David Cameron had the audacity this week to argue that Jamaica should just “move on” from the systematic oppression it faced at the hands of the British. Beyond merely criticising politicians for their woeful lack of self-awareness, and damning ignorance of historical context, remarks such as this raise a wider question. How can we expect a previously colonised country to move on from their past, when there is a lack of introspection in Britain about its historic role as oppressor?
The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, told young Labour supporters earlier this week that the history curriculum taught in the United Kingdom should teach children that the expansion of imperial Britain was made “at the expense of people”. His call should be heeded.
Although examples of British colonial practices are historically situated, contemporary inequalities in the distribution of wealth and resources are linked to these instances of brutality, subjugation and exploitation. In light of historical enquiries, there is now no contention to be made about the notion that Britain extracted profits from countries under its expansionist umbrella. Britain attempted to impose its own cultural values, branding such values as ‘civilised’.
Yes, the economic standing of previous British colonies has been affected by the differences in post-independence administrations. However, this does not in any way reduce the need to encourage a heightened sense of awareness about how these countries lacked independence in the first place.
It does not have to be the case that school children are taught this to feel guilty about their country’s past. It is not about guilt. Rather, it is about encouraging a greater sense of awareness about our own history, where we recognise quite explicitly that Britain stood as the oppressor. What needs to be emphatically taught, not least amongst school children, is that Britain’s prosperity was not independent of its colonial ventures. Britain embarked on a programme of imperialism which allowed it to directly extract profits from the countries it colonised.
Studies are now bringing to light the national amnesia within Scotland surrounding slavery. A book edited by Tom Devine, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection, was released this year, highlighting instances in Scottish history where there were parallels to the exploitation of the slave trade in England. For example, compensation was paid to former Scottish slave owners after the abolition of the trade had taken place.
There is a contemporary permanence about the history of the British Empire which other areas of historical enquiry can lack. You would not study the history of the Crusades to explore current economic inequalities. By embedding Britain’s colonial past into our national curriculum, and, by particularly highlighting the physical, economic, and social plight faced by victims of colonialism, schools would by extension help young people come to terms with the notion of power imbalances.
James Baldwin, the American novelist and essayist, who wrote about the profound racial tensions in the US in the mid-20th century, contended in the 1980s that “one of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from.” Baldwin was not commentating on British imperialism, but rather on racism towards African Americans. Yet this remark still carries weight in terms of Britain’s collective, and ultimately selective memory. David Cameron was offered an opportunity this week to view Britain’s imperial history through the paradigm of the oppressed, and unsurprisingly, the Tory leader continued the British tradition of bleeding ignorance.