Children need conversations about the British Empire, not culture wars

The UK's imperial past shaped my life, but I was taught nothing about it

A portrait from 1953 of Reverend Milton Job, 90, a photograph from June 13 2008 of Queen Elizabeth II awarding him with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) medal, and the MBE medal are seen on display at the Celestial Church of Christ, in South-East London, Britain, April 19, 2023. Job moved to the UK in 1961 from Nigeria. Reuters
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Growing up I wasn’t taught anything about the British Empire. Which is incredible, because, in small and big ways, it has shaped my life entirely.

The British Empire was the biggest empire in history. That’s just a fact. Bigger than the Roman Empire. Bigger than the Incas, Mayas, Aztecs, Mughal, Ottoman or any other European, Asian, African or American power. In fact, it was so vast that it was said that "the sun never set on the British Empire".

In 2020, in the wake of anti-racism riots, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol. I must confess, I had no idea who he was, why there was a statue of him, and why there was such a furore about the statue’s existence or deposition. My children knew even less but they were curious. I watched the events through their eyes, and wondered how they could make sense of the heat and fury that surrounds conversations about the British Empire. And more importantly, I wondered how on earth they could make sense of how it applies to them today and the kind of future they will map for themselves and build for the society they are part of.

I wondered how to satisfy their curiosity and further encourage them in this pursuit. I looked for books that could help give them the tools to understand how our world is shaped by the British Empire, and to my shock, in 2020 in the UK, there was barely anything for children. I wanted to change that so I decided to write a book about it for them.

The lack of teaching about the British Empire stands in stark contrast to the fact that the Empire lies at the heart of heated culture wars in the UK. One day we are emotional about statues, the next day we’re told to stop talking down about the Empire because: look at the all the good it’s done, and don’t forget the railways they built.

All factors considered, discussions about the Empire are far too often about outrage.

Which is why I didn’t want to write a history book. I’m much more interested in who we are now. And that was my starting point.

The British Empire isn’t ancient history. Even if you assume it ended in 1997, with the return of Hong Kong to China, that is still very much in my lifetime, and some say the informal empire still exists in the Commonwealth, and the UK monarch is still head of state for 14 territories.

But it wasn’t just that. Seeing events through my children’s eyes and their curiosity about the world as they know it today has to be the key.

Children don’t need culture wars. They need conversations – about who they are and the places around them. Conversations that uncover their own stories, and which will give them the confidence, security and respect to engage with their peers and find the connections between their lives.

We need to ensure children know that their own stories are one of the most powerful gifts they can give themselves. And capturing the oral histories of their families is perhaps even more exciting than the histories of kings and queens that fill history books – because their family histories have not yet been captured, and because those are the stories that have most intimately shaped who they are.

That applies to all children, whatever their background. Whether they are from the industrial towns of the UK’s north, the once bustling port cities like Bristol and Liverpool, or the rural areas – which meant that people there were forced off their lands due to enclosure and into the factories during the Industrial Revolution, or whether it’s children who live in ex-colonies or those who have arrived at them.

The problem with the culture warriors is that they keep the conversation stuck in the past, trying to "win" through polarisation and polemics. Although I’m not sure what they expect to win in a pointless argument they started, designed to cause division. They also conduct the culture wars in the "grand narratives" of those who won, rather than in the intimate daily lives of people and families, like you and me. That’s why we know more about Sir Francis Drake and Captain Cook than the boat trips of families like mine that travelled across oceans, or the lascars – the sailors from the colonies – that were a huge part of the manpower of Britain’s shipping prowess.

I understand why – it feels very personal, as though their entire self-worth and identity is tied to validating the superiority of the British Empire, and by extension therefore some existential superiority for themselves.

But the result is that the culture wars are keeping people tied to a past that no longer exists and set on a course to hijack our present. More worryingly, the culture wars are preventing children from discovering who they are, understanding the world around them, robbing them of the imagination they will need to build a future.

The experiences, voices and perspectives of children matter. There is so much for them to connect to. In the book I’ve told the stories of children during the British Empire like the home children who were sent away from Britain to build the Empire and get them off British streets, never to return home; the heartrending stories of enslaved children; the children who took part in the anti-slavery sugar boycotts, the brave children of the Industrial Revolution who gave testimony about their working conditions and changed labour laws for children and more. Children matter, and they should know that.

Which is why we need a child-centred telling of today’s world drawing on the British Empire to make sense of who we are now.

Published: August 10, 2023, 7:00 AM