On the importance of teaching colonial histories

On the importance of teaching colonial histories

Amy Clarke

Earlier this year, TIDE and the Runnymede Trust published a new report on Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools  in which they explain that migration and Empire are “central to our national story” and should be recognised as such within the national curriculum. The report followed Jeremy Corbyn’s statement of commitment to teaching future generations about Empire, colonisation and slavery last October, when concerns were also raised by the Royal Historical Society about the impact of a narrow curriculum on black and minority ethnic students.

While Tomlinson identifies the very limited knowledge that even well-educated white Britons have about Empire, the TIDE-Runnymede report notes “chronic misunderstanding” regarding Britain’s Empire among the political classes. This is evident in the common depiction of Britain as a historically independent ‘island nation’ and support for Empire 2.0, as well as in the representation of Ireland as an “awkward inconvenience” and the Home Office’s attempts to deport black and brown citizens. These public and political “misunderstandings” are no coincidence. They are rather the result of decades of wilful forgetting and educated ignorance.

Absence and framing
In After Empire, Gilroy shows how selective accounts of Britain’s imperial history are constructed and sustained within white British society. Within these accounts, Britain’s ‘great’ Empire is presented as having been benevolent and beneficial to the colonised, while the atrocities are conveniently left out. In a similar vein, Ashe suggests that “Britain is very good at remembering its role in ending the slave trade and ‘granting’ independence” but “even better at forgetting the brutality and violence.”

Selective amnesia about Empire has allowed deep misunderstandings about the nation to become embedded in the public imagination, enabling large proportions of the population – including younger people – to see Britain’s imperial history as source of pride. While this is, in part, a question of Empire’s absence in curricula in recent decades, it is also because of how Empire is framed when it is discussed.

Although debates about teaching colonial histories are often limited to education policy circles, the consequences of how we teach (or don’t teach) Britain’s colonial past go far beyond the classroom. Misunderstandings about Empire have not only fostered the conditions for events like Brexit and the Windrush scandal, they also play out in everyday politics of exclusion and (mis)recognition. In my research with white British people, it was clear that misconceptions about Britain’s imperial past helped to sustain a colonial mentality while also allowing racialised hierarchies of belonging to persist, with some British people understood to belong more, or more rightfully, than others.

Misremembering empire means misrecognising Britain and British people
On a warm sunny day in spring 2016, I sat down to interview “Gareth” (all names are pseudonyms) in his back garden in Loughton, Essex. Born in East London to Jewish parents in the 1940s, Gareth had been born into an imperial state, and grown up through a time when all those living in the United Kingdom, its colonies, former colonies, and dominions shared common status as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. Yet despite these personal experiences of imperial Britain, Gareth’s comments about migration and Britishness revealed deep misunderstanding (or wilful forgetting) of those connections.

Gareth wasn’t opposed to immigration per se and talked favourably about migrants from Eastern Europe who he described as “hard workers” who integrate “quite well.” He suggested that being British was relatively accessible, explaining: “if they dress British and they speak pretty well British then they’re British.” But at the same time it was clear from our conversations that, in Gareth’s eyes, those British people descended from colonial citizens were not British in the same way as people whose ancestors had lived in the imperial metropole. Three years on, one comment remains imprinted on my memory: 

“…you know the African people [have a] completely different and separate history.”

The comment revealed the extent to which Gareth had managed to “forget” Britain’s entanglement with large swathes of the African continent. And, in the context of the interview, the consequences of this forgetting were clear; the idea of African people as having a completely separate history allowed Gareth to position people of African descent as different and less (authentically) British.

Gareth also explained that people from ‘the sub-continent’ are less likely than other (presumably whiter) migrants to be accepted as British by ‘the British’, thereby constructing a binary distinction between Asian and British people. Again, the distinction relied on an erasure of the colonial links and connections. But it also overlooks the fact that black and brown people in the colonies were British citizens and that the imperial state was inherently multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural.

The problem is that the way we understand the past shapes understandings of who and what we see as national, as belonging, and as authentically British. As Bhambra explains, people’s rights and entitlements are often justified and legitimised on the basis of historical connections and presence and an erasure from the ‘national story’ therefore risks reducing people’s ability to have claims recognised in the present.

Gareth had grown up through the 1940s and 1950s when jingoistic depictions of national superiority over the colonies were rife and education affirmed the merits of empire while ignoring its brutality. It was, according to Tomlinson, a period of “education for ignorance.” Yet, misconceptions about Empire are neither representative of, nor limited to, people of Gareth’s generation.

During my research, I was surprised to hear people speaking about colonies in the present tense. Rob – who was in his 30s – for example, asked “India is under the British Empire isn’t it? Same with all the other nations where we’ve got the little flag in the corner, you know they’re all part of the British Empire,” while Rachel – a woman in her 40s – joked that it was “a real bummer” that she couldn’t get a work permit in “places that are like British colonies, like the islands in the Caribbean.”

Although both Rob and Rachel elsewhere showed that they were aware that the places they referred to were no longer colonies, their use of the present tense – alongside the imperialist language of possession and tone of entitlement – revealed a marked lack of understanding about Britain’s relationship with former colonies. They knew that Britain no longer had an empire but had nonetheless absorbed a colonial understanding of places as “belonging to us” and evidently did not understand the postcolonial relationships of present. How else could Rachel joke about not being able to get a Caribbean work permit while people from Caribbean countries ravaged by British colonialism are denied visitor visas and the children of British citizens are deported?

As a thirty-something white British person who was never taught about Empire, the limited knowledge I have has come through personal reading. But things have not progressed since my school days, and actually seem to be worse. Today’s curriculum frames British history as an “island story” and aims to provide a “narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past”, reflecting what Alexander and Weekes-Bernard describe as a  “largely  exclusionary,  monochrome and  defended ‘Britishness’”. One wonders how many of those heroes and heroines were implicated in the violence of Empire.

Education in imperial and colonial histories would provide crucial and hitherto lacking appreciation of the wide-ranging cultural and economic inputs that built it for future generations, as well as a proper awareness of why and how global inequalities and ideas of ‘race’ were produced. However, given some of the problems with Black History teaching in schools, including its marginalisation and focus on victimhood, it is important – as the TIDE-Runnymede report also makes clear – that those teaching colonial histories are trained and given the resources to do so, and without reproducing white supremacy.

While there may be benefits for minoritised students in broadening the framing of Britain’s history in terms of representation and inclusion, embedding histories of British colonialism into curricula – based on facts not myths – is about more than addressing issues in schools; it is also about fostering a better society.

As the examples here have shown, understanding the past is not only about the past. How we understand Empire shapes how we understand Britain’s place in the world, its relationships with other people and places, as well as the intimate and often violent histories that connect this no-longer imperial nation-state to its black and brown citizens. But how we understand those pasts also shapes our present. Indeed, as much as our misunderstandings are shaped by society, they are also generative of it.


Amy Clarke is a Research Fellow on the ESRC funded project “Criminal Cases Review Commission: Legal Aid and Legal Representatives” in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex, and also works as a Technical Instructor in Research Methods in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton.

Image Credit: ‘A band of exiles moor’d their bark on the wild New England Shore’, from H.E. Morrison (1906) An Island Story; a child’s history of England.