Sunday August 26, 2018
When we teach history in the UK, we tend to focus on the 'great' in Great Britain. Is it time for a more honest look at what we teach about our past? Will be better at dealing with the challenges of today by being more honest about our past? A guest post from Anjum Hussain, writer, activist and history teacher.
In 2016, the history of colonial Britain was left to the likes of Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott in the BBC series Taboo. Not that there's anything wrong with that - but why is this the way that the people of the UK are learning about Britain’s colonial past? And why are there a gaping holes left in the History curriculum taught in our schools? For example, where is a full and balanced study of the British Colonial period and the British Empire, which would provide a much-needed knowledge base to explain the 'Great Britain' that we know and love today? After all, the arrival of immigrants to British shores is not a new phenomenon. Why, then, is the historical significance of these events not at the forefront of the history that our children and students learn?
As a History teacher, I taught the creation of the United Kingdom as we know it - England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. I taught the Tudors and the Stewarts. I taught the the 'War to End All Wars' (and the one that followed it). And I taught the Slave trade and the United Kingdom's proud role in ending it (and then profiting royally from enforcing the ban on other nations, not to mention the £16 billion in today's money of public funds that went to paying off the 46,000 British slave owners, a debt only finally paid off in 2015 according to The Guardian). As a parent, I can see that that my children have studied the Egyptians, the Romans, the Vikings, the Aztecs and Incas, the Sioux Tribe, the American Civil Rights movement, World War I & II and slavery. However, there appears to be a rather large gap of about 200 years – the period when Britain built its 'greatness' by claiming and colonising territories worldwide, regardless of any prior claim by other countries or, indeed, indigenous peoples, committing countless atrocities in the process.
As we teach the history of Western civilization and Britain's place in it, we seem to be skipping a particularly uncivilised period in our history and the opportunity to explore it though 21st century eyes with a view to understanding the world around us better.
It may be that my own experience of History has been limited. As a student I didn't really study British colonialism until I reached university and only then because I chose to when the options arose as it did not make up the basic core History degree components. As an undergraduate, I wanted to study how Britain had conquered and ruled India, my country of origin. I wanted to understand the history of my people and the injustices that were experienced by my ancestors.
As an Indian Muslim growing up in London, many of my peers were not as aware of their history as I was. My parents were the initial teachers of my history and, in hindsight, they were my only teachers of the British Raj in India until I went to university. They were, like many others from the British colonies around the world, invited to help rebuild the economy of Britain post World War II. Invited. I cannot stress that enough. Despite this fact, they encountered racism and prejudice which unfortunately still exists today. I wonder if our History lessons were able to teach us about the atrocities committed by the British abroad in the name of Empire, then perhaps this country would be more understanding of the most recent immigrants coming to this wonderful island.
If we are reduced to learning about wider British history through Tom Hardy and other popular media, perhaps we could be better at it? If you saw the film Dunkirk you will be forgiven for not being aware of the considerable support given to the Allies by the colonies during World War II. The lack of representation of the British Indians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who fought alongside white British soldiers was disappointing. If the film had included their contributions, then maybe there would be an acknowledgment that Indians and Pakistanis, for example, have long since been a part of the fabric of British society. It's not that I am asking (I don't think) for reparations for what was done to India and the many other colonial conquests, but what I am seeking is an acknowledgement - and that acknowledgement would do well to begin in the History books in our classrooms.