Empire blogpost 1: asking different questions about Empire

This blogpost is the first in a series written by Richard Kennett. He is a member of HA Secondary Committee, assistant headteacher in Bristol and co-author of the new MShed published book: “Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery”.

Like many of you I have been thinking a lot about how we teach the British Empire this year. The Black Lives Matter protests and reflections that followed it showed we have a lot of work to do in the way we approach our colonial history. I’ve been reading, talking and reflecting on this a lot and one simple conclusion is that we need to ask different questions. 

More shorter questions than one big one

In lots of schools I visit, and frankly in my own, Empire is taught as a single unit often in Year 8. For something that lasted nearly 400 years and covered vast swathes of the globe a single question and single unit isn’t really enough. Instead I think we need multiple questions that cover different aspects. Splitting up the chronology could help. Maybe one unit on early Empire up to 1800, one on the height of Empire until 1920 and one on decolonisation. None of these need to be long but three short questions would give our students a richer and better understanding. These could and possibly should then be scattered through KS3 allowing us to revisit and build upon prior knowledge.

Less cause, more consequence

History teachers are obsessed with causality questions – Why did William win at 1066? Why did the First World War start? What was the cause of the English Civil War? – I could go on. A question that I see a lot of colleagues ask is why did Britain have such a large empire. There is nothing wrong with this question per se, but looking at the causes of the Empire forces us to look at this through the perspective of the colonisers. There is no doubt there is interesting history here – the mechanics of the East India Company, the ship technology, the involvement of the government. But the problem with this is that it entirely leaves out the experience of the colonised. Doing a causation question means you won’t look at what happened in these countries and in particular what happened to their indigenous people – this are obviously problems in neglecting this. Therefore we need more consequence questions. Looking at why the Empire grew is great but it is far more interesting and far more important to look at what happened next. What was Empire like in India? What changed as a result of Empire in New Zealand? 

Focus on less rather than lumping it into one

The problems of homogenising Empire into one lump have been highlighted by many history teachers and many academics. Empire was different in different countries at different times. Therefore we need to reflect this in the questions we ask. Asking our students what was Empire like is vast and possibly unachievable. Asking them what was Empire like in Bengal in the 18th century is much more achievable. We need to focus our historical lens on specific places at specific times and accept that we won’t cover everything. If you have time I think comparison of two places would be even better, for example ‘How similar was the experience of Empire in India and Australia in the 19th century?’

No balance sheet and more experience

Sathnam Sanghera in Empireland (which I know most of us have now read) brilliantly and eloquently explains the problems of treating Empire like a balance sheet of good and bad. Yet this is the approach that so many of us take, for example, Was the Empire good in India? I think part of that is that we are obsessed with the balance of GCSE questions. But we can do better. Lots of new scholarship on Empire, like the ace Waves Across the South focus on how people experienced Empire and this to me is something we could and should reflect in our classrooms. A simple question like ‘How similar was the experience of Empire in South Africa and Nigeria?‘ is actually really complex and rigorous. Its also a lot better than a balance sheet.

Less focus on mechanics and more on important issues

Lastly with our questions, in the past we have focused far too heavily on the mechanics of Empire, for example the building of railways (why are we so obsessed with railways?). Yet we ignore key issues of race, gender and violence. That is not right. We have to address this head on. That’s not easy but asking better questions would help. Talking to Tom Allen recently he suggested a great question that would allow us to do this. How did Empire change the way we saw ourselves and others? We need questions like this that allow us to explore these key issues.

Want to know more?

Things to read:

  • Empireland, Sathnam Sanghera – it’s short and bold and super easy to read.
  • The Anarchy, William Dalrymple – it’s long but it is dramatic. Feels like a HBO series.
  • Waves across the south, Sujit Sivasundaram – long but original and fascinating approach focusing on the colonised
  • Time to throw out the balance sheet, Alan Lester – short and powerful blog

People to follow:

  • @sathnam – author of Empireland
  • @colonialcountr1 – tweets about the project led by Corinne Fowler
  • @KimAtiWagner – Queen Mary’s professor of Imperial History

Things to watch:

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