A 2019 YouGov poll revealed just how divergent opinions on Britain’s colonial past are. When 1,684 adults were asked their opinion on the legacy of the British Empire, 32% of respondents told YouGov that the empire was something to be proud of. A larger proportion, 37%, described themselves as indifferent, with only 19% feeling “ashamed” and 12% replying that they didn’t know.
To fully understand the substantial numbers of positive and “indifferent” responses to Britain’s devastating colonial legacy, and the country’s relationship with race and racism, we urgently need to review the UK education curriculum, specifically that of our national history. This particular curriculum is responsible for introducing events, ideas and the origin of issues that have shaped our society, to thousands of students across the country.
The lack of statutory status for the topic allows for untruths and misinformation to flourish and be co-opted into nationalistic historical negationism, (nationalist revisionism of history), distorting and glorifying the Empire. As seen in the YouGov poll responses, a lack of truthful review and comprehension of the violence, terror and devastating injustices, which form Britain’s notorious colonial legacies, has played its part in enabling a substantial positive to indifferent public perception of British colonialism.
Not only does the history curriculum lack a mandatory and unbiased introduction to the British Empire, overall it presents an alarmingly whitewashed, predominantly white male account of history. Black identities and narratives within Britain can be traced back to at least the Roman era and are yet, glaringly absent from the curriculum. People that unquestionably contributed to British commerce, arts and culture have been shamefully forgotten in the story of the country.
Why are the Black community having to dig deeper to access knowledge of their historical presence, participation and achievements within the UK?
The Black Curriculum are a social enterprise founded by young people to address this absence. They deliver Black history programmes, provide teacher training and have relentlessly campaigned on the issue of racial bias within the curriculum, calling for its reform. In June of this year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson responded to an open letter sent by the group, rejecting calls for such a reform.
Speaking from a press briefing at Downing Street he stated that the curriculum in fact did cover:
“the issue of the British Empire, and the incredibly rich history that this nation has, and it’s absolutely vitally important, incredibly important, that when children are learning about our nation’s history, they learn all aspects of it, both the good and the bad.”
He went on to say:
“we mustn’t forget that in this nation, we have an incredibly rich history, and we should be incredibly proud of our history because time and time and time again, this country has made a difference and changed things for the better, right around the world. We should, as a nation, be proud of that history and teach our children about it.”
This whitewashing in tandem with the scarcity of women’s history on the curriculum leads to a lack of intersectional narrative, with Black and other women from ethnic minority backgrounds also missing. Unlike notorious slave traders and colonisers, such women are also absent from our streets in the form of statues; physical presences that shape the general public’s understanding of history. It has proved incredibly difficult to erect statues to honour prominent women, especially Black women.
It is in the interest of social equality that we investigate ourselves and apply critical thought to our understanding of our country’s history, as well as the figures that we laud as national heroes. If we don’t, Black British and intersectional history remains muted and marginalised, with many British people utterly detached from the reality of our past. The lasting legacy of Empire is something we must confront.
Reshaping the history curriculum would offer young people the opportunity to discuss and comprehend the far from favourable aspects of our history
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a long German word and a key concept in post-1945 German culture. It is used to describe the country’s approach to openly discussing and confronting their history. Vergangenheit “past”; Bewältigung “struggle to overcome the (negatives of the) past”. This concept has always fascinated me and I have often wondered how our future might look if we were to undertake some semblance of it here in the UK. If we were forced to examine the horrors of British colonialism, how different would our understanding of who we are and the modern world be?
In Britain, our tendency towards inertia and avoiding historical topics that might evoke national ‘guilt’ needs to be recognised. Reshaping the history curriculum would offer young people the opportunity to discuss and comprehend the far from favourable aspects of our history, as well as the skills to hold honest, reflective conversations about racist and oppressive ideologies and behaviour.
There is a long road ahead in order for the UK to reconcile truthfully with its past, but it must be acknowledged. The intersectional histories, the stories of remarkable women and the voices of the Black community have to be valued and embedded in British history, if the commitments to work towards an equal future are genuine.
The featured image shows a classroom. At the centre of the image a young girl sits behind a desk, holding her hand up. She wears a light-blue top and is holding a water bottle. There are two students to her left and two students to her right, all sitting behind desks. Photograph by Paul Hart, used under the Creative Commons License
The first image is of a young woman, wearing a black jumper with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed across it, in white Photograph by Miki Jourdan, used under the Creative Commons License
The second image is a map, showing the sheer scale of the British Empire. British colonies across the world appear in pink. Photograph by The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick, used under the Creative Commons License
The third image is a black and white photograph of Mary Seacole. She wears a long dress, with a large, full skirt and sits in a chair. Seacole looks down at her hands and is in front of a backdrop, depicting a painting of a rural scene. Photograph in the Public Domain, author unknown Used under the Creative Commons License
The next image is of the statue of Mary Seacole. It depicts Seacole in front of a large stone circle, walking forwards, with one hand on her heart. Photograph by Marc Pether-Longman, used under the Creative Commons License
The next image shows the plinth where the statue of slave trader Edward Colton stood, until it was pulled down by protesters. Around the empty plinth there are Black Lives Matter placards and protesters are gathered around. Photograph by Caitlin Hobbs, used under the Creative Commons License