The Speaker
Saturday, 18 May 2024 – 10:49

British Empire: destroy or educate?

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

The current discourse around the British Empire is all too geared towards the destruction of our history. This is not helpful. The Black Lives Matter movement presents us with a golden opportunity to reexamine and educate ourselves about our imperialist past; whether you like it or not it is intertwined into British history.

London. Hundreds of historic landmarks, buildings and monuments are connected to imperialism in some way. Take Nelson’s column, which commemorates Lord Nelson. Nelson had close links to many slave owners in the Caribbean and staunchly opposed the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, the British Museum was founded on the basis of the collection of Hans Sloane, who worked as a doctor on a Jamaican plantation. Even the name London is connected to Britain’s imperial past. Londinium was the name that the slave-owning Romans gave to their new city, founded as a major base for their invasion and subsequent oppression of native Britons. Britain’s links to its imperial past are strong and innumerable, to destroy this would be to destroy a large part of our history.

If the Black Lives Matter movement is to have a lasting impact in the UK, it should not aim to destroy all remnants of our imperial past. Instead, imperialism should play a bigger part in our historical education, in particular the history of people of colour in relation to the British Empire. A 2019 report by Runnymede and TIDE found that there isn’t enough systematic teaching about empires in schools. In a recent interview with academic and author Afua Hirsh revealed her own experience learning about the British Empire, saying ‘At school, I’m not exaggerating to say that we went from the early Elizabethan era, the Tudors, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I – then we literally leap-frogged to the First World War’. Not only is there a problem with the lack of British imperial history taught in schools, but also the lack of education outside of the classroom. Whilst there are hundreds of museums in the UK dedicated to war there are none dedicated to the British Empire. In fact, the only empire museum in the UK, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol was shut down in 2012.

British imperial history should be taught, for all its highs and lows. Let us not forget the positives that were brought out by the British Empire. Colonialism created an increasingly globalised world and multicultural societies. This was not least achieved, through the spread of the English language allowing people from different communities to communicate for the first time. Britain also exported its progressive systems of law and democracy to countries previously exploited by tyrannical warlords and perhaps most significantly helped abolish the global slave trade. However, we must also not forget some of the British Empire’s dark realities. The primary reason for colonisation was to export the wealth of one country to another, causing an immense amount of suffering as a result. For example, the Bengal famine of 1943 caused an estimated 2.1–3 million deaths largely as a result of the policies of the British government. Britain’s colonial past should not be remembered as black or white but instead immensely complicated and nuanced.

The Black Lives Matter movement presents us with a turning point on how we chose to treat our imperial past. To destroy all remnants of it would not only be to ignore some of the positives brought about by the British Empire, but it would also change the landscape of this country, considering so many things are connected to our imperial past. Instead, the Black Lives Matter movement should be the opportunity to better educate ourselves about the history of the British Empire. This would not only help us better understand our past but also debates about race and immigration today.

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