How Much do British Students Learn About Their Imperial History in Schools?

You don’t really teach colonial history in your schools…children doing A-Levels in history don’t learn a line of colonial history.” – Shashi Tharoor.

The lack of British Empire in school curriculums has always been a hot topic.  Shashi Tharoor, Indian MP, argued that the British suffer a “historical amnesia” regarding the atrocities of the Empire. This, combined with the release of his new book ‘Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India’, has brought the issue of the lack of Imperial history in school cirriculums back into the spotlight.  On this particular argument, I for one, cannot help but agree with Tharoor’s claim.

Scrolling through the list of modules offered by the History department at my University, my eyes are immediately drawn to the words “Life and Death in British India”.  I’m filled with a sense of glee and amazement at the possible opportunity of studying the British Empire and its effects on one of its colonies. I eagerly follow the link to the module description. The first line reads; “What was life like for Britons living in India under the Raj?” The module is in fact not about the life of the native people but about the Britons living in India during colonial rule. My disappointment following this– quite frankly, unsurprising- realisation is soon replaced with exasperation and a revival of annoyance.  Once again, an opportunity to gain insight into the lives of the colonised during Imperial rule is disregarded.

This realisation, however, is nothing new. The absence of the British Empire in all my years of studying History (which spans from primary school to college) has long occupied my mind. In primary school we were taught about the Romans, Normans, Saxons, and Vikings. In high school we learn about the World Wars and the Civil Rights movement. In college we study the Tudors and the Cold War. In all these years there is not a mention of the British Empire. Yet in Britain majority of the public are proud of the Empire. A poll by YouGov found 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s colonial history while only 21 per cent regretted that it happened. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, encouraged the public to be proud of their Imperial history. This pride, however, is entirely based on an altered history of the Empire with the omission of its dark side.

It is true that the British created effective infrastructure in its colonies, as well as creating a unification through language, and allowed for the expansion of globalization. The construction of the Indian railways (something that Revisionists never fail to mention), is one of the most popular examples of the positives of Imperial rule. Though it had a significant role in improving the economy, it was not the average Indian taxpayer who benefitted from this but the British government. As Jacqueline Banerjee states, “although an India without its railways is unimaginable, both sides of the balance sheet need to be taken into account, and this does mean examining the negative effects of the great legacy”. There is no mention of the atrocities committed by the British Empire, the list of which is indeed extensive. The British Monarch was even given the title of ‘Empress/Emperor’ of India. That in itself signifies the importance of the subcontinent yet it remains to be included in the school curriculum. With the dissolution of the British Empire the sacrifices and sufferings of the colonised people were left behind, overlooked and eventually forgotten.

This significant aspect of British history is absent from the history classes. The pride in the Empire is based on looted treasures, fabled romances, and glamorised ‘costumes’.  British Imperialism is almost never mentioned but when it is, it is with an undue pride.  This history should be taught in schools for this very reason. Yes, the effect of the British Empire was on a magnificent scale, there is no denying that. The fact of the matter is, Imperial rule was there for the benefit of the British government. Would they have accomplished such significant achievements if they knew the Empire would crumble beneath them?  I think not.

History should be taught objectively, without alteration or overlooking aspects of it which do not sit well with our conscience. Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, argues that if history is not taught honestly then “it is merely propaganda”.  The teaching of Britain’s Imperial past in schools will help students better understand the world around them and how the rest of the world perceives them. In an age of ‘fake news’, it is incumbent that students of all ages are taught to have a sense of inquiry, to critically question the material they are presented with, and to acknowledge that there are different interpretations of history according to how it affected people. At its height, the British Empire ruled over a quarter of the world’s population. It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Given the extent of the influence the British Empire had, both at home and abroad, it is essential that if we are to understand our world we must study the Empire, warts and all.

It is unfair, and frankly downright cruel, to omit such a momentous part of history and to erase the suffering of a people on whose backs the Empire stood.

Written by Fatimah Saleem

Fatimah Saleem is an English Literature student who loves all things sci-fi and fantasy. She’s passionate about history, feminism, and poetry.