Maintaining both selves: what I did, and didn’t, learn about the British Empire

Laila Freeman calls out the erasure of British colonial crimes from the history books.

Spanning four centuries and encompassing nearly a quarter of the world’s population at its peak, the British Empire is an enormous and seemingly unavoidable part of British history.

Despite this, it is not mandatory to teach the history of the British Empire in schools, and too many people remain oblivious to the atrocities committed by British imperialists only too recently. 

I too, until recently, had very little understanding about this vast period of British history – and of my own personal history. My mother is of Pakistani origin and my father is English. I am a product of both sides of the Empire, and my ancestors would have had endured some very varied experiences. But thanks to the gaping hole in my school curriculum, I, like many others, had been kept blissfully ignorant to the despotic realities of the British Empire.

I attended two secondary schools during my teenage years. The first was a British international school on a small island in the Middle East, and the second was an all girls’ school in London. At neither of these schools was I provided with any real insight into the British Empire.

The closest that I came to learning about the Empire during my time at school was studying a unit on slavery and abolition in Year 7 – but it essentially felt as though this unit was only an opportunity to praise the likes of William Wilberforce and other British abolitionists, while the instigators of slavery were promptly erased. My teachers must have forgotten to include the fact that Hitler personality cited connections between the British Empire and his attempted ‘Thousand Year Reich’.

When we had finished the unit, we had finished talking about the British Empire. A lid was put on the whole topic, never to be reopened during my secondary schooling. The experiences of the slaves themselves were never once considered during our topic on slavery; we were concerned with white upper-class men in Britain alone. The countless other countries that were exploited and ruled by the British were never acknowledged. Bahrain, the country that we, twenty expatriate children, were living in, was one of these forgotten countries.

Flash forward a few years, through GCSE and A Level courses that made not one brief nod towards the British Empire. The Spanish Empire, yes – we covered that briefly at A Level, and did not hesitate to condemn the ‘disgusting’ and ‘racist’ treatment of the Moors by the Spanish. Nazi Germany, certainly – no school education is complete without quite rightly remembering the horrendous events of the 1930s. But that rule seemed only to apply to events in which Britain saved the day.

The British Raj and the Indian subcontinent, former home to my grandparents, likewise went unmentioned throughout my time at school. I did not question the absence of my own history as an Asian in those History lessons, simply because I had never been exposed to Asian history. It did not cross my mind that my own identity and my family’s experiences were also on the opposing side to the British rule, because this was not a narrative that had ever been presented to me as feasible.

While I knew about Partition, I did not know about the Indian Mutiny of 1957 and the subsequent death toll of 800,000 – or of the massacre of thousands of Indian civilians by General Niall in the aftermath of this failed revolt. I had never heard of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya and the torture, abuse, castration and forced labour that followed. My knowledge began and ended with the fact that my grandpa had risked his life to travel out of India and into the newly founded Pakistan. Oral family histories were my only source of understanding; had it not been for my own heritage, I would not have had even that.

It was not until university that I first properly learned about the British Empire. In comparison to my secondary school experience, it was refreshing to find that Bristol University offers a lot of modules on the Empire, with ‘Introduction to the History of the British Empire’ being a core module for all first year History students. It was through this that I became aware of the realities of the British Empire, and, for the first time, and I found myself captivated by this monumental – and disregarded – series of events.

Illustration for British Empire

Britain, it seems, is keen to block out its empirical past. This is understandable – it is also unacceptable. Whether we like it or not, the Empire is a crucial part of British history and, as a nation, we owe it to the millions of people that were subjected to Britain’s brutal rule to not erase it from the history books. A narrative that only features Britain’s positives, while maybe preferable for some, is simply historically inaccurate. Just as records of the Mau Mau uprising were discovered to have been hidden, and just as historians speculate that many other records are still being concealed, the absence of Empire from the British school curriculum is a clear example of an attempt to silence the past.

And where does this leave me? Learning about Empire has, at times, caused me to reevaluate my own identity as a mixed race person. I am not dealing with the more clearly cut ‘we did this to them’ or ‘they did this to us’ rhetoric – I am both the ‘we’ and the ‘us’. True, the treatment of the colonised people during the British Empire has caused me to look towards my British identity with more reticence than I once did. In particular, learning about the British Raj and the brutality of Partition has brought me empathy for the Indians – it’s my own family’s history, after all. I find myself falling into the classic mixed race conundrum, where association with one ‘side’ removes you from the other.

That said, to say that I feel distanced from my once strong British identity would be completely untrue. After all, a sense of ‘otherness’ was intrinsic to the workings of Empire, and resistance against that is motivation in itself to maintain both my identities just as strongly as before. Learning about the British Empire has allowed me to further realise my identity as an Asian, and it has provided a voice for the concealed experiences of my ancestors, but this does not – and will not – subtract from my equally important British identity.

Instead, my attention and my sorrow returns not to what I have learnt about the British Empire, but to what I have not. To bury this large scale atrocity from the public consciousness is nothing short of an atrocity in itself.

Illustration by Rivka Cocker


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