I suppose the fact that children are to be taught any history at all is cause for modest celebration - especially as it isn't about the Nazis or Henry VIII. however, the news that slavery and the British Empire are to be compulsory parts of the curriculum
makes me a little uneasy. There are a couple of reasons for this; the first is that slavery impacted upon Britain remarkably little. The numbers of British people directly involved in the slave trade, whether in shipping the poor slaves across the Atlantic or using slave labour on plantations in the British West Indies, was so low. There were no slaves in England after that remarkable judgment by Lord Mansfield
in the case of R v Somerset
"The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it." So, while the slave trade was an important aspect of world history, I'm not sure that it's a central facet of British history.
Equally alarming is the context in which it is proposed that it should be studied.
Children will study the development of the trade, colonisation and how slavery was linked to the British empire and the industrial revolution.
Well, the thing is that the slave trade has very little relation to the pattern of British colonisation - in 1807 when the trade was abolished, British colonialism was located predominantly in India, with the West Indies already being marginalised. African colonialism came much later, and European settlement was focused in the south and east - not the west where the slave trade was centred. Equally, what we really know as the British Empire was a creation of the mid-to-late nineteenth century more than the 18th. By the time the flag was flying and the map was being painted pink, the relation of Britain to the slave trade was in spending massive amounts of money - more according to some than was earned in the trade - in trying to stamp out the global trade.
More importantly, despite the Marxist view that the industrial revolution was brought about by the surplus profits of the slave trade, there simply isn't the evidence to support this. Even at the peak of the trade, the money it was bringing in was marginal at best. Stanley Engerman, professor of economic history at Rochester, has calculated that the contribution made by slave sale proceeds to the British economy in 1770 - at the height of the trade - was a mere 0.0054% of National Income
. The point here is that this is contentious economic history and certainly not settled historical fact - the teaching of the industrial revolution should really not be taught as an adjunct to the slave trade.
The impression grows that this is a bit of what John Howard used to call 'black armband history' - the telling of history specifically to make us feel bad for our wicked past.
The initiative's learning project manager Ruth Fisher said: "There's a lot of mis-education about slavery and it hasn't really been taught in schools at all.
"It's quite interesting in terms of today's history and what students need to know about the past to understand the present.
"You can't really talk about the history of the British empire without discussing this part of history."
She also suggested the sheer impact of slavery on the British economy and how involved it was with slavery has often been underplayed.
Well, as I've pointed out, there's a reason it's been underplayed - it wasn't all that significant. The slave trade and slavery in general are far more important in studying the history of the United States - a society and a history in which slavery was a massively important factor - than they are in the history of Britain. Teach children about the Empire by all means - it's hard to comprehend any British History after about 1750 if you don't talk about it - but don't pretend that slavery is all that it was, or that the slave trade is what has driven modern Britain, because it wasn't, and it hasn't.
Labels: education, History, slave trade