When I was an undergraduate at Oxford University my tutor—a deeply eccentric but profoundly decent man who claimed to both “loathe this century” and be surprised by the fact that he had lived to see it—had a map on his wall. The map showed the world. The continents were outlined in black on a white field. Shaded red were all of Britain’s former overseas possessions, from India to swathes of Africa to North America. Above the image was a line of large text that read, “How on earth did we get away with it?”
That map at Oxford—which must now have gone, as its owner is retired—was more or less the limit of my exposure to my country’s imperial past during my formal education. I was reminded of this as Queen Elizabeth traveled to Ireland this week. She’s 85 now, yet this is the first time in her long reign that she has crossed the narrow seas to visit our neighbor to the west. The reason for her extended absence is the fractious relationship Britain had with Ireland for much of the twentieth century, and for hundreds of prior years, too. Until Irish independence in 1922, the country was a British colony. The north is still ruled from London, and, for 40 years, Irish Republicans tried to change that situation by force.
Seeing the fanfare attached to the royal trip—and listening here at my current base in Africa to the careful explanations to the wider world on the BBC World Service of just what it meant—I was struck by what a poor job we as a nation do when it comes to teaching our own history of empire. There is no British Imperial History 101, so to speak. As it is, instruction of British history is wont to concentrate on “Hitler and the Henrys”—World War II and the colorful Tudor monarchs of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Henry VIII and his six wives first among them.
My own school experience in Cambridge in southeast England was typical. As a small child at a state-funded primary school, I studied the Aztecs and the Egyptians. At eleven, I moved to a fee-paying school. (The private education sector is powerful in England, and theoretically lies beyond government control. However, its pupils sit for the same exams, so they do not stray far in their studies.) In history, the industrial revolution came up, and, at 14 or 15, World War I appeared, a conflict that has enormous cultural weight in Britain, an equivalent in national significance to the Civil and Vietnam wars for the United States. Later, when I chose history as one of my four “A-levels” in the last years of high school, there were two syllabuses on offer, Early Modern and Modern. I took Early Modern That meant sixteenth-century England. The Henrys. I believe that Modern, true to form, focused on Hitler. Early Modern was fascinating, and I had an excellent teacher. But it did not explain Britain’s place in the world.
How did I learn about it? My grandfather was born in Hong Kong my grandmother in Nairobi, and their parents were not there on holiday. In my mother’s family, much of the generation two prior to mine grew up abroad. Their fathers were doctors, administrators, and missionaries. I learned their history in the stories my grandmother used to tell, of Great Dane Guard dogs on Lake Victoria and coming home from Africa to go to Cambridge University in a flying boat up the Nile. That did not dovetail with anything I learned in a classroom, and I am far from alone, as a young Briton, in dealing with that disparity.
I have truly faced British imperial history, however, by wading through its relics. Take Ireland, for example. After school, I joined the British Army on a now defunct scheme that allowed recent graduates to spend some time in uniform before university. At the cold end of an autumn eight years ago, my regiment deployed from their base in Germany to Romney Marsh, an isolated stretch of the south coast of England. For years, the British army trained there for counter insurgency warfare in Northern Ireland, at the camp at Lydd. The camp had a model village, where troops practiced patrols, and the bulked-up “Snatch” Land Rovers used for riot control, with rubber seals in the roofs to stop flaming petrol from Molotov cocktails dripping inside. Another army unit accompanied mine to act as the civilian population—to play the part of the revolting Irish in practice riots. The instructors at Lydd talked about “Paddy,” using a generic singular for the opposition that is, I suppose, a curiously British spin on the “Charlie” of Vietnam. Lydd still remains with me today. I find it strange that I learned of late British imperial policing from the factory that made its foot soldiers, while, in the classroom, that piece of history never came up.
Later, after university, I was a Fulbright Scholar in the United States. At Columbia University, the interface with an imperial past I had never studied hit me again. I remember walking through Times Square on July 4, having left the newspaper office where I was working, when I realized genuinely no one had come in, and wondering why I was never taught the other side of this war whose victory was being crowed and fireworked. On another occasion, I stood close by the White House during Obama’s inauguration, thinking I would like to have been taught earlier in my life that we burned the place down in the war of 1812.
It is in Africa, though, where I live now, that what the British really did out in the world hits you most. I work in Sierra Leone and, last week, flew on a United Nations helicopter to Sherbro, an isolated island down the coast from the capital. The town of Bonthe there today is almost a ghost settlement, desperately poor and remote. But it was not always so. The export of piassava, a palm fiber used for brushes and bristles, once made it rich. Last week, among the abandoned warehouses and roofless churches, I saw a great iron gatepost that bore printed text indicating it was cast in Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton lies in the English midlands. Elsewhere were rusted fire hydrants that looked like they belonged in Victorian London. Such is the domestic wreckage of empire, and it is everywhere in Africa, just as the undeniable brutalities inflicted by British colonial authorities—such as the violent crackdown on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s—still scar aspects of the continent today.
These findings are always striking, and they are reminders of a broad truth: The lacuna in the British curriculum, the refusal to discuss imperialism in-depth, is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that Britain as a nation has not settled on its own view of its past. The twentieth century saw the UK eclipsed as a world power. Yet, despite that dramatic abrogation of status—and the rapid retreat from empire—Britain passed the century, almost uniquely among western European nations, without experiencing a revolution or a catastrophic military defeat. The sun went down quietly. Therefore, despite a dramatically changed place in the world, we never had to perform the kind of wholesale reassessment of national values that, say, Germany did after World War II. Germany even invented a uniquely German compound noun to parse the process—Vergangenheitsbewältigung—of coming to terms with the past. Britain did no such thing.
In 1930, Methuen & Co. published a mock textbook of English history that would soon become a classic. 1066 and All That—its title referencing the date of the Norman conquest of England—was written by two former Oxford students and split British history into events that could be deemed “A Good Thing” and those that were “A Bad Thing.” Essentially, the United Kingdom today has not decided which of those categories includes the fact that we long ruled half the planet. Professional historians have spilled gallons of ink to address that question, and I have no answer myself. And, sadly, the fact that we as a nation do not have a collective narrative for our imperial adventures means we think that we cannot teach them. So students, like myself, are denied the truth about our past, left to learn it elsewhere, if at all, to the detriment of our own worldview.
Indeed, without providing knowledge of what we did in the world, we cannot as a nation hope to understand our place in it today. For the sake of its newest generation, no matter the challenges it might involve, Britain needs to introduce Imperial History 101—and try to explain how on earth we got away with it.
Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. You can find him at www.simonakam.com
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