Writer Tré Ventour asks Does Britain Really Have Historical Amnesia? as he reflects on his experience as a young black man educated in Britain.
When you’re a member of a West Indian family and have grandparents from the islands, you pick up a few things. I’ve known about colonialism since the day I was old enough to read. Colonialism is not taught in schools.
All my knowledge about slavery and the British Empire comes from books, the internet and my family. Something is very wrong here. My parents saw that they couldn’t rely on the English education system to be honest about Britain’s beginnings.
I’m the second generation of my family to be born in England, and subsequently I’m a product of the Empire. One would expect Britain to teach British history, all of it. Growing up, I was often silenced for constructively trying to discuss significant historical events such as: the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Easter Risings and The Partition of India. They are parts of history that many people of this country would rather forget.
As a nation, we are quick to remember the English white men who died fighting the Nazis, but no songs are sung for the men of colour from the colonies that died fighting the very same threats. Without them, it is highly likely the Allies would have met defeat in The First World War and hence, be too weak to fight in the second.
Typically, the way of the English is to sweep uncomfortable topics under the rug and pretend they don’t exist.
‘Keep calm and carry on’ is a common saying associated with Britain, and can be applied to her historical amnesia when it comes to talking about the British Empire. Since its release, I’ve managed to watch Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House twice.
Her film is a potent critique of British India’s politics and how Churchill cleaved a hole through people’s lives, for oil, in constructing Pakistan for the Muslim minority. Partition is not a clean cut. It’s a bloody axe. You won’t read that in any history book because history is written by the victors.
Whether we’re talking about Slavery, The Opium Wars, The Jacobite Rebellion, Ireland’s Easter Risings or George III’s mad exploits in America, colonialism needs to be addressed. The children of this country should know this nation’s history, a past that goes beyond Boudicca, Hitler, and the Liberal Reforms (1906 – 1914).
As a child, I was taught about the Saxons, Viking raids and the Romans. At GCSE, I studied Hitler, Vietnam, Civil Rights and the Cold War. At A-Level students study the Holocaust, the Cold War and many others. English education says no to colonialism and the Empire. It says no to Post-war Immigration and the Cotton Famine.
Today’s children don’t know about how African slaves built the Tate Gallery or how the West Indian and African women saved the NHS. But English education says yes to Christopher Columbus, the man who discovered America even though the Native Americans were already there. Thus, genocide occurred and now America celebrates Thanksgiving.
Britain became one of the most fruitful economies in the world due to its remorseless rape of countries they thought primitive. Centuries later, nations like India are wrought with poverty and disease, elements in which the British Empire could be labelled as a catalyst. I should know. I was there last summer and the Empire’s effects still linger.
Knowledge is power. You can’t sensor it and many families are only here today because of colonialism. I am only here today because of colonialism. Our neighbours, our friends and many families are products of imperialism. The English education system has failed today’s youth and this is even more potent in a post-Brexit society.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
[…] by extension, subjects like colonialism aren’t taught much in British schools (see my article “The Empire Shuts Its Mouth”). […]
Great article Tre. It is poignant and reflective. I must say as a 47 year black woman of Caribbean descent I have no recollection of learning black history as the teacher has delightfully described above. Only drips of the Civil Rights Movement and slavery from the white man’s perspective.
I am pleased and proud your family have guided you and supported your thirst for knowledge.
Look forward to hearing more from you.
Totally agree with the sentiments but I don’t think it’s a true description of the secondary school history syllabus. I taught history in a Northamptonshire secondary school and, certainly up to my retirement in 2010, taught many of the topics Tré mentions to Year 9 classes (13- & 14-year olds) – that is, before history becomes an optional subject. So, all students learned about the slave trade, the plantation systems in the West Indies, the emancipation movement at home and the rebellions in the colonies, the economic position of former slaves and their descendants after emancipation, and the end of colonial rule. And about Marcus Garvey and about Rastafarianism. And I don’t think I was unusual as a teacher. We all followed more or less the same schemes of work.
Other anti-imperialist struggles too. When I cycled, in retirement, an end-to-end of Ireland, I stayed one night in Castlebar, the main town of County Mayo in the far west. Full of memorials to the Irish Land League and others and then, the next morning, I pedalled to the farm (now a museum) where Michael Davitt was born. Now, if I had a pound for every lesson I’ve taught about Davitt and the Land League …
And if there was a parents evening before a topic such as slavery, I would always ask black parents if their children would be comfortable with the material. (Ditto Jewish parents before a topic such as the holocaust; and, on one occasion, Japanese parents before the topic of Hiroshima.) Because, of course, most classes have got black students and I can’t imagine a history teacher silencing any student who wants to discuss a topic. On the contrary, it’s a bonus.
I do remember one “funny” story, though, that illustrates the point about amnesia even after a dozen lessons one year. (“Funny” in the sense that the black girl involved, and I, broke down in hysterical laughter.) That particular year, we had classes for history “set by ability” (for an experiment and for one year only). There was a group of very bright girls who were all good friends, one of whom was black (of Barbados heritage if I remember correctly). These girls all sat around one big table. They’d enjoyed lessons on slavery, life on the plantations, poverty after emancipation and mass migration to the UK in the fifties and sixties – lasting about half-a-term. In a quiet pause during the last lesson before the holidays, one very bright girl at the table turned to her black friend and asked, “So Janine, let me get this right, were your great-great grandparents slaves? I mean, really, were they slaves?” Janine said the first thing that came into her head: “Jesus, Lorraine, why the f*cking hell do you think I’m here?” I collapsed in a fit of hysterical laughter, Janine joined in, and the only other sound in the classroom was of pennies finally dropping!