Rule, Britannia?

The British Empire did not result from cold minds, even colder hearts, sitting in committee rooms in London or Edinburgh plotting, looking at a map of the world and planning - well that’s Africa settled, next Tuesday we’ll annex India.

Last time round I wrote about the need to understand the realities of history. I hadn’t anticipated that, entirely coincidentally, there would be some discussion about the current lack of interest in the teaching and the learning of history.

This is not limited to Malta. Even the UK – a country which does tend to bang on (and on) about its history – and I cite last year’s coronation as an example – is worried about this problem. This has interested me. I do have some sympathy for the young. At secondary school, I too was turned off history, primarily because the head of the History Department was a downright bad teacher. His idea of nurturing the young was to bellow his personal prejudices at his pupils and to enforce them with all too liberal use of the tawse (leather disciplinary belt). He was, in short, the living embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s dictum “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. There is a somewhat cynical Scottish codicil to this: “those who can’t teach get appointed headmasters”. True, sadly true.

The result of this style of teaching was that I left my history lessons able to quote chapter and verse of events such as the Battle of Waterloo and the Charge of the Light Brigade without having been given any information about the national, political, and financial issues which caused these pivotal events or, even worse, what resulted from them.

This wasn’t limited to history. In music classes, we were expected to bellow the folk tune ‘Up with the Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee’ without having the slightest idea who Bonnie Dundee was (for interest’s sake, John Graham of Claverhouse, great Scottish patriot, sadly killed at the Battle of Killiecrankie).

Hopefully, in these “woke” days (and Lord how I hate that word) teachers like that and their methods have been consigned to the history books themselves. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the current aversion to history is being fueled by some long standing folk memory of lessons like that, lingering in the minds of the modern high tech youngsters from the tales of their parents and, indeed, grandparents.

Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be inspired by genuine teachers, men and women who loved their vocation and who were genuinely committed to inspiring their pupils and teaching them to think and wonder and explore. As a result, in Sartre’s words, “I read, and I learned, and I ended fascinated by what I was reading”. So I read, and I am still fascinated. And my study of history leads me to wonder if, in large parts of the world, this reaction to history stems from a reaction to the folk memories of the alleged influence and institutions of the British Empire. The British Empire is, without doubt, in many countries the Elephant in the Room!

Now, I realise only too well that to open any discussion on whether the British Empire was a good or a bad thing is to skate very precariously across the extremely thin ice of national prides and experiences. So I do not intend to push forward any sort of judgement. I simply want to raise a few points which I hope will interest, inform, and hopefully entertain.

One opinion I must make clear: I detest the narrow-minded jingoism of the traditional League of Empire Loyalist Little Englander. It was their attitude, their deceitful, and frankly racist mindset that led to the worst decision the United Kingdom has taken in my lifetime – Brexit. Except it wasn’t the UK: Scotland and Ulster voted decisively to remain in the EU. To coin a phrase, it was Engerlund Wot Dunnit. Pause, deep breaths, calm down. I am unashamedly a Remainer and could rant on for hours, without repeating myself, about the iniquity and stupidity of Brexit, and probably will again.

But I am equally dismissive of those who can see nothing good about the British Empire and bang on (and on) about its iniquities, stupidities, and all the pains it allegedly inflicted on their countries. They are as misguided, misled, and misinformed as the Little Englanders. You see, the Empire which exists in the minds of both, whether all that was good or all that was bad, never really existed! In the words of the great British writer James, later Jan (don’t ask, she was ahead of her time) Morris, “Britain acquired its Empire in a fit of absentmindedness”.

The British Empire was never the result of some vast eternal, infernal plan. It did not result from cold minds, even colder hearts, sitting in committee rooms in London or Edinburgh plotting, looking at a map of the world and planning  – well that’s Africa settled, next Tuesday we’ll annex India. That Empire is an illusion, a chimera, all smoke and mirrors.

The Empire was actually the creation, the unplanned, uncontrolled, and unfathomable rush, of thousands of men and women to leave our cold Northern island to find out what the green grass was like on the other side of the hill. They were the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, heroes and villains, saints and sinners, paragons and charlatans, missionaries and mountebank. In short, they were the great and the good and their counterparts, in Glasgow patois the hoors and coamic singers. What drove them? Lust for money, power, land, adventure, pure fun, simple lust, or even lurve – whatever that is – as Britain’s current King once memorably remarked. The Good Lord alone knows. Maybe it was simply in the words of the ill-fated mountaineer George Mallory. When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he replied simply “because it’s there”.

Main photo: Times of Malta

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