Empire blogpost 2: visualising Empire a bit differently

Thanks to Richard Kennett, Assistant Headteacher at Gatehouse Green Trust in Bristol, HA Fellow and member of Secondary Committee, for this second post in his series about Empire.

In my last blog I tried to suggest some practical ways to improve our teaching of Empire by focusing on asking different questions about Empire. In this blog I would like to continue with the same theme of thinking about how we improve our teaching of Empire but this time looking at how we visualise Empire.

Contextualising images

I love using rich images in my classroom and one of the best reasons to teach Empire is that you get to use some of the richest images. Let’s look at two. Firstly, the painting of Shah Alam conveying the grant of the Diwani to Lord Clive. It is stunning and there is so much happening. Students would love picking out the details. Similarly, the ace State entry into Delhi painting that hangs in my own city of Bristol. It is huge and like the previous painting is jam packed. It shows pageant and scale and wonder. These images are a terrific resource for a teacher. They need to and should be used when we teach about the British Empire. 

But a word of caution. We have to contextualise them. These paintings and in particular these two were both produced for very clear reasons, to glorify the British. I’ve recently been looking through some old textbooks and it is surprising how many do not contextualise these images. If we give them to students without this we are only telling them half the story. And this doesn’t need to be vast, a sentence or two on the worksheet you produce or a one or two minute explanation from you before they unpick it.

More images from other perspectives

How many images of Empire do we use are produced by indigenous people who are not British? I’d imagine the number is small or possibly none if you are honest. Look at most textbooks and you will get the same answer. We need to address this or we are again only telling the story from the perspective of the British. I am not saying this easy. It takes some googling but it is possible. We need to include images about Empire from the perspective of indigenous people. And if we do so it will enrich the learning of your students.

Here are two examples. We might well teach about the Battle of Plassey where Robert Clive defeated the Bengal forces. There is the obvious painting of Clive meeting Mir Jafar. But how many of us also use images of Siraj al-Daula or his court before the battle. There are ace Bengali images of this. Just look at the image of Siraj al-Daula on horseback in this blog. It’s a cracker. Similarly, let’s move on a bit chronologically and look at East India rule. Google the paintings of Dip Chand or look at this collection at the V&A. Chand was one of many Indian artists who captured life in the late 18th century. These images are superb. Although, like the British paintings I was discussing earlier these need contextualising.

Our job as history teachers is to teach a multi perspective approach to history. To tell the widest version of the story. We need to do the same with the images we use.

That pesky red or pink shaded map

I’d imagine that nearly all of us when we teach Empire use a map of the world with swathes shaded pink or red to show the extent of the British colonies. This is important to emphasise the scale but also is potentially problematic. One of the biggest misconceptions of Empire is that it is one homogenous entity. This kind of map reinforces that misconception. In Captives, Linda Colley explains that these maps came from the late 19th century to make this exact point. They were in simplistic terms propaganda pieces to show the unity of the colonies. A unity that wasn’t ever really there.

So what can we do about this? Producing maps where every single colony is coloured differently would take hours. But we could take one of the pink shaded maps and at least group similar-ish colonies into different colours, maybe even rudimentary continental groupings. Some different colours on that map might at least try to help students understand that different colonies were treated differently and operated differently.

Want to know more?

Things to read:

People to follow:

  • @profdanhicks – Dan Hicks

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