Like most literate Brits of my generation, I grew up immersed in the book 1066 and All That, the brilliant parody of historical writing published in 1930 by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. Among the large chunks of the book I can still recite verbatim is the catalogue of Victorian colonial wars, which mimics with lethal accuracy the actual tone of contemporary textbooks. A famous sample: “Zulu War. Cause: the Zulus; Zulus exterminated; Peace with Zulus.” However bizarre the idea might appear, I would here like to make a modest proposal for a revival of those much-maligned textbooks that Sellar and Yeatman were eviscerating.
1066 and All That resonated particularly because, in the 1960’s, that kind of imperial history still made up a large portion of what we were actually studying in high schools. My history curriculum at that stage still retold the growth to glory of the British Empire in India and Africa, with all its heroes (Clive, Wolfe, Napier, Garnet Wolseley), and those deluded villains like Tipu of Mysore who resisted empire and, thus, stood in the way of historical destiny. Not, of course, that this was the only kind of history on offer. My own school assigned pupils into two distinct curricula, one imperial and warlike, while others learned about British social history, with a central emphasis on labor unions, social democracy, and reform movements. We studied the Indian Mutiny and the Opium Wars; they heard about the rise of the Labour Party.
Needless to say, no such choice exists any more. Even in the 1960’s, with the empire in dissolution and a social and sexual revolution in progress at home, the imperial-history track looked ludicrously reactionary and obsolete, and utterly out of keeping with current realities. That kind of history is now long gone, and British history pupils today are firmly set in the progressive mode. They study the rise of popular movements and women’s rights, and empire features—if at all—only in the context of antislavery movements.
Old-style imperial history, in contrast, is in deep disfavor. Some years ago, London’s then Mayor Ken Livingstone proposed removing the statues of Napier and other 19th-century generals from Trafalgar Square on the grounds that nobody today had heard of them, and wouldn’t it be nice to have someone contemporary in their place—like Nelson Mandela. Granted that Livingstone is a buffoon, nobody would seriously suggest that British schools should resume the teaching of imperial history, with each pupil presumably issued with a pair of rose-tinted spectacles to view the receding past.
True, I don’t want to return to the “Zulus exterminated” frame of historical writing, but the imperial approach did leave a powerful legacy for me and for others of my generation. Above all, we learned that an outside world did exist, even—God forbid—a world outside Europe. In contrast, the modern British curriculum teaches the broad span of human existence worldwide or, more specifically, how it was experienced in Germany and Russia between about 1930 and 1945. The wider world has ceased to exist.
We were forced to think globally. We learned, for instance, that India had a complex history of highly diverse peoples, of kingdoms with ancient traditions, and we learned something about the impact of trade and globalization in disrupting those long-static worlds. We heard names like Sind and Punjab, about wars in Afghanistan and the North West Frontier. And we had to know something about geography. We learned about the interconnected worlds of the Indian Ocean, and why a British realm centered in India was so concerned about its coaling stations in the Arabian peninsula, in what is now Yemen. We had to know why and how the British regime in India expanded its trade into China. Amazingly, that Indian realm even encountered the Russians, also expanding into their own imperial space in Central Asia. Who knew that different worlds and cultures might interact, and in such strange places?
Some people might even claim that this kind of teaching has a strictly contemporary relevance. They might point out that the world in coming decades will have to confront rising economic powers like the BRIC nations—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—each of which will pursue its interests within larger spheres of influence. Each of these powers, of course, is shaped by its historical memories. If the British have forgotten the Opium Wars, the Chinese emphatically have not. A case might even be made for the contemporary relevance of past conflicts in Afghanistan and Yemen.
By the way, nobody exterminated the Zulus, in 1879 or since, and they remain a critical power bloc in the pivotal state of South Africa. I’m so glad I learned something about their history in school.