We are historians of Britain and the British Empire and writing in protest at the on-going misrepresentation of slavery and Empire in the “Life in the UK Test”, which is a requirement for applicants for citizenship or settlement (“indefinite leave to remain”) in the United Kingdom. The official handbook published by the Home Office is fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false. For example, it states that ‘While slavery was illegal within Britain itself, by the 18th century it was a fully established overseas industry’ (p.42). In fact, whether slavery was legal or illegal within Britain was a matter of debate in the eighteenth century, and many people were held as slaves. The handbook is full of dates and numbers but does not give the number of people transported as slaves on British ships (over 3 million); nor does it mention that any of them died. It also states that ‘by the second part of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence’ (p.51). In fact, decolonisation was not an ‘orderly’ but an often violent process, not only in India but also in the many so-called “emergencies” such as the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960). We call for an immediate official review of the history chapter.
People in the colonies and people of colour in the UK are nowhere actors in this official history. The handbook promotes the misleading view that the Empire came to an end simply because the British decided it was the right thing to do. Similarly, the abolition of slavery is treated as a British achievement, in which enslaved people themselves played no part. The book is equally silent about colonial protests, uprisings and independence movements. Applicants are expected to learn about more than two hundred individuals. The only individual of colonial origin named in the book is Sake Dean Mohamet who co-founded England’s first curry house in 1810. The pages on the British Empire end with a celebration of Rudyard Kipling. Continue reading “Historians Call for a Review of UK’s Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test”→
Last Tuesday, the National Archives of Australia finally released the classified “Palace Letters” between the British Monarchy and Governor General Sir John Kerr. The highly anticipated correspondence shed new light on the famous 1975 Constitutional Crisis in Australia, when Kerr employed the reserve powers of the Crown to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government. This was a pivotal moment in Commonwealth relations, sparking a diplomatic backlash from Canberra and fueling the movement for an Australian republic.
The constitutional evolution of Australia’s place within the Commonwealth stems from a historic and obsessive desire to protect national autonomy from British overreach. Indeed, the dusty annals of the old Colonial Office is replete with similar instances of British Cabinet ministers or Governors General interfering in the purely domestic affairs of the self-governing Dominions.
However, this trend could be a two-way street.
Nearly sixty years before the Whitlam dismissal, an Australian Labor leader helped to bring down a British Government. At the height of the First World War, Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes visited the United Kingdom for high-level consultations. The enigmatic Hughes quickly became a celebrity, rubbing elbows with the royal family and being feted by the press as the savior of the nation. Before long, he became a bit player in the famous palace intrigue against Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. Continue reading “The ‘Palace Papers’ and Australian Meddling in British Politics”→
Robert Burroughs (Leeds Beckett University) and Sarah de Mul (Open University, the Netherlands)
Leopold Must Fall. The words become reality. In Belgium, officials are removing public statues of Leopold II in response to anti-racism protests.
Leopold II deserves notoriety. Between 1885 and 1908 he presided over a colonial regime in which mass murder and atrocities became routine. The impact of his destructive rule of the Congo Free State, today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, is profound.
The dismantling of public shrines is of course part of a wider movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Across much of the world, protestors are challenging racism by seeking removal of public monuments and street names honouring slave traders and colonial officials. Their actions are creating change. There have been repeated calls for the public to ‘educate ourselves’ on the histories of slavery, imperialism, and racism. Colonial history is now compulsory teaching in secondary schools in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, for example, and other national curricula will follow. Continue reading “As Leopold II statues fall, how do we ‘educate ourselves’ about his colony?”→
Nandini Chatterjee (NC): Is there a necessary connection between trying to make the university an inclusive place, and decolonising the curriculum?
Richard Toye (RT): Yes, I think there is, but at the same time they are not one and the same thing. That is to say, you could, in theory, have a wonderful, fully decolonised curriculum and at the same time fail to eradicate the various forms of discrimination that staff and students face. On the other hand, you could perhaps do a fair bit to removing those inequalities without having succeeded in adjusting the curriculum. But I do think that the two things go hand in hand, insofar as the messages that we give in the classroom are obviously a very important part of the university experience. If we set the right tone there, both in terms of inclusiveness and intellectual content, that really ought to have some wider benefit. I think there is a dilemma, though. Some people may well have an interest in a particular type of history because of their own ethnic and family history, and why not? But I think that we have to be careful not to assume that because somebody comes from a particular background they will be interested in a particular type or part of history and that ‘inclusiveness’ is achieved by laying on that variety of history. Black people may be especially interested in black history, for all sorts of good reasons, but nobody should expect them to be, or assume that they will be uninterested in other kinds of history. We wouldn’t expect white people only to be interested in white history, in fact I think we would look upon that as positively dangerous. What is your view? Continue reading “Decolonising the curriculum: A conversation”→
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