BBC History Magazine

“The em­pire made us, what­ever our back­ground as Bri­tons”

Michael Wood on… the value of im­pe­rial his­tory

- Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester. Down­load his BBC se­ries The Story of Eng­land at michael-woodsstory-of-eng­land Literature · Arts · William Shakespeare · Somme · United States of America · India · ISIS · Iraq · United Kingdom · Indian Army · King Lear · Israel · Palestinian Authority · Palestinian Territory · West Bank · Palestinian National Authority · Kenya · Nigeria · South Africa · China · Guardian Unlimited · London School of Economics · London · Syria · Æthelred the Unready · Kirkuk · Mark Sykes · Mosul · Auchinleck · Middle East

It’s been quite a year of anniversar­ies, from the deaths of Æthelred the Un­ready (1016) and Shake­speare, 600 years later, and from the Nor­man con­quest to the Somme. His­tory has sel­dom felt more cur­rent – on TV, on ra­dio and in print – and this magazine has done its bit, too, as a gen­er­a­tor of ideas and a re­frac­tor of the huge pub­lic in­ter­est in the sto­ries that have helped shape us.

It seems to me that this only em­pha­sises the value of his­tory – how un­der­stand­ing the world around us is vi­tal in an open so­ci­ety – as has been un­der­lined this year by the mo­men­tous vote on Brexit and the US elec­tion. His­tory, as al­ways, gives value and mean­ing to the present. Viewed prop­erly, it is our re­al­ity check.

One an­niver­sary this year – one that at­tracted less at­ten­tion than it de­served – comes re­peat­edly to mind as the tragedy in the near east un­folds. The Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment of May 1916 di­vided the Ot­toman Arab world into ar­eas of Bri­tish and French in­ter­est: “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘ k’ in Kirkuk”, said Bri­tish rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mark Sykes. Even more than the 1947 Par­ti­tion of In­dia, or the im­pe­rial carve-up of Africa, it has left a bit­ter legacy. When Mo­sul fell in 2014, the so-called Islamic State or Daesh pro­claimed the line erased – a view en­dorsed by many com­men­ta­tors. Though that now looks pre­ma­ture, it seems cer­tain that the crisis will con­tinue for some time. How the sit­u­a­tion might de­velop is still un­clear; read­ers may re­call my col­umn two years ago on the Peters map, in which I spec­u­lated about pos­si­ble fu­ture con­fig­u­ra­tions of the map of the near east.

All of which leads me back to the value of his­tory, and the per­spec­tive it gives – es­pe­cially the his­tory of the Bri­tish em­pire. I have writ­ten be­fore about the need for bet­ter teach­ing of im­pe­rial his­tory in schools. The em­pire made us, what­ever our back­ground as Bri­tons: it is the com­mon his­tory that shaped us. Yet when I talk at schools and col­leges, I am still sur­prised at how lit­tle it is stud­ied.

Take In­dia, for ex­am­ple. Some 1.3 mil­lion In­di­ans served in the First World War, half of them in Iraq, and 74,000 were killed – a story told in Shra­bani Basu’s book For King and An­other Coun­try. In the Se­cond World War, 2.5 mil­lion In­di­ans served – the largest vol­un­teer army in his­tory – and 87,000 died. As Field Mar­shal Sir Claude Auchin­leck said, Bri­tain “couldn’t have come through both wars if they hadn’t had the In­dian army”.

Lit­tle of this, though, is part of school his­tory – a fun­da­men­tal fail­ure (some have even called it dis­hon­esty) at the heart of the cur­ricu­lum. His­tory is not there only to en­ter­tain and teach crit­i­cal judg­ment; it is also there to help us un­der­stand our world. And it is a pow­er­ful lens. Just as King Lear or The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov re­veal truths about the hu­man con­di­tion, so too do great works of his­tory. Read born sto­ry­tellers such as Christo­pher Hib­bert or Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple on the In­dian re­bel­lion of 1857, for ex­am­ple, and you feel the tragic power of a great novel – but it’s all true.

You could hardly have a more thrilling yet con­tentious nar­ra­tive than the story of the Bri­tish em­pire. The his­tory of In­dia, the Caribbean, Iraq, Is­rael-Pales­tine, Kenya, Nige­ria, South Africa, China since the Opium Wars – th­ese are all world his­tory, but they are also Bri­tish his­tory. The Guardian re­cently quoted Muku­lika Ban­er­jee, at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, as say­ing that Bri­tish stu­dents ar­rive at her uni­ver­sity com­pletely ig­no­rant about the em­pire, though it is such a vi­tal part of their his­tory. “When we talk of Syria to­day,” she said “they have no knowl­edge of Bri­tain’s role in the Mid­dle East in the last cen­tury. When dis­cussing burn­ing po­lit­i­cal ques­tions to­day, they have no his­tor­i­cal con­text to draw on that links Bri­tain’s own past with those events. Sim­i­larly, they have no clue about the his­tory of im­mi­gra­tion... They haven’t learned any of it at school.” All I can say is: they surely should.

So in this hol­i­day sea­son, may I wish read­ers more ex­cit­ing ad­ven­tures in Bri­tish his­tory in the next year: com­pelling, fas­ci­nat­ing, al­ways new, al­ways chal­leng­ing. And I hope that, along with tan­ger­ines and choco­lates, your Christ­mas stock­ing con­tains some great his­tor­i­cal writ­ing to en­joy by the fire­side. Sea­son’s greet­ings!

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