Why Study the History of the British Empire?
Cecil Rhodes and the British EmpireThe largest land grab of the c19th by European powers took place in Africa in the last decade of the century when 10,000 African kingdoms became 40 states of which 36 were European. In South Africa Cecil Rhodes was one of several men given the power by the British government to form chartered companies which acted as states. In Kimberley Rhodes was to introduce a labour plan to the diamond industry which became the basis of apartheid. Having established his wealth from diamonds and gold, Rhodes used it to achieve his dream of expanding the British Empire in Africa. He used trickery and deceit to persuade the Matebele to hand over their territories and when the Matabele later rebelled, Rhodes used the new Maxim gun to destroy the Matabele nation.
Rhodes was largely responsible for the introduction of the labour system later used by apartheid governments when in 1894 he forced an act through the Cape Town parliament that introduced the first native reserve into the Glen Grey district where natives were kept separate from whites. The mines in and around Kimberley had a compound system to reduce the amount of illicit diamond selling. In Rhodes' own mine over 11,000 African labourers were housed 20-25 in a room in compounds surrounded by a fence and patrolled by dogs. The whole area was covered by mesh wire with guard towers and searchlights. At the end if each day workers were forced to undress and then strip searched. For more on the legacy of Cecil Rhodes click here
Ofsted on the teaching of the British Empire
Today we find such aspects of the British Empire unpalatable when viewed using the values of the 21st Century and the tendency has been not to discuss or teach those parts of our history which offend our sensibilities. In an Ofsted Report of 2004 inspectors found that the empire "is a significant subject that currently receives insufficient time in schools". The report went on to say that "pupils should know about the empire and that it has been interpreted by historians and others in different ways". If schools did teach aspects of empire it was the injustice of it all. Ofsted said that the teaching of empire had been neglected and there was a reluctance by teachers to deal with the subject.
Why do we learn History
The purpose of history is to understand how we have arrived at where we are and its significance and legacy. Any study which chooses to leave out those parts of Britain's history which some find incompatible with their view of Britain will only be a partial history. History will always be a contested subject with different generations of historians giving different interpretations of the big questions about the past. In any country's past there will be difficult periods abut it serves no purpose to present a rosy picture of the past. It is therefore incumbent of us to teach students to have a sense of inquiry and be able to use source materials and to ask challenging questions about interpretations and evidence presented. Students need to know that there are different interpretations of the past and that different nations may well have different interpretations of imperial history. Given the influence of the British Empire on the world we live in, both in Britain and around the world, it is absolutely essential that if we are to fully understand the world in which we live we study the British Empire.
An Improvement in the teaching of the British Empire
Since the Ofsted report of 2004 there has been some improvement in the teaching of the British Empire in schools and universities. The subject is now being taught in a number of schools at Key Stage Three in a way which seeks to understand why the empire grew in the way it did and what impact it had on Britain and those living in the territories of the empire. The National Archives at Kew supports the teaching of the British Empire at Key Stage Three with material available for schools to use. The British Empire is now a part of the A Level course with both Edexcel and AQA offering modules and many universities now offer the opportunity to study the British Empire. Future Learn has introduced an online course on "The Controversies of Empire" available to all. In 2016 there was a major exhibition at the Tate on "Artist and Empire" which brought together many works of art not seen for many years. It would seem that the worst is over and there is an acceptance that given its importance we should all understand why the empire developed in the way it did and the impact it had on Britain and the world.
Walter Crane's map of the British Empire in 1886, which was produced to promote imperial federation
The British Empire at its height ruled over a quarter of the world's population with territories in every part of the world. There wasn't a part of the world that it did not touch and the areas marked red on classroom maps were just the tip of the iceberg with Britain's informal empire as if not more important than the official empire. The British Empire affected the course of western civilisation and influenced the development of every territory it came into contact with.
The Legacy of the British EmpireThe Empire made Britain the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. A glance around out streetscape will result in all kinds of reminders of the part once played by empire -from statues of imperial soldiers and administrators to streets named after them. Our food and architecture would be very different today without the influence of empire.
The contribution of soldiers from the empire in two world wars certainly affected the outcome of those wars and our sport would look very different without the participation of Australia, the West Indies, India, South Africa and New Zealand. British people have numerous links with people from former colonies of the empire and although those territories now have more diversified populations the links are still strong. British churches maintain strong links with former territories of the empire and much of Britain's foreign aid is targeted at former colonies.
The Impact of the British Empire on the world todayThe world today would look very different had there not been a British Empire. A large proportion of the world's boundaries reflect the way Britain divided up and administered her colonies, and the legacy of those boundaries still causes tension in part of the world, particularly the division of India by the British in 1947. British parliamentary and judicial institutions still exist in many parts of the world as does the British education system. In many former colonies you will still see today children going to school in uniforms introduced by the British.
We hear much talk today about the impact of globalisation on people's lives but to understand globalisation we need to study the British Empire of the c19th for it was during Britain's Imperial century that trade became truly global with Britain abandoning Mercantilism and embracing free trade. Having repealed the Corn Laws and Navigation Laws, Britain adopted free trade and encouraged its trading partners to so as well. Britain became a nation dependant on trade importing over 30% of her foodstuffs and over 60% of her raw materials whilst of her exports 85% were made up of finished goods. The relationship was very much a mutually dependant one. Britain became not just dependant on the Empire but only many other countries for her raw materials and foodstuffs.
The Exporting of British InstitutionsGlobalisation affected the whole world and was the major legacy of the British Empire. A lasting legacy in former colonies was the exporting of British institutions like the British Parliamentary and judicial system. Victorian parliamentary buildings, built to house colonial parliaments are still used today around the world. Another lasting legacy has been sport as Britain used sport to bind the servants of empire closer together but which were adopted by local peoples as in India.
Many of India's bridges were built during the period of the Raj
The British Empire destroyed many local cultures requiring native peoples to live according to British laws and institutions. The British often deliberately destroyed local customs which they found incompatible with western civilisation which they were trying to instil. The Empire caused bloodshed as the British enforced their laws and it was expected that resistance would be strongly put down. For all that the British did though they did build railways (which often were to enable trade to flourish), reform agriculture, improve roads and bridges, and build schools. Much of these changes were self serving but many remain in place today.
The British Empire brought enormous change. There were benefits but the cost we now know was enormous. We need as a nation to acknowledge what the benefits of empire were but also the part played by violence in creating and maintaining the empire and put the view that the British Empire was one based on liberty and bringing civilisation into context.