THE battle over our nation’s history curriculum is now being fought on the streets. The dumping of Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol Harbour is another important step forward in giving Britain a new identity. England’s history national curriculum already allows teachers to choose for themselves what to teach about our nation’s past. This gives a green light to skew history teaching even further in the direction being demanded.
A few nights ago, on Channel 4 News, the professor of public history at Manchester University, David Olusoga, was interviewed by Jon Snow alongside Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Bishop of Dover. A quite remarkable pooling of ignorance emerged when the discussion turned to what is being taught in schools. Snow told viewers that at school: ‘We would learn of William Wilberforce but we never heard of Edward Colston . . . I am sure it hasn’t changed today . . . Does it not ask a new kind of approach to children’s education?’
Bishop Rose was enthusiastic in her agreement: ‘Absolutely! We need a new curriculum, a curriculum that reflects history as the correct history not just seen through British eyes. It really is important. And it is because of this lack of education why we have such ignorance. Because that is where racism comes from. It comes from a place of ignorance.’
Olusoga’s opinion was that ‘the parts of history that would make sense to [children], that would tell their stories, are omitted. We tell abolition but we do not tell the story of the slave trade . . . We tell half-truths, half-histories and that is no longer viable in a country that by the middle of this century will be one third BAME. We need to find a new history that is going to work for the country we are and the country that we are going to become.’
Condemnation of ignorance is more persuasive if it is not, itself, based on ignorance. It would scarcely be possible to state the opposite of the truth with greater clarity and confidence than the certainties about school history that were asserted by Bishop Rose and Professor Olusoga.
They needed only to observe the predominance of young people in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests to see how successful schools have been in filtering the historical narrative to focus on ‘injustice’ and on the sins of our forefathers. Winston Churchill, for example, is as likely to be taught as a racist war criminal as he is be presented as a saviour of Britain during its darkest hour.
Contrary to the claims of Bishop Rose and Professor Olusoga, schools have long been committed to teaching about the iniquities of slavery and deprivation associated with Empire. One much reprinted secondary school textbook, written in part by government advisers, goes so far as to invent evidence in order to damn the British: ‘We have tried to imagine what they would tell us if they were to come back from the dead’. (Minds and Machines: Britain 1750-1900, Longman)
The truth is, though, that millions from the British Empire and its dominions fought for what was perceived as the ‘mother country’ in both world wars – including more than half a million Africans and two and a half million Indians between 1939 and 1945. In addition, black American GIs mostly found a warm welcome when they were billeted with British families during World War 2. This stood in marked contrast to the vicious racial abuse they often received from fellow GIs who happened to be white.
The Channel 4 News feature bypassed any discussion of why almost the entire former Empire has chosen to retain its ties with Britain via the Commonwealth. The self-flagellation currently on display within this country is more than offset by affection felt for Britain in former colonies around the globe. The people of Jamaica, indeed, seem well disposed towards a return to British rule.
Are the ex-subjects of such empires as the Mongol, the Spanish, the Songhai, the Portuguese, the Mughal, the Belgian, the French, the German or the Zulu pining for a return of colonial rule? Many sins were committed in the name of the British Empire but it remains preferable to the alternatives that have historically been on offer.
The death of George Floyd was horrific and a dark stain on human rights in the US. Should it be used as a catalyst for social revolution in the UK? What begins with the smashing of statues, or monuments or buildings is inclined to end with the smashing of people. Iconoclastic furies are nothing new in the world.
A hit list of 60 ‘racist’ statues has been drawn up by a group called ‘Topple the Racists’. Slave trader Robert Milligan has followed Colston, albeit with the approval of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Liverpool University has climbed on the bandwagon by agreeing to remove the name of William Gladstone – four times prime minister, leader of the Liberal Party and a son of the city – from one of its buildings. Given the sustained protest, the statue of Cecil Rhodes adorning Oriel College, Oxford, will surely be next to fall.
Removing the 60 Satans is to be a process for cleansing British history. The list includes Robert Peel, Earl Grey, Oliver Cromwell, Robert Clive, Charles II, James II, Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, Admiral Blake, Lord Kitchener, Nancy Astor and even Christopher Columbus.
Strangely, statuesof that great slaver, the Roman Emperor Augustus, a grand equestrian version of which greets visitors to the British Museum, arenot listed for toppling. Nor is Hadrian’s Wall, a symbol of imperial oppression under which Brits suffered for many centuries and which features in a new range of postage stamps. Does the presence of African legionaries within the Roman army of occupation provide a dispensation? And why are busts of Britain’s genocidal African Emperor, Septimius Severus, on sale at many a garden centre at £399.00 incl VAT, and on Amazon, not on the list for smashing? He brought probably the largest ever army of oppression to these shores.
As for the statue of Jamaican ‘nurse’ Mary Seacole, recently erected opposite the Houses of Parliament at the entrance to St Thomas’ Hospital, surely some attention is permissible? Her views chime well with the Victorian racists who erected the Colston statue in Bristol. Not only was she a vocal imperialist, she was prepared to put her life on the line for Empire by setting up camp alongside our soldiers in the Crimea during Britain’s imperialistic conflict with Russia.
She readily discharged racial insults that compete with the likes of Rhodes or Churchill. The Turks she described as ‘degenerate . . . Arabs’. ‘I believe the fleas are the only industrious creatures in all Turkey,’ she opined in her autobiography, the Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole (1857). She dismisses ‘the cunning-eyed Greeks’ and ‘the lazy Maltese’. Her guide in Constantinople she addressed as ‘Jew Johnny’.
Great admiration, however, was reserved for the English, as this passage makes clear: ‘Very often an injured Turk would run up to where I sat, and stand there, wildly telegraphing his complaints against some villainous-looking Greek, or Italian, whom a stout English lad would have shaken out of his dirty skin in five minutes.’
Is one rule to be applied to statues of white racist imperialists and another for black racist imperialists? Or should we, perhaps, respect the fact that, black or white, we are all much the same in our virtues and in our prejudices? Is it not time for the likes of Channel 4 News to air this point of view, too, and to recognise that ‘correct history’ comes in more forms than Bishop Rose and Professor Olusoga have suggested?
Mary Seacole was voted the greatest black Briton of all time in 2004.