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History is undeniable; it is the lifeblood of every institution, family, industry, and country today. Failing to learn about our history massively disadvantages our opportunities for progression. Failing to educate the general public about the reality of empire, the reality of Britain’s past, the reality of ex-colonies’ present, all enables groups within the population to reminisce about an era when they were ‘powerful’ or when ‘life was better’ – a plain-faced lie.
Core topics in the U.K. educational curriculum avoid teaching the general public about Britain’s long and, by contemporary standards, disgraceful history in terms of empire, genocide, war crimes, etc. in colonies. As a result the empire upon which ‘the sun never sets’ is embraced by much of today’s public: 49% of Britons still think that the British Empire was a force for good that improved the lives of colonised nations, and only 15% think it left them worse off, YouGov data show.
The truth is the brutality of empire was felt to an extraordinary degree by Britain’s colonies from the 17th Century to the 20th Century. The empire began with plantations in Ireland, then settlements in North America, then (primarily sugar) plantations in the Caribbean islands and Bahamas, then onto Southern Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand and more. It is vital to know that the basis of empire for the majority of these colonies was slavery: until its’ abolition in 1807, Britain transported 3.5 million Africans to America. This equates to one third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic. The British Empire was entirely dependent on slavery as the basis of the fast-growing economies of their colonies. Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool were the homes of the most profitable slave traders and their practices in the UK.
The history of empire is a vastly important basis for our world today, and it is also, from a historical viewpoint, an extremely interesting focus for analysis, being rich with European power politics, wars, revolts, and genocide.
These are not topics we shy away from at any other point in history. WWII is emphatically taught, emphasising the grand position of the allies in defeating fascism; Henry VIII and the power-politics of earlier European empires are frequently discussed as the start of Britain’s introduction to the power stage. Failing to include empire in the core education of the public is an enormous disadvantage to not just the four billion poor because of the legacy of colonialism, not just to people of colour suffering from socially constructed notions of racial hierarchy created by colonists, but to the vast population who are also unknowingly suffering due to imperialist policy.
The truth of colonialism is not just slavery, it is its’ economic legacy; or as Maya Goodfellow states:
“Four billion people are not poor because of some unhappy accident or an inherent failing; legacies of colonialism, extractive capitalist economies and racialised hierarchies of power produce poverty”
It is not just the war crimes and genocide, but also the truth of the vast majority of the British population living in abysmal conditions in slums, then working in labour at the dawn of industrialisation, producing manufactured goods from the raw resources cultivated by colonies. The 18th and 19th centuries are an example of disgraceful working and living conditions, and of extreme social inequality, that the majority of Britain is shaped by today. Industrial cities such as Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, and realistically the majority of Northern cities, will frequently see grand factories that used to be (and in some cases continue to be) home to hosiery, textiles, steel works and much more.
Now colonialism is over, these cities are faced with similar fundamental issues to ex-colonies, on a much smaller scale; the economy forced upon them by the highest classes has been swept back away from under their feet leaving abundant opportunity for progress, socially and economically, without the oppression of imperialism – but no guidance, no feasible route to make this happen.
Entire cities’, entire countries’, economies are still dependent on the exporting of raw resources (or low-value products) and on large populations of working class only made capable of working in labour (and by this I mean, disadvantaged from reaching the opportunities offered to higher classes, such as affordable higher education, or affordable living opportunities in cities where high-paying jobs are etc). Fixing this structural inequality requires it to be transparent, not for it to be purposefully hidden in the fog of ignorance through educational neglect. It is so vital, so clearly valuable to society as a whole that those ignorant of the history of colonialism realise that those complaining about its brutality are allies, not enemies.
- A question from VOXEU: “Retracing our steps 500 years, or back to the verge of this colonial project, we see little inequality and small differences between poor and rich countries (perhaps a factor of four). Now the differences are a factor of more than 40, if we compare the richest to the poorest countries in the world. What role did colonialism play in this?”
- Why has Britain’s imperial history been missing from the curriculum?
- Could a more historically accurate education have an effect on the way the population thinks?
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