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Teaching the British Empire


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 27 January 2005 - 11:53 AM

Interesting article about teaching the British Empire in the Guardian today. Written by Seumas Milne it includes the following:

The rehabilitation of empire began in the early 1990s at the time of the ill-fated US intervention in Somalia, used by maverick voices on both sides of the Atlantic to float the idea of new colonies or UN trusteeships in Africa. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, what had seemed a wacky rightwing wheeze was taken up in Britain with increasing enthusiasm by conservative popular historians like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, as the Sun and Mail cheered them on. The call for "a new kind of imperialism" by Blair adviser (and now senior EU official) Robert Cooper brought this reactionary retro chic into the political mainstream, and Brown's endorsement of empire has now given it a powerful boost. The outraged response to South African president Thabo Mbeki's recent denunciation of Churchill and the empire for a "terrible legacy" was a measure of the imperial torch-bearers' new confidence. The empire had brought "freedom and justice", Roberts blithely informed the BBC.

It would be interesting to hear how Roberts - or Gordon Brown for that matter - squares such grotesque claims with the latest research on the large-scale, systematic atrocities carried out by British forces during the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya during the 1950s: the 320,000 Kikuyu held in concentration camps, the 1,090 hangings, the terrorisation of villages, electric shocks, beatings and mass rape documented in Caroline Elkins' new book, Britain's Gulag - and a death toll now thought to be over 100,000. This was a time when British soldiers were paid five shillings for each African they killed, when they nailed the limbs of Kikuyu guerrillas to crossroads posts and had themselves photographed with the heads of Malayan "terrorists" in a war that cost 10,000 lives. Or more recently still, as veterans described in the BBC Empire Warriors series, British soldiers thrashed and tortured their way through Aden's Crater City - the details of which one explained he couldn't go into because of the risk of war crimes prosecutions. And all in the name of civilisation: the sense of continuity with today's Iraq could not be clearer.

But it's not as if these end-of-empire episodes were isolated blemishes on a glorious record of freedom and good governance. Britain's empire was built on vast ethnic cleansing, enslavement, enforced racial hierarchy, land theft and merciless exploitation. As the Cambridge historian Richard Drayton puts it: "We hear a lot about the rule of law, incorruptible government and economic progress - the reality was tyranny, oppression, poverty and the unnecessary deaths of countless millions of human beings." Some empire apologists like to claim that, however brutal the first phase may have been, the 19th- and 20th-century story was one of liberty and economic progress. But this is nonsense. In late 19th and early 20th century India - the jewel of the imperial crown - up to 30 million died in famines as British administrators insisted on the export of grain (as in Ireland), and courts ordered 80,000 floggings a year; 4 million died in the avoidable Bengal famine of 1943. There have been no such famines since independence.

Modern-day Bangladesh was one of the richest parts of the world before the British arrived and deliberately destroyed its cotton industry. When India's Andaman islands were devastated by the tsunami, who recalled that 80,000 political prisoners were held in camps there in the early 20th century and routinely experimented on by British army doctors? Perhaps it's not surprising that Hitler was an enthusiast, describing the British empire as an "inestimable factor of value" even if, he added, it had been acquired with "force and often brutality".

But there has been no serious attempt in Britain to face up to the record of colonialism and the long-term impact on the societies it ruled - let alone trials of elderly colonial administrators now living out their days in Surrey retirement homes. Instead, the third in line to the throne thinks it's a bit of a lark to go to a "colonials and natives" fancy dress party, while the national curriculum has more or less struck the empire and its crimes out of history. The standard GCSE modern world history textbook has chapter after chapter on the world wars, the cold war, British and American life, Stalin's terror and the monstrosities of Nazism - but scarcely a word on the British and other European empires which carved up most of the world between them, or the horrors they perpetrated.


#2 UlrikeSchuhFricke

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 06:22 PM

It would be interesting to know how the British Empire is taught in British schools. The new topic for my bilingual history class will be the British Empire and when I tried to find textbooks etc. for my pupils (bilingual mean that history is taught in English) I did not find as many as I would have found if I had looked for books covering the Industrial Revolution.
By the way, my colleague and I will use part of the Guardian article to start the new topic next week.

#3 Rowena Hopkins

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 02:20 AM

Living in Africa for 4 years meant that I often found myself pondering the issue of the British Empire. The general consensus amongst the Africans that I discussed it with was that the British were 'Not as bad' as the Belgians or the Portuguese and that they brought schools and roads and 'organisation'. this made me feel slightly less uncomfortable.

Ugandans are also quick to point out the most of their African leader post collonial era were actually worse than the British and some even voiced the opinion that they would quite like us to come back!

That said, none of these people were old enough to actually remember what life was like during colonial times - all they see are the railways, the roads and the universities. positive relics of a not very positive time. They have however lived through Obote and Amin and their own atrocities and know that African leaders are not faultless. of course they generously fail to mention who kept their corrupt leaders in power.

It would make a huge amount of sense for the collonial era and the carving up of Africa to be included in GCSE history. For one thing it might help the students to understand what the Italians were doing in Abyssinia, and why Germany was in any position to 'give' Rwanda to Belgium.

I was discussing history teaching with some Burundian friends last week and they remarked on the fact that whislt most Africans know their own histories and that of the USA and UK (or other European nation depending on their history), the North Americans and the British have no idea why Ugandans and Kenyans speak such good English, or why immigrants from West African generally move to France!

Rowena

#4 John Simkin

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Posted 29 January 2005 - 12:23 PM

But there has been no serious attempt in Britain to face up to the record of colonialism and the long-term impact on the societies it ruled - let alone trials of elderly colonial administrators now living out their days in Surrey retirement homes. Instead, the third in line to the throne thinks it's a bit of a lark to go to a "colonials and natives" fancy dress party, while the national curriculum has more or less struck the empire and its crimes out of history. The standard GCSE modern world history textbook has chapter after chapter on the world wars, the cold war, British and American life, Stalin's terror and the monstrosities of Nazism - but scarcely a word on the British and other European empires which carved up most of the world between them, or the horrors they perpetrated. (Seumas Milne)

Milne is overstating his case about GCSE textbooks. It is part of the National Curriculum that various interpretations of the past are considered. However, these books rarely show radical interpretations of the British Empire. It is usually limited to looking at individual cases such as that of General Dyer and the Amritsar Massacre.

Like the current case of prisoner abuse in Iraq, it is argued that cases such as this are due to the behaviour of misguided individuals. The message is always that the vast majority of soldiers were/are doing a great job.

What the textbooks do not do is to provide a Marxist interpretation of the British Empire. A classic example of this is the way textbooks deal with the issue of slavery. The books accurately describe the pain and suffered that resulted from slavery.

However, they completely distort the situation when describing what brought slavery and the slave trade to an end. In reality, the slave trade was brought to an end because it was no longer economical advantageous for capitalism to continue with this trade. (As predicted by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations).

Instead, the textbooks give the impression that slavery and the slave trade was brought to an end by a group of white male Christians led by William Wilberforce. Therefore the slave trade becomes a moral rather than an economic issue.

Textbooks writers also give the impression that Wilberforce and his crowd were also opposed to slavery. They were not. Wilberforce was only converted to this position just before his death. Wilberforce had always argued that slaves were not well-educated enough in the ways of Christianity to be granted their freedom.

Of course there were people in the UK arguing for the end of slavery at the beginning of the 19th century. But they were not evangelical Christians. They were usually Quakers or atheists. Many of the leaders of this movement were in fact women. Yet their names are never mentioned in most textbooks. Instead students are provided with the image that slavery was brought to an end by a white male Tory.

#5 Sumir Sharma

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Posted 30 January 2005 - 11:32 AM

A response to the article of Seumas Milne and contents therein and comments of Rowena Hopkins and John Simkin:

Is it not the question directed to the use of History in making of a nation and demand from the History scholars to define the role of the history in making of the “collective consciousness” firstly of a community which considers itself as a nation and secondly for whole of the world of Humanity? Somewhere it tells that there is expectation from history to deliver what only it can give and on the other hand it tells that History intellectual world is still not delivering.

Somewhere, there is demand from the world of history to give to the world a right definition and methodology of administering it to a community. The changing social scenario under the impact of advances made in science and technology has launched us on the course of human development wherein the humanity feel unsatisfied with the direction which it is taking. The disenchanted demeanors somewhere seek solace in spiritualism making the shops of Gurus, Saints, faith healers as commercial success and on the other side it is creating a humanity becoming more fearful, disinterested, confused and confounded.

I think Seumas Milne “bashing” ( if such an expression is permitted) is general type of response when it is found easy to do that because you have achieved what you required. I do not know why I am remembering a comment of one of my esteemed friend who use to say that value judgements, cultural practices and sermonizing attitude are function of your economic well being and power status in the society.

Secondly, the Seumas Milne is also another example wherein it is shown that in reality history still is a mistress to the political powers that matters. The real soul of history is never allowed to dictate the course of the political masters and it is always made to work an adjunct to the wider political games. A strong person can easily afford to be magnanimous to his victim if he has successfully thrashed him and when he finds the weaker person had condescended to his whims and now he has nothing to get out of him, he sometimes enjoys ego satisfaction in becoming votary of high standards and value systems. I do not mind if such statements hurts and it should hurt if there is realization. It should hurt if we are serious in undertaking such discussions and really serious about such exchanges.

Do you not find it funny to watch a man of power and good contacts defending his brat by saying that his innocent child is mad and just a child and that is why he is hitting you and stealing your goods? Do you not face such situations in your schools and colleges concerning the present generation? Now expand this situation and apply it to “The Protectors of Liberty and Freedom” when dealing with third world countries.

I remember that one day one of my friend was bragging about the basic character of Hindus and their human and non-violent philosophy. I confronted him with some facts from history and Hindu mythology. The first historic monarchy of India is that of Bimbisara. His son, Ajatsatru killed his father and his family members (Read Tribe Men) to take over the throne. Similarly, he killed the family members (that is, the Tribe men) from him mother side from Kosala Monarchy and Avanti who were related to Ajatsatru by marriage.

Another is of Asoka. It is on record, in the XIII inscription of Pillar inscription of Dhauli wherein the monarch narrates his expedition against Kalinga in the ninth years of his reign. He has caterogrically stated that he had killed 100,000 people and enslaved (John Simkin, I seek your attention) 150,000 people. Now after making comments against the erstwhile imperialistic countries, I am telling you some of the basic facts about a jewel in crown of the British Empire. The Pushymitra Sunga, who destroyed Mauryan Rule, is accused of prosecution of Buddhist to promote Bhagvatism (Vaishnavism). Later, Smudragupta of Gupta Dynasty, destroyed the Naga Raja and their confederacy who were identified as the central core of India of that time. I can give a list of Turks invasion of India indulging horrendous imperialistic (if this concept is allowed to be exported that period) atrocities upto 1757 the year when Clive played the drama of Battle of Plassey with the help of Mir Jafar, Jagat Seth (Gujarati) and Amin Chand Arora ( a Punjabi) after befooling Captain Watson.

Now, If nationalist historians read all what I have said, they may make efforts to get me booked for sedition.

However, I am mere a student, who is trying to learn something. I feel, the real issue is that there is need for finding a right place for the subject of history and it is definitely needed; the attitude of mind which the study of history imparts, and right definition of history with which the national curriculum should be framed. There is need on the part of the students (mature learners), teachers and scholars of history to assert their understanding and convey it to the immediate bosses – the political parties and the government – that history should be taught throughout the academic life at least at school level. I am not overstating it. There is also need to teach the niceties of languages in the courses like that of sciences, commerce and business studies. It is not being done. It is known fact that how the Professors of Commerce, Computer Sciences, Accountancy and Business Studies react when they are told that they should include language studies and cultural studies in their curriculum. They do not care to respond to such advises from language and history departments.

I still remember, when I was a school student, there used be a class of Moral Science (May be a practice contiuing since the days of British Raj or at that time India needed to project herself as a united nation and country – You know the legacy of British Empire for the Indian Nation). But it was discontinued because India wanted to project herself as a secular country and in order to conduct the classes of Moral science they had been picking stories form different religions which could teach piety and moral values to the young impressionist mind. It was removed but nothing replaced it. Now, the one billion strong country is facing problems like drugs addiction, increasing threat to conservative social fiber of the “Great India” (only for last 58 years) due to changing moral values and assertion by Generation Next in issues of sex, breaking of joint families and absence of adequate social securities. While being on this forum, I have found, other communities are also facing problems on social level and somewhere teaching world is related to such issues as the first agency which could do something for their respective societies (nations-countries). In case of teachers from the field of social sciences, which I am surprised to learn, are considered as marginal subjects in western world, teachers of history definitely have a big role to play. They have to however do one thing. They must start a debate that what they are going to deliver through history. Will they just continue to tow the line of the forces in power or state in clear terms the exact contents of history which the subject should carry in school class rooms and they themselves have enough strength in their argument to tell that which form of interpretation has to be promoted without being overwhelmed by one type of interpretation?

I am ready to accept here that I myself do not know which definition is to be promoted. But, there is definitely a need to find answer to this question. Otherwise, all such articles are mere political statements benefiting one or the other political party but doing a major harm to the existence of the subject.

In the end, I want to make a statement about my view of history and its role in making my thought world. When I was a student, the courses taught in the school and colleges were only Indian history. I had become a great hatter of anything British or western world. My slogan was Be Indian and Buy Indian. Now, I am great admirer of British Empire because I am studying it as a student of history. I have a feeling that everything about Germany is not liked by European people but now I am a great admirer of German Nation or Deutsche Land. In India, there is dichotomy and duality in responses of Indians towards issues related to America but I am highly impressed by the country United States of America. I have not lost faith in the concept of God but I have become highly skeptical and critical about what I do while pursuing my religious sentiments. I have developed these versions in my thought pattern by my independent study. I attribute all these things to my study of history.

#6 John Simkin

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 12:14 PM

I think Seumas Milne “bashing” ( if such an expression is permitted) is general type of response when it is found easy to do that because you have achieved what you required. I do not know why I am remembering a comment of one of my esteemed friend who use to say that value judgements, cultural practices and sermonizing attitude are function of your economic well being and power status in the society.

Secondly, the Seumas Milne is also another example wherein it is shown that in reality history still is a mistress to the political powers that matters. The real soul of history is never allowed to dictate the course of the political masters and it is always made to work an adjunct to the wider political games.  A strong person can easily afford to be magnanimous to his victim if he has successfully thrashed him and when he finds the weaker person had condescended to his whims and now he has nothing to get out of him, he sometimes enjoys ego satisfaction in becoming votary of high standards and value systems. I do not mind if such statements hurts and it should hurt if there is realization. It should hurt if we are serious in undertaking such discussions and really serious about such exchanges....

I want to make a statement about my view of history and its role in making my thought world. When I was a student, the courses taught in the school and colleges were only Indian history. I had become a great hatter of anything British or western world. My slogan was Be Indian and Buy Indian. Now, I am great admirer of British Empire because I am studying it as a student of history. I have a feeling that everything about Germany is not liked by European people but now I am a great admirer of German Nation or Deutsche Land. In India, there is dichotomy and duality in responses of Indians towards issues related to America but I am highly impressed by the country United States of America. I have not lost faith in the concept of God but I have become highly skeptical and critical about what I do while pursuing my religious sentiments. I have developed these versions in my thought pattern by my independent study. I attribute all these things to my study of history.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


You are no doubt right that the views expressed by Milne and myself is “easy to do that because you have achieved what you required… the value judgements, cultural practices and sermonizing attitude are function of your economic well being and power status in the society.”

At the same time, it is even easier to provide a narrative of the past that encourages nationalism and patriotism. Most people in the UK are very hostile to the views expressed by people like Milne. The real pressure is to teach about the great things that our country has done in the past rather than the crimes we have committed.
I am sure the same is true of India. As you point out, this is more difficult to do when you have not reached the stage of “economic well being”.

This is true of the individual. It is a painful experience for anyone to acknowledge the mistakes they have made in the past. However, without doing this, you are in danger of repeating your mistakes.

The role of the historian is to point out the mistakes governments have made in the past. It is also important to identify those individuals who got it right at the time. This was my point about slavery. There were some individuals who grasped that European governments were behaving immorally during the development of the slave trade. Despite all the pressures they encountered at the time, they refused to be shifted on this point. Therefore their role should be acknowledged. Instead, our textbooks provide a false image of the past by claiming that government action against the slave trade was motivated by morality when in fact it was an economic decision.

The same is true today. Bush and Blair attempt to argue that they are involved in a moral campaign to bring democracy to Iraq. In reality, this campaign is all about economics and politics and has nothing to do with morality. I believe that people who have a good understanding of the economic reasons for the British Empire, will understand the situation today better than those who believe that it was part of a strategy to turn the world into Christians.

#7 Sumir Sharma

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Posted 01 February 2005 - 06:10 AM

There is an article in The Tribune published in arrangement with The Independent by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. The title of the article in bit uncomfortable and it is Better to ban history than teach supremacy.


It seems that the content of the subject of history in schools is becoming alive and a debate when elections are approaching.

As it is stated in the previous post, the history is being used by the Politicians as their most abused mistress. In India also when February 3, 2005 will see elections to three states, there are some issues which are being misused by the Politicians with impunity and the Election Commission watch because it fails to learn the lessons of history. The Politicians are even dragging judiciary into it and making mockery of the established civilized ways. It lays demand on the serious students of history whether they are teacher, general readers or research scholars that they must come up with the right definition of history which should be followed at school level.

History is a science which involved gathering of data, classification, interpretation and final generalization. However, the very nature of history does not allow making generalization easy for every one. However, the stage of interpretation is more important and issue of concern for the human society as a whole in this very present. It is this aspect of history which should be taken up by the scholars and help the education system to adopt. They should ensure that the politicians should not use history only when they need it.

In my nearly seven posts, I have been making this point. I have no doubt about the value of learning history. But, as a teacher, I face many dilemmas. No body has asked me a question in my class, but I always fear the day if someone ask me while teaching Gupta Age in Ancient period that why was India remained for One thousand (1000 A. D. to 1947 A. D.) years under tutelage when she had such an illustrious heritage. Similarly Richards in his book Mughal Empire in New Cambridge History had tackled a very ticklish and sensitive issue of Rajput loyalty towards the Mughal court. He had taken help of Norman P. Ziegler’s “Some Notes on Rajput Loyalties During the Mughal Period” in J. F. Richards, ed., Kingship and Authority in South Asia, (Madison Wisconsin, South Asian Studies No 3, 1978)
He made to very assertive remarks:
a. “Submission to the Timurid dynasty did not violate the Rajput Dharma or inherited code for moral conduct as set out in the bardic literature of the period.” pp. 22
b. For many Thakurs, notably the Rana of Mewar, supplying Rajput noblewomen for the emperor or princes was seen as a disgraceful submission. Those houses who offered brides had made the critical gesture of subordination.” Pp.22
Now the above observations are true. But, Will I be able to explain like that in my classroom?

I am happy being in this forum because it is giving outlet to me. I am finding myself among such scholars who are ready to take up this issue although I have found only a couple of such scholars responding to it. May be my command over language is not communicating my real doubts. However, the issue is and it is an important issue facing the whole humanity how to frame their “collective Consciousness”.

I desire to repeat two paragraphs from my earlier post which are as follows:
I still remember, when I was a school student, there used be a class of Moral Science (May be a practice continuing since the days of British Raj or at that time India needed to project herself as a united nation and country – You know the legacy of British Empire for the Indian Nation). But it was discontinued because India wanted to project herself as a secular country and in order to conduct the classes of Moral science they had been picking stories form different religions which could teach piety and moral values to the young impressionist mind. It was removed but nothing replaced it. Now, the one billion strong country is facing problems like drugs addiction, increasing threat to conservative social fiber of the “Great India” (only for last 58 years) due to changing moral values and assertion by Generation Next in issues of sex, breaking of joint families and absence of adequate social securities. While being on this forum, I have found, other communities are also facing problems on social level and somewhere teaching world is related to such issues as the first agency which could do something for their respective societies (nations-countries). In case of teachers from the field of social sciences, which I am surprised to learn, are considered as marginal subjects in western world, teachers of history definitely have a big role to play. They have to however do one thing. They must start a debate that what they are going to deliver through history. Will they just continue to tow the line of the forces in power or state in clear terms the exact contents of history which the subject should carry in school class rooms and they themselves have enough strength in their argument to tell that which form of interpretation has to be promoted without being overwhelmed by one type of interpretation?

In the end, I want to make a statement about my view of history and its role in making my thought world. When I was a student, the courses taught in the school and colleges were only Indian history. I had become a great critic of anything British or western world. My slogan was Be Indian and Buy Indian. Now, I am great admirer of British Empire because I am studying it as a student of history. I have a feeling that everything about Germany is not liked by European people but now I am a great admirer of German Nation or Deutsche Land. In India, there is dichotomy and duality in responses of Indians towards issues related to America but I am highly impressed by the country United States of America. I have not lost faith in the concept of God but I have become highly skeptical and critical about what I do while pursuing my religious sentiments. I have developed these versions in my thought pattern by my independent study. I attribute all these things to my study of history.

#8 Niall Ferguson

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 01:37 PM

It has been drawn to my attention that Seumas Milne has once again been heaping opprobrium on the history of the British empire, not to mention on me. Milne makes the mistake of concluding from a small number of familiar episodes - the Bengal famines, Mau Mau - that the history of the British empire is nothing more than a history of "horrors". He also implies an equivalence with "Stalin's terror and the monstrosities of Nazism". What he fails to consider is the entire balance sheet of British rule, as well as the counterfactual question: would British colonies have achieved more peace and prosperity in the absence of British rule? Certainly, in the case of many African countries, it is clear that they would not. Many have, in fact, achieved next to no economic progress since independence - quite a feat given the rates of growth of the rest of the world economy. Finally, Milne leaves out of account that foreign rule has no monopoly on "barbarity". Sadly, the worst barbarities perpetrated against Africans in the 20th century have been by other Africans. Compared with the genocide in Rwanda, to name just one example, the repression of Mau Mau was a minor, if deplorable episode. Oh, and spare me the Robert Mugabe line that everything that goes amiss in Africa today is a legacy of colonialism.

#9 Richard Gott

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 02:00 PM

From his lofty vantage point at Harvard, Niall Ferguson should know as well as anyone that the British empire (like the American) was built on genocide and slavery. No amount of his counterfactual history can obliterate the obvious reality that the peace and prosperity provided to white settlers and their native allies weighed little in the balance sheet of the slaves and indigenous peoples.

Not a year went by in colonial history, as itemised in my forthcoming book, Our Empire Story, that was not marked by resistance. The crushing of rebellion was achieved largely through terror, with Indians being blown from guns and Africans in Rhodesia, the forbears of Robert Mugabe, being herded into caves and blown up with dynamite. Some prosperity, some peace.

#10 Andy Walker

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Posted 12 January 2006 - 11:47 AM

I have just revamped a collection of lesson activities for early secondary school students on the British Empire
http://www.education...3_2/empire4.htm




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