BBC History Magazine
“The empire made us, whatever our background as Britons”
Michael Wood on… the value of imperial history
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!