Teaching a Radical History of the British Empire

Attached are some resoures that might be helpful when trying to teach a radical history of the British Empire. Borrow them, steal them, alter them, improve them, spread them far and wide.













22 thoughts on “Teaching a Radical History of the British Empire

  1. How do you think the Mughal Empire established itself in India and ran it? Through persuasion? You don’t even start to cover the reasons why some would have welcomed the British compared to the Mughal rulers including religious persecution. Your depiction of the rulers and peoples of the nations you look at it utterly patronising and exemplifies Maajid Nawaz’s description of how the regressive left portray non-white people. India was not a homogenous nation, the Mughal rulers were not all benevolent (you seem to know very little about them) and Indians were not happy-go-lucky peoples until the British came over (what a patronising view of them).

    You don’t even put Britain in the context of other European nations, who were also empire building, or history in general – either British, Indian, international or in terms of Empires.

    If it isn’t acceptable for a Christian to teach creationism as science based on their personal religious beliefs then it isn’t acceptable for you to teach this as history based on your personal political beliefs.

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      1. Not sure if you can’t or won’t respond to the issues with I pointed out. It is one thing to teach a marxist interpretation of colonialism, it’s another altogether to teach it as the version of colonialism. Indoctrination masquerading as education is still indoctrination.


      2. Every blog post brings with it the thrill at the prospect of you writing exactly the same slightly irrelevant comment underneath it, and then insistently demanding the same response. I do so look forward to it. Again, by all means demonstrate how you can teach a history devoid of any sort of interpretation. My head of department teaches an enquiry influenced by Ferguson’s interpretation. Do you have a problem with that too?


      3. No one is saying that history is devoid of interpretation, it is your role as a teacher to teach the different interpretations, examine and analyse them. Not pick one and treat it as though it is the only interpretation. You are not the only left-wing teacher in the world, many of mine were, they still managed to teach a range of interpretations. If you HoD is providing opportunities to explore other interpretations and is clear that this is only one of them then why would there be a problem?


      4. These resources form part of an interpretations enquiry, answering the q “Why are people proud of the Empire today?” that also looks at Victorian interpretations of the Empire and interrogates Ferguson’s interpretation. I’ve added Nkrumah’s interpretation to my HoD’s enquiry, and where the existing enquiry bases it’s background to the Empire in Ferguson’s approach, my lessons base the background to the Empire in Nkrumah’s. Using this Marxist approach gives a chance to get students to think hard about the economic exploitation that lay at the heart of the Empire (which has been very effective, and students have made extremely perceptive comments about the relationship between mother country and colonies) which prepares them well to grapple with the new migration and America modules in the SHP GCSE, while using this approach to interrogate the legacy of Empire in this country in an honest and open way. We’re asking how and why could someone write like Ferguson does about the Empire today – what do they have to ignore, downplay, argue away in order to construct their interpretation? Why are people in Africa or India not writing similar interpretations?


      5. The resources you have created do not examine the interpretation they are based on – it is simply presented as fact.

        As for there not being any people in India or Africa writing similar interpretations – what about Professor Lalvani, not a historian but an exploration of how the British shaped India positively nonetheless? I have no idea about History departments in Indian or African universities so can’t say whether there are similar interpretations or not. Equally, in the case of India, it would also be down to whether books are translated. I would need to examine the reality of this myself.

        However, that there are a range of views on the impact of the British in India is something my mum was taught in her history lessons in India in the 1950s/60s. She was the first generation after independence when history teaching would have been at it’s most nationalistic. That you present a less nuanced view than she was taught is incredulous.

        Even the issue of economic exploitation needs to be examined in comparison to how people were already living. The idea that you can take the Bengal Famine as a typical example of what happened under British rule is no better than waxing lyrical about the railways that were built. The British took over from an existing empire, the nature of which did determine why and how they came to rule. Collaboration did take place and certain groups did well out of it. I come from a Sikh background and it is not exactly a secret that they collaborated and benefitted.

        Critiques of British rule from Indians would be determined by a number of factors and they don’t all follow a Marxist interpretation.

        Ultimately this is about you imposing you’re preferred interpretation onto the pupils rather than letting them think for themselves. It’s clear that you think there is only one way of looking at the British Empire that is right and this blinkers your ability to critique you’re preferred theory and it’s limitations.


      6. “Do you intend to teach that? About the Siberian camps? About the famines and starvation faced by Chinese peasants which Mao felt was necessary?” So in your own words a genocidal famine caused by the occupying/dominant power is typical of the USSR and Mao’s China but, for some as yet unfathomed reason, isn’t typical of Britain’s India.

        I appreciate what you’re saying about interpretations, but to get students to think about an interpretation, what it is, what it’s logic is and how and why it has developed, they need to know something about what is being interpreted. Again, we’re coming back to the notion that you seem to be suggesting which is that you can somehow teach them an objective history of the thing, devoid of interpretation, in the first place. I reject this out of hand. All history involves interpretation. We spend time explicitly teaching interpretations in order to foreground this fact for students. But we also unavoidably have to make choices about which interpretations we choose to teach the rest of the time. You seem to dislike my choices, but you also seem to suggest that it’s possible to teach without making any such choices. Which is just false.


      7. I haven’t said a thing about Mao’s China or the USSR. I have no idea how that relates to my comments – most of which have been about Indian history.

        It’s also a strawman to say that because all versions of history are an interpretation that it’s ok to teach one as the correct one.

        Indeed you do have to make choices but as a teacher our choices can’t be influenced by our personal beliefs and opinions alone. I have pointed out evidence that contradicts a Marxist analysis and you don’t respond at all. Why gloss over the way the Mughal rulers ran India? Why pretend that certain groups preferred the British to the Mughals because they had been persecuted for their religious beliefs , for example? You paint a simple picture of Indians as victims of the British Empire when the reality is far more complex. Some of which you could choose to present but don’t because it would contradict your Marxist interpretation that you want them to learn and accept as fact.


      8. The quote was from a previous comment of yours on a prior blog post. They’re your words.

        It’s not a question of teaching one as the correct one. It’s admitting that you have to teach history through interpretations, and so you make choices about which interpretations to pick. You can’t avoid that. I’m teaching an interpretation that I think is powerful and equips students to explain other things that they come across, and am teaching it for that reason. I am explicitly adressing an alternative interpretation as a contrast.

        Pray tell where you disproved a Marxist interpretation of empire. I seem to have missed it…

        A Marxist interpretation of the economic logic of empire, of why it began and how the economic expoitation that lay at its heart worked, can be true at the same time as the fact that some Indians liked the empire and thrived under it. You yourself spoke of the manner in which Sikhs collaborated and thereby profited from the empire. I’d love to go into greater detail on this point. But the focus of this enquiry is the empire itself, how it worked and how people have interpreted this in different ways. My department’s scheme of work moves next to a detailed study of India and its struggle for freedom (which in part accounts for the scanty treatment of India in the resources – I didn’t want to step on the toes of their next few weeks of lessons). That too could perhaps go into more detail on this point. But again, the enquiry has a specific focus, chosen (not by me) for reasons relating to what the department thinks is the most powerful knowledge to teach our students – in this case the focus is on India’s road to freedom and how it became more free over time. This particular enquiry was written by my head of department who has stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Tories.


      9. You can not possiby determine the truth of an interpretation without examining it alongside other interpretations. The choice argument does not negate that. You do go into detail but cherry pick which ones – that’s the point. It would seem that the there is a subject knowledge issue here regardless and I would say the same thing to you HoD – Tory candidate or no.


      10. You’re right, it’s our lack of subject knowledge that is the root of our failure to teach every single interpretation every written, and instead to cherry pick a handful on which to focus.

        Your focus on ‘the truth of an intepretation’ is perhaps at the root of your misunderstanding of the purpose of teaching interpertations according to the National Curriculum (and indeed in studying history full stop) – that, according to the assumption underlying most of your comments, a Marxist interpretation is false, which fact can be ascertained by comparing it to a ‘true’ liberal interpretaion.


      11. Of course what could someone with a degree in History and Politics and an MPhil in Political Science possibly know about history, how to teach it and the different political interpretations and how to teach those. And there is no way I would be able to understand the History National Curriculum and what it entails after teaching undergraduates because it’s so much more complex what you do right?

        My understanding of the National Curriculum isn’t the issue, if you understood the part of your teacher standards which states that we don’t teach based on our personal beliefs then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Keep telling yourself it’s ok to do what you are doing – I’m not interested in your justifications for being a Marxist propagandist instead of a history teacher.


      12. Sorry, I didn’t realise you have an MPhil. I take it all back. I’ll become a liberal propagandist instead, as you seem to be suggesting. (Although you keep saying ‘teach the truth’ of interpretations I have a feeling what you mean by that is teach a liberal history that interrogates other interpretations, whether you realise it or not.)


      13. Or just don’t be a propagandist at all. Why does that idea seem so alien to you? I think I have made it clear what I mean and it doesn’t mean propagating any one interpretation as the correct one. It is possible that different interpretations explain different aspects of the same event well. Shock horror, there may even be some synergy and revision of interpretations needed in certain situations.


      14. All I’m trying to do is to introduce my students to historical materialism and to equip them to see through the dominant ideology of the day that enables people to say things like the Great Bengal Famine in which 10 million people died wasn’t typical of the British Empire with a straight face and a wave of a hand. But I’ll bear your claim that teaching anything with any relationship to or basis in Marxism is propaganda in mind when planning future lessons.


      15. “But I’ll bear your claim that teaching anything with any relationship to or basis in Marxism is propaganda”

        They are your words, not mine. I don’t accept you attributing things to me that I have never said.


      16. As for the previous comment – it would seem I was taking issue with facts being cherry-picked to present a particular point of view. This seems to be a running theme.


      17. And the equivalence between a Marxist interpretation of history and Creationism is utterly facile. Marxism is a valid and widely used methodological approach which is part of an academic discipline; Creationism is an attempt to reject an academic discipline by people on the grounds of their religion. I’d have hoped you would be able to spot the differences between Biology and History as academic disciplines…


      18. 1) I’ve only ever commented on one of your other blog posts but if you wish to exaggerate so be it. 2) If you don’t have the subject knowledge to the respond to the points that I made that at least have the honesty to say it. 3) The point about creationism was teaching based on personal beliefs not credibility of the theory. 4) Marxism is not a methdological approach it is a theoretical one – spot the difference.


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