An Imperial View: Jeremy Corbyn on the Re-education of British Imperialism and it’s Historical Legacies in the Modern World
As the National Archives writes, the history of the British Empire is “both a British story and a world story”.
The British Empire was the largest empire in world history, according to the National Archives. It covered around “25% of the world’s land surface”. which included Large areas of North America, Australia, Africa and Asia. The Empire oversaw around “412 million inhabitants”, or approximately 23% of the world’s population at the time, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Though British expansion, particularly in Asia, was mainly “facilitated by the construction of trading posts set up by the East India Company, a London based trade business.”
Britain’s West Indian colonies were at the heart of the “triangular trade” by which goods from Britain were used to purchase slaves from West Africa who were taken to the Caribbean, and from whose labor great riches flowed back to British merchants in Bristol, Liverpool, and London”, Says Kinan Malik.
British Imperialism began during the 16th century, the British began to establish overseas colonies in the Americas, writes the BBC, but ended as a result of the Second World War as Britain had exhausted it’s fiscal resources.
And that’s as far as we are taught in the classroom.
In education, British Imperialism is seldom discussed in its entirety.
Hence Jeremy Corbyn, in an address at Bristol to debut the Emancipation Educational Trust, stated that the Trust would incorporate the study of pre-colonial periods in the national curriculum to debunk the myth of uncivilised societies prior to Western colonialism and to “tell the story of how slavery interrupted” cultures and societies across the globe.
Schoolchildren should be taught about the atrocities of the British Empire to “ensure that such grave injustices can never happen again,” according to Corbyn.
“In the light of the Windrush scandal, Black History Month has taken on a renewed significance and it is more important now than ever that we learn and understand [more] as a society the role and legacy of the British Empire, colonisation and slavery”, he said.
‘Colonisation may indeed be a very complex affair, but one thing is certain; you do not walk in, seize the land, the person, the history of another, and then sit back and compose hymns of praise in his honor. To do that would be amount to calling yourself a bandit; and nobody wants to do that.’
Chinua Achebe, ‘The Song of Ourselves’
The affects of “seiz[ing] the land, the person, [and] the history of another ” as Chinua Achebe observes in postcolonial theory, is still visible within contemporary society. One needs to look no further than the Vice President of India’s recent remarks about the country’s pre-colonial culture and heritage before it was disrupted by Western colonisers.
On 14th September 2018, the Vice President of India, Venkaiah Naidu, left his remark at ‘Hindi Divas’ organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in New Delhi, on to commemorate the day when Hindi, written in Devanagari script, became the official language of India under Article 343 of the Constitution.
In his address, Venkaiah Naidu pleaded for the return of India’s native tongue in social and public discourses. Naidu stated that the “English [language] is a disease” that is endemic in contemporary Indian society – a legacy of colonialism. Prior to colonialism and in the fight for independence, Hindi was the main language of the freedom fighters, and it was spoken and understood by most of the people in the country.
“It was the symbol of social, political, religious and linguistic unity of the country. Even today, these qualities make it acceptable among all other languages,” he said.
Naidu went on to say that if the nature of India’s democracy was to improve, then a reversion to the Hindu, India’s native language prior to colonialism, would be instrumental in “the functioning of the Union government and the regional languages in the functioning of the state governments,” he said.
“I am not against any language. We need to learn other languages but that should not be at the cost of one’s mother tongue…It is easy to express feelings in one’s mother tongue. That is the experience of all. So one should speak in one’s mother tongue at our homes. We need to get rid of the illness inflicted on us and left behind by the Britishers,” he said.
It is certain that the British empire made a significant impact to many people and many countries by providing crucial infrastructures such as transport, medical care and education. However, it is also important to the discuss the paradoxical nature of the British empire fighting to abolish slavery while profiting from it as well as the consequences of Imperialism on other countries.
For many peoples, the British empire meant the loss of land, resources, identity and freedom. We cannot forget the discrimination and prejudice that came about as the result of conquest and colonisation, and it’s this knowledge that Corbyn was trying to implement in classrooms.
According to the Independent, the Conservative backlash to Corbyn’s proposals demonstrated a “profound ignorance about British imperial and colonial history.”
Deana, at the Independent writes that part of being an academic or student is to be able to critically evaluate “difficult histories, such as that of empire, to explore the myriad connections between people in different parts of the planet” as such studies are proven to “give them a much better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.”
Therefore, to reprimand the inclusion of the global atrocities and legacies of British Imperialism, falsely “assumes that to teach schoolchildren the “bad” bits is to make them ashamed of their country’s past,” says Deana Heath.
Yet as Germany has demonstrated, teaching children to interrogate difficult histories d[id] not make them hate their country,” she said.
Instead it bestowed a sense of national unity against the dangers of alt-nationalist tendencies within society and politics.