During the six months I spent in Australia in Year 9 I learnt more about the history of imperialism, the atrocities committed against indigenous communities by white colonialists and its lasting impact than I did in my ten years of education in the UK.
I was born in Australia and spent the first seven years of my life there. Since moving to the UK, I have always had a strong tie to Australia, spending holidays with family in Sydney, as well as moving back for six months. I’ve experienced the different systems of education and their respective attitude towards colonialism, as well as the difference more generally in society. In Australia, the majority of my family and friends regularly bring up injustices relating to Indigenous communities; my great-aunt even used her influence to ensure the Aboriginal Flag flew on Sydney Harbour Bridge on Australia Day, as a symbolic acknowledgment of their original custodianship of the land and the sufferings they have endured (which for them began on Australia Day). As much as I learnt through formal education, I have learnt in equal parts through open conversations with my family and friends over the years.
I am now a first-year undergraduate doing History at Oxford – this year was the first time I have experienced any formalised education in Britain about its history of colonialism, slavery and the abolition movement. Even my A-level in Tudor history had only a few pages on ‘Exploration’ in the Tudor reign, with a total of one sentence dedicated to the beginning of the slave trade in Elizabeth’s reign in its entire 254 pages: “In 1562 John Hawkins went to Africa, with brightly-coloured cloth and trinkets to sell, captured some locals and took them as slaves to West Indian islands.” The reduction of the beginning of one of the most horrific events in human history to this one sentence shows the extent of the erasure of Britain’s imperial past in education.
The silence on Britain’s imperial history and glaring gap in most student’s knowledge on this subject is at the very least problematic. In actuality, it is dangerous when considering the political climate in which this silence is constructed. Britain’s colonial history continues to be a discursive matter amongst many politicians, with the glorification of aspects such as the railways, rather than the focus on the Bengal famine or the extended massacres of Indigenous Australians. It appears that the positive aspects of the Empire the UK can take credit for, but the atrocities are too far in the past to have anything to do with Britain now.
This political climate sees Michael Gove make headway with his proposed education reform in 2013, in particular his “history as celebration” curriculum designed to instil pride amongst students, by studying specific heroes who made their name specifically in relation to Britain’s imperial mission, as they subjugated people of colour to hand new territorial acquisitions to the crown. It’s the same political climate that sees Boris Johnson publish an article in which he states the issue in Africa is “not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” Despite the fact that this article was published in 2002, this same mentality can be seen in a number of other statements that Johnson has made since, most notably in his 2016 Conservative party conference speech in which he extolled the virtues of the Foreign Office’s imperial origins, bragging that “178 nations of the world we either conquered or invaded.”
I am not saying that Australia being more open about the issues of colonialism has meant that Australia is a utopia of civil rights – far from it. Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal women are 20 times more likely to be in prison than non-Aboriginal women. Systemic racism thrives in Australia still. This can be seen in the election and re-election of Tony Abbott (thankfully no longer in office as Prime Minister), and in the lack of acknowledgement of Australia’s past. Abbott described pre-invasion Australia as “extraordinarily basic”, claiming that precolonial Sydney was “nothing but bush” before the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and suggesting white invasion was a positive, “defining moment”. It is clear that Australia’s openness about talking about the impact of colonialism on aboriginal communities, as well as education on imperialism, and the atrocities committed, needs to go further. But it is a start at the very least. A start yet to be made by the British education system.
What’s more damming is that the attitudes that Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Tony Abbott hold towards colonialism seem to bear similarities. These can to some extent be explained when you look at their education – all three men were educated at the University of Oxford, with Abbott being a Rhodes scholar. Cecil Rhodes, I am sure, would feel his legacy successfully maintained in the figure of Tony Abbott.
We see the basis of continuing colonialist thinking being supported by an education system that does not successfully address Britain’s imperialist past. It shouldn’t take doing history at an undergraduate level to be taught about Britain’s colonialist past (and even then, attitudes towards teaching within this degree are incredibly Eurocentric, often looking at imperialism through a British lens, rather than focusing on the effects on indigenous populations or other countries). Britain’s education needs reform – at a primary, secondary and higher level – it’s that simple. Is this the only thing that needs reform? Absolutely not, and as Australia demonstrates, even beginning to educate on these issues will not immediately solve systemic racism. But Britain’s lack of education on this, and its unwillingness to acknowledge its imperialist heritage is distinctly felt in the political situation in this country, and many others. Our silence speaks volumes. As Maya Goodfellow wrote in an article in the Guardian: “Relative quiet in our schools is paired with politicians glorifying empire as its realities are erased.” Britain’s education system needs to no longer be silent.
If you agree with what I’ve written, here is a petition that you can sign to call the government to debate changes to the curriculum: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/324092