Black Lives Matter protest, Photo: Shabbir Lakha Black Lives Matter protest, Photo: Shabbir Lakha

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, a radical approach is needed to teaching the truth about Britain’s colonial past, argues Orlando da Rocha Hill.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, a Parliamentary petition was launched demanding the UK government make the teaching of Britain’s role in colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade compulsory in schools, “with the ultimate aim of a far more inclusive curriculum.” Over 260,000 signed the petition, more than double needed for Parliament to debate the issue.

The rationale behind the petition was that vital information had been withheld from the people by institutions meant to educate them. “By educating on the events of the past, we can forge a better future. Colonial powers must own up to their pasts by raising awareness of the forced labour of Black people, past and present mistreatment of BAME people, and most importantly, how this contributes to the unfair systems of power at the foundation of our modern society.” In short, petitioners want people to understand the historic reasons for racism and inequality. 

On 30 July, the government responded to the petition, stating that 

‘Within the history curriculum there is already a statutory theme at Key Stage 3 titled “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901”, as such we do not believe there is a need to take this action as the option to teach this topic exists within this compulsory theme. The history curriculum gives teachers and schools the freedom and flexibility to use specific examples from history to teach pupils about the history of Britain and the wider world at all stages. It is for schools and teachers themselves to determine which examples, topics and resources to use to stimulate and challenge pupils and reflect key points in history.’

It is true that there are quite a few opportunities to teach about the British Empire in the curriculum. Teachers have the option to choose “Britain’s transatlantic slave trade: its effects and its eventual abolition” or “the development of the British Empire with a depth study (for example of India)” among other topics. However, it is non-statutory. Schools can choose to ignore them and opt for totally different topics, such as “Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’” or “Britain as the first industrial nation – the impact on society”

Reading the national curriculum, the transatlantic slave trade and the British Empire are just two topics among many which schools can choose to teach or ignore. The national curriculum makes history resemble a pick and mix sweet shop and not a flow of events, contradictions, and struggles that have led to our present time. 

Hiding the truth

Even if schools choose to teach about the slave trade and the British Empire, the problem is that it is framed by the ‘Whig view’ of history where Britain peacefully evolves for the better – gradualism. 

To promote this view, critical facts of history are papered over. For example, as regards the slave trade, students are asked to start from 1745, when pressure was already starting to build to end the slave trade. But Britain’s role precedes this date by hundreds of years. 

England’s first slave-trade expedition was that of Sir John Hawkins in 1562. Like most Elizabethan ventures, it was a buccaneering expedition seeking to break the Portuguese monopoly on trade with Africa guaranteed by a papal arbitration of 1493. The slaves were sold to the Spaniards in the West Indies. England became fully engaged in the slave trade in 1663 with the incorporation of the Company of Royal Adventurers by the Stuart monarchy who granted it the monopoly on trade with Africa. 

The struggles of the slaves themselves are often downplayed as well, creating the myth of a docile population taken in chains to the market without any resistance. 

But this is a major omission indeed. Resistance against slavery started in Africa in 1568 with the raids of the Jagas against the Kingdom of Kongo who were allied with the Portuguese and profited in the slave trade. 

There were also revolts and uprisings in the Americas. Runaway slaves formed free communities known as Quilombos or Maroons. Jamaican maroons date back to 1493. These constant revolts made slavery unprofitable and led to its eventual abolition. As Marx pointed out “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Apart from omitting or downplaying historical facts, a gradualist understanding obscures the extent to which the British ruling class continues to benefit from past exploitation—and BAME people and the working class continue to suffer. 

Without the slave trade, there would be no industrial revolution and no British Empire. The profits gained from this trade formed one of the main streams for accumulation of capital which financed the industrial revolution. It provided a market for manufactured goods from British industry and New England agricultural and Newfoundland fishery.

The framing of the slave trade question as merely that of “Britain’s role” limits our understanding. The transatlantic slave trade was a global enterprise with England competing with other nations mainly France, the Netherlands and Portugal, who also had outposts in Africa and colonies in the Americas. We cannot understand the slave trade and its global consequences if we solely focus on Britain.

It also ignores the fact that racism is the consequence of slavery. There is no scientific evidence that black Africans were better suited to slavery because of their hard-working and docile attitude. Slavery was the solution, in certain historic circumstances, to the problem of a shortage of labour. 

As Eric Williams points out in his classic Capitalism and Slavery, “at times that labour has been slave, at other times nominally free; at times black, at other times white or brown or yellow.” Slavery was an economic problem caused by a commodity-producing system whose main objective was profiting making. 

A class issue

Another point that is rarely raised is how the British Empire and imperialism had a negative impact on the working class here. It is very important that a new curriculum includes the working class – inclusion is paramount. 

Racist ideas about foreigners – Social Darwinism – was used to exclude the working class from political life. The domestic equivalent of racism is snobbery, treating us as lesser beings. This effect has corrupted and stunted the lives of millions, and it needs to be redressed. 

We can see this snobbery at work with this year’s A level results. Students from prosperous areas did well and had their grades confirmed. Meanwhile, those from more deprived areas saw their results downgraded.

A radical approach

For all these reasons, the British role in the slave trade and the long history of the British Empire should be framed as a national shame, as the Third Reich is in Germany. After all, the crimes committed by the British Empire make up an extensive list. It completely wiped out native Tasmanians. During the Boer War (1899-1902) 107,000 people were detained in concentration camps resulting in the death of 30 thousand Boers. In the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, at least 379 civilians were killed by soldiers firing their rifles straight into the crowd who had been blocked inside the Jallianwala Gardens. During the Mau Mau uprising (1951-60), hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were raped, tortured, and killed by British colonial forces. Millions of Indians died of famine under the British Raj. So ethnic cleansing, cultural and economic devastation and environmental destruction should be included in any reasonable history.

The petition states that it is “by educating on the events of the past, we can forge a better future.” If we are serious about forging a more equal society without racism or the mistreatment of anyone, we need to understand how past events have contributed “to the unfair systems of power at the foundation of our modern society.” We also need to learn from past examples of resistance. That is part of our history that has been withheld from us by the institutions that are meant to educate us. 

Many teachers do teach a radical approach, but decolonisation needs a much more radical approach indeed. Students need to have more democratic control and ownership over the curriculum so that they can research specific areas in more depth. 

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Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.