About a hundred years ago, when the British Empire was at its peak, it covered about a quarter of the world’s land mass and dominated over 412 million people, a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Its vastness even prompted the phrase, "the empire on which the sun never sets" – because it was always daylight somewhere in the territories it occupied across the world.
Whatever your views on the British Empire, its significance to the state of our world today is undeniable. For people in the UK, its legacy affects every aspect of life, from matters like food and language to existential issues like race, inequality our relationships with the world, who gets to be called British, how class structures work, the stratification of wealth and resources and the decline of our industrial towns. Put another way, it affects everything.
Yet for an empire so vast and long-lasting, even in its impact, we in Britain seem equivocal about whether we should teach our children anything about it. There is a lot of talk about being proud of Britain’s history and Empire. But when it comes to actually teaching it, there is a big fat void. It is mind boggling that the history of the biggest empire does not appear on Britain's official school curriculum.
Yes, there is the odd mention of Gandhi and the abolition of slavery. But without cohesively joining together the people, events and policies of the British Empire, there is no way to truly understand what Britain was then and therefore what it is today.
One viral clip last week showed a far-right protester next to Winston Churchill’s statue in London, ostensibly there to protect it from Black Lives Matter protesters. There was no Black Lives Matter protest that day. He explained: “We’re here to say it’s wrong to desecrate the statue of Winston Churchill because he killed Hitler. He killed Hitler.”
Hitler’s death was perhaps one of the most famous suicides in history. Churchill did not kill Hitler, unless the protester meant in an indirect, defeating-the-Germans kind of way. Highlighting mentions of Churchill in the context of anti-racist protests is connected to his contested legacy with regard to the British Empire. It is why ignorance of even a well-known fact is so problematic. While it is easy to mock a single person for their lack of knowledge about history, the popularity of the clip struck a chord precisely because it is so common.
The heated debates over whether the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol should have been thrown into the harbour demonstrate this. What does the statue mean to the people of Bristol: was he a slave trader who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of trafficked human beings and their possibly millions of descendants who were born into slavery? Or was he a philanthropist who benefited Bristol? And why was his statue only erected in 1895, 170 years after he died? These questions cannot be meaningfully discussed without a basic grounding in history.
Many campaigns have been launched in recent years calling for the British Empire and its role in colonialism to be included in the school curriculum. The Labour party included it as one of their manifesto pledges in 2019.
An open petition on the UK Parliament’s website calls to “Teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum.” Any petition that exceeds 100,000 signatures automatically gets discussed in Parliament. As of writing this, it has received nearly 250,000.
Teaching pupils the lessons of the British Empire is not just for people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The British Empire is as significant to a white child in a small town in the industrial north as it is to a child whose grandparents came to the UK from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation or to those who descended from wealthy slave-owning families.
The lessons in the history of the British Empire must address all of these audiences, because it informs our nation’s biggest questions – who are we; what is our place in the world; how has our country become what it is; and who gets to be part of this country.
The opposition to including the history of British Empire in the school curriculum is unclear. If you are proud of it, why would you not want it to be taught? If the worry is that this will be ‘revisionist’ history, then proponents should be confident of their facts.
And for those who say this destroys Britain’s pride in its past, if the British Empire is our most notable achievement, why is it absent from our children’s textbooks?
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World