By Ed West Last updated: October 2nd, 2009
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Discussing the British Empire once with a friend, I was a little bit startled to be told the reason that the British were disliked around the world was because we had killed 6 million people in concentration camps during the Boer War. Are you absolutely sure? I asked. Yes, we invented concentration camps and murdered 6 million people in South Africa, she said. And the woman had a degree from Oxford.
So I always think about those poor 6 million Afrikaaners whenever someone raises the subject of the British Empire, of which almost nothing is known now by the general populace except;
1. Britain enslaved loads of black people
2. Britain starved loads of Irish people and
3. It was really racist, especially towards Mary Seacole (yes, I know Seacole is Rod Liddle's joke, but now they're planning to build a great flipping statue of her opposite Parliament I think more people should know about it).
Now Michael Palin has made news just for making a fairly modest defence of the Empire:
"If we say that all of our past involvement with the world was bad and wicked and wrong, I think we're doing ourselves a great disservice."
"It has set up lines of communication between people that are still very strong. We still have links with other countries – culturally, politically and socially – that, perhaps, we shouldn't forget."
I'd go a lot further and mention the abolition of the slave trade, the introduction of parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, civil service, post office, railways, women's rights (especially in places like Egypt and India) and the treatment of previously incurable diseases…
And yet, strangely, none of those are among the keywords for one school's module about the British Empire, called "the British Empire and Black History".
"Empire global Colony Imperialism Trade ‘Man on the spot’ Competition Strategic Popularity Slavery Racism trade prejudice chain gang slave slave-owner overseer plantation Abolition abolish plantation overseer equality William Wilberforce Colonialism Raj British Viceroy Inferior Tiffin Exploited.Mahatma Ghandi Khadj Amritsar Massacre Non-cooperation Independence"
Incidentally here are the same keywords for their module on "Islamic Empires"
"Islam Muslim Prophet Muhammad AH After hijra. Qur’an Five Pillars of Islam Hadith Hajj Meccca Empire Persia Syria Trade Caliph Caliph Umar. Byzantium Capital City Baghdad Caliph Trade Entertainment Fertile soil. Calligraphy Maths science architecture Mosque at Cordoba Taj Mahal. Ottoman Suleyman Sultan Turkish Pope Tudor"
Under "resources" the school lists Spartacus, which is not exactly a centrist website (its historical topics include "The Crimes of George H W Bush", "Assassination, Terrorism and the Arms Trade: The Contracting Out of US Foreign Policy" and "Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence Complex"), "the film Ghandi" (sic) and "Terry Deary's The British Empire book. Part of the Horrible History series". Deary is an incredibly popular children's writer but his history books are fantastically biased, and his Barmy British Empire is a work of sinister Stalinist indoctrination, including lengthy and graphic descriptions of white-on-black violence – just the sort of thing that should be presented to London schoolboys.
But until there is a shake up of the education system we'll continue to grow up apologising for our past, including the South African Holocaust, without being aware of the benefits we brought.
As Reg from the People's Front of Judea might have said: "All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the British done for us?"