The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has suggested changes to the history curriculum to show a less biased view of the British Empire. Changes include discussing how the Empire expanded “at the expense of people”, along with the negative impact of British Imperialism and the slave trade.
This marks an important change in the usual narrative of glorifying our historical achievements, no matter the cost. The role of Great Britain in the slave trade and other suffering around the world, particularly of black and minority ethnic people, is often brushed aside. Children are taught that we once had the largest empire in the world, but not of the way people under our rule were mistreated.
Under British rule, India’s formerly powerful economy suffered and they experienced more famines in decades than they had in the thousand years prior. Even David Cameron, our former Prime Minister, has admitted that many of the world’s problems today come from the decisions made during the British Empire. In India, entire systems were dismantled by the British, including important education systems.
British denial of our crimes worldwide has gone too far. Winston Churchill is celebrated in education and throughout British culture and was recently put on the new £5 banknote. This ignores the fact that he was not only complicit in, but actively engaged in what some have called the “starving” of India, a famine which resulted in the death of three million people.
As recently as the 1950s, Britain was committing atrocities in countries under our rule. In Kenya, the Mau Mau revolt resulted in almost an entire population of 1.5 million people being detained in camps and prisons. Many were beaten to death or died from malnutrition or disease. While imprisoned, many were used as slave labour, and interrogation under torture was common. The Mau Mau rebels had local support, too, from those who wanted to reclaim their land from British rule.
Many of these crimes have been covered up by those involved, including the Governor of Kenya at the time, who stepped in to ensure those involved weren’t prosecuted. In fact, in other cases, those who committed atrocities were rewarded. In 1919, in Amritsar, India, troops opened fire on protesters, killing an unknown number that could be more than 1000 people. They created an enclosed area, causing a stampede and a lethal crush, and a further 1000 were injured. Later, after debate in Parliament as to whether the General Reginald Dyer’s actions were justified, he was awarded £26,000 and labelled a hero for ‘saving India’.
Just a few examples that show the rosy view of the British Empire, as often taught in schools, is utterly inaccurate. To hide the legacy of poverty we left behind in colonised countries is dishonest to the modern world, and to hide the crimes we committed while decrying dictators around the world is the peak of hypocrisy.
What Jeremy Corbyn proposes is a worthy attempt at correcting the wrongs of the past, but more must be done to address our culture of glorifying our bloody, disruptive history. Entire countries have suffered at our hand and the legacy of the British Empire remains. Now, it is up to the Conservative Party to follow through on Corbyn’s suggestion – whether they will or not remains to be seen.