Teaching about the British Empire

Dave Levy
4 min readNov 9, 2023

I rather enjoy the portfolio of videos made by Simon Whistler, and recently watched one on how the history of the British Empire is taught in British Schools.

Like many, he tries to look at the benefits, such as increased trade, good government, and developed infrastructure, although this is focused on the later stages of the empire. It like Ferguson’s book Empire, but not the TV show, reviewed critically by Andrew Porter, ignores the destruction of Mughal Empire and its economy. Whistler quotes a UK educationalist later in the video, arguing that the colonised territories may well have developed these things themselves even where they did not have such things before the British arrived.

by dfl1955, me, taken at the V+A CC 2006 BY-ND

What took me to “Empire” was my memory of the line, about what may define the best of the Empire was the way it ended. Ferguson argues that Britain bankrupted itself fighting fascism in Europe and that its debts to the Commonwealth (and the US) and its impoverishment led to its dissolution. The catalogue of pre-war & post-war atrocities makes this hard to sustain.

Whistler pulls no punches over Britain’s engagement in slavery, the slave trade, its active ethnic cleansing in India, both during the initial colonisation wars, and latterly during partition, the invention of concentration camps, the incidence of civilian massacres, and the use of famine as a tool of political control, although Whistler argues the last of these, and even the partition of India was incompetence, callousness and hubris.

Whistler looks at the development of the national curriculum, noting Thatcher and Cameron’s reforms; I studied history at school, from 1966–1974, i.e. before these governments and our curriculum for world politics ended in 1939, not as argued by “1066 and all that”, in 1945. Politicians and teachers were too frightened to allow recent history to be taught; they considered it politics and forbidden.

Whistler reports that the national history curriculum has always included difficult topics but getting them into the classroom was more difficult due to the curriculum being overfull and the topics actually taught were left to teacher choice and of course the remaining political scrutiny which has not gone away.

--

--

Dave Levy

Brit, Londoner, economist, Labour, privacy, cybersecurity, traveller, father - mainly writing about UK politics & IT, https://linktr.ee/davelevy