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Friday 14 August 2020

The Future of History

Textbook cases

The history taught in our schools is still slanted away from the truth. Luke Gbedemah explains how it could – and should – be rewritten

This article is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.


We used to erect statues to slave traders. Now, at last, we are starting to pull them down. But the reappraisal of our history shouldn’t be restricted to public squares – it must happen in classrooms, too. For decades, the official, taught version of history has marginalised many of the people who were part of it; it has warped their stories; it has privileged the already privileged.

Hence why groups like The Black Curriculum are calling for improvements. At a recent ThinkIn, its founder, Lavinya Stennett, said changes are necessary for curricula “which currently censor or misconstrue the histories of Black people, particularly in Britain”.

To demonstrate why – and how – the teaching of history should change, we thought we’d go through recent A-Level History textbooks and present their narratives about the British empire alongside counternarratives, with a bit of commentary along the way.

On the British empire in Africa

From the A-Level textbook The development of imperialism, c1857–c1890:

“Much of the remainder of the Empire [outside of the Dominions] was made up of Crown colonies. In 1857, these included areas which had been developed for trading purposes, such as Trinidad, Ceylon, various Pacific islands and parts of West Africa…. The number of Crown colonies was set to expand in the later years of the nineteenth century as more of the African continent fell into British hands. The population in the Crown colonies was overwhelmingly non-European and therefore, to the nineteenth-century mind, incapable of self-rule.”

An alternative version could read:

“The number of Crown colonies was increased by the aggressive and rapid expansion of British colonialism in Africa. More and more territory was brought under the control of British administrators following violent land clearances, imposed travel for local people, and the seizure of resources to build infrastructure like roads, railways and bridges. Local systems of self-rule, including councils and monarchies, were marginalised or co-opted by British colonists who wanted regional power, and were convinced that indigenous methods were not suitable for extracting the material wealth of the environment efficiently and for trade.”

Crucially for students, the number of nations that “fell into British hands” depends entirely upon what is meant by the term “fell”. In one sense, to fall, as in the Fall of Troy, implies violent conquest and an entity that is captured and defeated. In another, these territories simply fell into Britain’s lap; an interpretation that suggests a laziness, incompetence and weakness of indigenous governance.

On European missionaries throughout the African continent, c.1857

From the A-Level textbook The British Empire c1857-1967:

“Missionary groups generally established compounds, set up churches and typically provided housing and farm work in return for native conversions to Christianity. In this way, missionaries offered native people material gains (food, jobs and houses) as well as education, answers to moral questions (about death, for example) and the opportunity for personal advancement by embracing the ‘white man’s faith’.”

Our alternative version:

“Missionary groups generally established compounds in existing communities of indigenous people; building churches and typical European-style cottages and houses. In an effort to integrate themselves into the communities and co-opt support for the ‘white man’s faith’, the missionaries offered imported crops for locals to cultivate, as well as jobs as labourers and assistants. They also proffered Christian education and science; an alternative that they viewed as superior to local traditions of oral history, religion, kinship and cosmology. To incentivise local people to embrace their culture, and to convert to their religion, missionaries often denigrated local customs and branded them as brutal or unclean; suggesting that the only route to personal advancement or moral learning was through the European tradition.”

In much of the teaching material, British colonialism is reflected upon as a mission of advancement, progress and the delivery of values and systems to peoples who had none to begin with. There is a general failure to explore alternative narratives and facts about African history and culture. The deeper history of society in Africa is not touched upon in the major units of the UK A-Level curriculum – and that is why groups such as The Black Curriculum are calling for their introduction as core, or optional, papers.

On British Mercantilism in the same period

From the A-Level textbook The British Empire c1857-1967, Trade and Commerce:

“British merchants had traded with West Africa since the 1500s, largely as a means to acquire gold and ivory from elephant tusks. In the eighteenth century, however, the slave trade took precedence. By the time that Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, it had overseen the exportation of three million Africans to work in its American colonies and the British-owned plantations in the Caribbean as slaves.”

Our alternative version:

“British merchants had traded with West African merchants since the 1500s, and other European nations had relationships with local people dating to even earlier. The primary incentive for European merchants was the vast perceived wealth of goods like gold and ivory, which could be readily obtained in exchange for products of European origin such as steel weapons, firearms and rum. In the eighteenth century, the long-standing trade in enslaved African people reached its height, as the British had overseen the exportation of three million captive Africans to labour in the American colonies and British Caribbean as chattel slaves. It was this trade that took precedence and the expropriation of labour from slaves helped to support the profitability of many British commercial ventures, leading to great wealth for many British people.”

The term “trade” is an important one in this curriculum. Students learn that “trade” was the driving force and the guiding ambition of British colonialism. And that it was on the basis of “trade” that the tremendous wealth of Britain was generated. Yet “trade”, in the commercial sense, is reciprocal: the exchange of goods and services between interested parties. Whereas much of the “trade” described in this excerpt was, in fact, based largely upon extractive, exploitative and non-reciprocal looting. Actual trade was by and large what happened when goods reached Britain or Europe, as part of their network. ‘Plunder’, ‘pillaging’ or ‘purloining’ come a lot closer to describing what happened before that point in the earlier stages of British colonialism, yet this is not acknowledged in the text.

There was a long-standing economy of enslavement and trade in human goods internal to Africa before the arrival of European merchants and explorers. Local and intraregional warfare often led to the taking of captives as slaves, and anthropological studies have suggested that oral histories in much of Africa recognise the ancient threat of the person-snatcher. European involvement in this indigenous system transformed it into an international and highly profitable form.

Colonial “trade” was enforced by the deliberate moralistic approach that inferior local peoples could rightly be stripped of their material wealth – occasionally in return for menial reward – and come to rest under the warm, enlightened glow of European dominion. We saw this gross error extend to the belief that African people themselves could be stripped of their humanity and become material goods.

On the Berlin Conference, 1884

From the A-Level textbook The British Empire c1857-1967, Imperial & colonial policy:

“The [Berlin] Conference of 1884 concluded with the signing of a General Act, which promised:

  • All [European] nations should be permitted to trade in the basin of the Congo and its outlets.
  • There should be free trade in these regions.
  • The powers with influence in the area should help protect indigenous people and suppress the slave trade.
  • The powers should support and protect religious, scientific or charitable undertakings, Christian missionaries, scientists and explorers.”

In this case, we would add:

“The Berlin Conference was attended only by European politicians and administrators. No Africans were present; despite some nominal commitment to suppress the slave trade where convenient. Students are encouraged to consider the various interests and incentives at play before the signing of the General Act in 1884.”

The Berlin Conference established the rules of engagement for European powers colonising Africa, and did almost nothing to sustain the interests of African people. In this way, it was more a framing of the relationship between the powerful nations of Europe and a supposedly inhuman and inferior African continent, ripe for exploitation.

Patrick Gathara, an award-winning cartoonist and writer in Nairobi, observed on the 135th anniversary of the Conference that it was simply a part of “the process legitimising the idea of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world, not for Africans, and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans”.

Matt Rosenberg, of California State University, sees is as “Africa’s undoing in more ways than one,” as “colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent,” leaving a legacy of internal political fragmentation and turmoil that couldn’t be undone by the independence movements in 1950.

The myth of the “white man’s burden” is tacitly sustained by these textbooks. The failure to be explicit about colonial violence, and the inconsistency with which moral statements are both deployed and reserved, is confusing at a time when the modern world is so charged with issues connected to this very subject. It will leave some students feeling as though the story has not, in fact, been fully told, but at a loss as to where they’ll find the rest of it. It will leave others wholly ignorant of the denigration experienced by indigenous peoples.

On Cecil Rhodes in Southern Africa

From the A-Level textbook Imperial consolidation and Liberal rule, c1890-1914:

“In the 1880s, Rhodes invested in fruit-growing, after the Cape vineyards were wiped out in an epidemic. This began the modern-day Cape fruit industry. He also formed his own company, the British South Africa Company, which received a royal charter in 1889. Rhodes became Prime Minister of Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896 and tried to avoid the inference of bureaucrats in the Colonial Office in London. He forced indigenous tribes from their lands to make way for industrial development, but also introduced educational reform. By his will, he endowed the Rhodes Scholarship, for young people to study at the University of Oxford…. Rhodes framed his imperial ambitions in moral terms which reflect something of the confidence and arrogance of the Victorian age. In 1877, in his Confessions of Faith, Rhodes wrote: ‘I contend that we are the finest race in the world and the more we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.’”

It is difficult to propose a succinct alternative to this passage. The reason being that so many things that ought to be said are not being said. For students shaping their opinions of Britain’s past, this section about Rhodes should read like something detailing Harvey Weinstein’s illustrious career as a successful film-maker – and stopping at that.

But let’s just take one sentence of it: “He forced indigeous tribes from their lands to make way for industrial development, but also introduced educational reform….” Here, the forced clearance of land for infrastructural development; the marginalisation of local people for the single-minded pursuit of profit; and the introduction of The British South Africa Company’s Police, which perpetrated systematic murder and torture of black labourers already disenfranchised by Rhodes’ Masters and Servants Act of 1890 – all are just overlooked.

The history we are teaching may not map onto the world we see around us, nor the prevailing injustices that play out in it. This disconnect makes it hard for people to find common ground on issues of race here and now. So for many young people in Britain, and around the world, a change is sorely needed. In a recent Tortoise ThinkIn, David Lammy MP argued that if we are to stand on the shoulders of the giants of British history – the Churchills, Bayden-Powells, James Cooks and Robert Clives – we’d better understand how those same figures are viewed in other parts of the world, as well as here in Britain.

Illustrations by Tim Vyner

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