I had a brilliant Humanities teacher at the comprehensive I attended in the 1990s. Teaching in a poorly heated prefabricated hut and clad in a chalk dust-coated corduroy jacket, Mr Wilkins opened vistas far beyond the boundaries of our small provincial town. Gesturing towards his Peter’s Projection map of the world, he forced us to confront the simple fact that the relative prosperity of our lives was the product of global inequality, stretching back to the age of colonialism.
I find it interesting that the only lessons I remember from my own schooling that explicitly mentioned the history of the British Empire were for the GCSE in Humanities, a combination of History, Geography, Religious Studies, Citizenship and Sociology that my school got all students to sit. I took both GCSE and A Level History, but the Empire was barely mentioned in either. It was not until I got to university that I had the opportunity to reignite my interest in colonialism. A first-year course on African history from 1870, taught by Jocelyn Alexander, was an opening to a world of post-colonial historiography. One of the first items on the reading list was Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a powerful and inspirational book which completely blew my mind. I had never imagined a historian could write like this before.
Like many others, last year I reflected on my own experiences of history education. The way schools, exam boards and textbook publishers were (or weren’t) approaching the teaching of colonial history was being brought into sharp focus as the BLM protests around the world highlighted the need to explore the deep roots of inequality. Students and ex-students of schools around Britain wrote letters to their History teachers, drawing attention to the holes they felt had been left in their education. Teachers, exam boards and publishers have reacted to this in different ways. For some, it has meant introducing empire into the curriculum where gaps existed before. Others have looked back over their lessons and materials on the Empire and realised that there were problems in the way they were presented.
As part of this wider reappraisal, last autumn Oxford University Press asked me to help create a revised edition of their textbook for the AQA A Level unit The British Empire 1857–1967. I was helped in this task by a detailed critique of the original book from academics working at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Among them were Melanie Rowntree, Marenka Thompson Odlum and Dr Ashley Coutu. They argued that although the textbook was factually accurate, it framed the story of the Empire from an overwhelmingly British perspective. They also took issue with the introduction and conclusion, which used a ‘balance sheet’ approach to weigh up ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects of the Empire – a concept which has drawn deep criticism from historians of imperialism. I could see the importance of these revisions, and I was keen to be involved in the project.
One of the biggest changes I wanted to make to the book was to expose students to a wider and more diverse range of historians’ work. In the original edition, the excerpted ‘interpretations’ were drawn from quite a narrow pool of scholars. Finding new interpretations, and trying to reflect recent scholarship, was a challenging but fascinating pursuit. I felt it was important for A Level students to understand that history is not just written by white British dons. Bringing in the work of historians from Asia and Africa felt like an important change to the book.
Revising the book was very much a team process. As well as a great team of editors at OUP, I had academic support from two historians, Mishka Sinha at Oxford University and Emily Manktelow at Royal Holloway. Their criticism was incredibly helpful. Dr Sinha guided me towards recent scholarship and helped to provide a full understanding of the problems with framing inherent in some of the sections of the original text. As well as helping to revise the entire book, Dr Manktelow suggested important new sections, called ‘Representing Otherness’, in which the social impact of imperialism on concepts of race and gender could be explored. It was a privilege to work with both of them.
I hope that we have created a new edition of the book that will expose students to a fuller picture of the legacy of empire, although the task is far from finished. Teaching about the British Empire and its legacy has come a long way since I was at school but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.
Tom Allen is a History teacher currently working at an international school in Munich. He is particularly interested in how the history of colonialism is taught, and has done collaborative work on this with history teachers across Europe for EuroClio. He was part of the author team for a new textbook, Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery, published by Bristol Museums, and has worked for OUP on the new edition of the A-Level textbook The British Empire, 1857-1967.