree more.
Almost everything I know about British colonialism has been either via my own reading and research, or through my parents. Unless I was to count a highly inadequate – I would go as far as to say insulting – history lesson which reduced the horrific endeavours of British colonialists to a “pros and cons” table my school covered nothing of the sort during my thirteen years in primary and secondary education. The education system does not even begin to cover the trauma caused by the world’s biggest empire, nor does it accept accountability for its crimes.

This is not to say Britain doesn’t talk about its colonial past at all. The problem is that we hear one narrative far, far too often. From Jacob Rees-Mogg’s apologist rhetoric, to Boris Johnson’s admiration for Winston Churchill (a proud racist and colonialist) the desire to return to Britain’s ‘glory days’ is unmissable. The picture of empire that is presented is that it was a benevolent force of good. For, how could I forget- the railways! How on earth could a country acquire railways without being invaded, its people exploited, and resources drained?

It doesn’t stop there; the nostalgia for a time where Britain ruled the world is evident not just in our politics, but culture too. Period dramas filled with corsets, cottages and cups of “English” tea prevail on our television and film screens; people yearning for a “simpler” time are not uncommon. This narrative is not only one-sided, but is also highly dangerous and inaccurate. “Simpler times” for the vast majority of people of colour, means either enslavement, indentured labour or – in one way or the other – working for the benefit of the white man.

The gap in education does not stop at school. Universities have systemically ignored literature, history and politics that do not fit into a Western perspective, including our own. The University of Edinburgh is indeed guilty of this itself; it was only in 2018 that it’s “UncoverEd” project was launched in order to decolonise the curriculum. A friend of mine last year remarked, after a linguistics lecture on the spread of English language across the world following British colonisation, that she had never learnt about the topic before then; this was during our second year of university.

Why did it take for her to do a linguistics degree at a top university to learn about British colonisation?

It is a disservice not only to people of colour, but also to white people, that we do not learn about colonisation in our education system. Students of colour are denied their own history while white students are sold a false idea of their own nation.

If we are to truly become the ‘diverse’ and ‘tolerant’ nation we advertise as, education about empire must be implemented.
Think about it; many racist incidents occur due to the fact that people are afraid of what they do not know, as well as being misinformed about the race they are singling out.

Imagine if they knew why that Indian family across the road were there in the first place; or why they see patronising ads with starving children from Africa every two seconds on the television – I’d like to thing that, some of them, would stop before shouting “Paki” to that Indian neighbour or making a joke about a poor child on television, while their parents complain about charity beginning at home. I hope that, for the sake of the future of racial politics in this country, as well as for future generations, that “Fill in the Blanks” are successful in their endeavours. If they are not, I cannot help but worry for the future of racial harmony in Britain.

Image: Wikimedia Commons