Sir Francis Drake's attack on Puerto Rico (Image by Bettmann / Contributor)
Artillery Row

Against the HRification of history

Hand-wringing about “relatability” divides more than it unites

“Sir, was everyone in history a racist?” said Daniel one slow Thursday afternoon at my old school in North London. Daniel hadn’t put up his hand, so of course, I had to tell him off. Even worse, being in my usual teacherly bad mood, I wasn’t exactly Mr Chips with my response. What a silly question, I snapped, before going back to trying to teach a set of pandemic weary teenagers about the Reformation. 

Daniel deserved a better answer than that. Not least because some version of his question has now worked its way onto the lips of the certain adults who run schools. The latest “yes” in a primary school in Lewisham saw an “overwhelming” majority vote to remove the stain of Sir Francis Drake’s name from the school. Who knows what arguments went into the decision, but one can only hope they delved a little bit more into his career than the BBC who initially served him up as a “16th century slave trader”.

The decision didn’t surprise me. I had briefly taught in another secondary school just down the road, and another in North London, where making the curriculum inclusive, diverse, decolonised, equal etc was all the rage. For me, Drake was a fascinating target. I had actually taught the man to a class of Year 8s. Funnily enough then, Drake was one of the few old white men of British history deemed more accessible — largely given his relationship with an escaped slave called Diego. According to Miranda Kaufman, whose book Black Tudors was gleefully worked into our history curriculum, Diego became Drake’s “right-hand man in his various endeavours across the high seas.

This wasn’t enough to exonerate him in Lewisham. When it comes to slavery and being a dead white man, even flirt with it and you’re out. Beyond the expected uproar, the bigger issue here is the increasingly strange way we feel compelled to serve up our history to make it accessible for “minorities” in the name of “diversity, equality and inclusivity”.

Both schools I taught in during my short-lived career were some of the most diverse in London. This isn’t something that particularly interested me, but it certainly played on the conscience of some of my colleagues. One of the most cringe-inducing conversations I have ever had was with a fellow teacher, who on discussing changes to the curriculum in the name of “diversity” recalled something along the lines of: that they had looked down the register, seen the names and wondered how we might better tell their story. Presumably, this meant anything other than the usual fare of boring old “white” British history

I felt something fundamentally dishonest in prioritising their story

What exactly is their story? As British citizens, their story is our story; our history, their history and vice versa. The attempts to presume exactly what these teenagers found relatable end up pretty disingenuous. Roman Britain? Ever heard of Ivory Bangle Lady? The Tudors? All old dead white guys, huh? Nope, check out this cool black trumpeter who was in the court of Henry VII! These are interesting curios, but sprinkling them throughout the curriculum all too often seemed to advance the misconception that Britain has always been a multiracial, multicultural society — something not only historically inaccurate but incredibly patronising to the children of second, third, even fourth generation immigrants. 

This all came to a head during a unit on World War One, which our head of department insisted be based on the book The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire by David Olusoga. The book is an interesting piece of revisionism about the role of colonial soldiers in WW1. In obsessing over race and teaching the Western Front, it does at some point have to contend with the fact that the vast majority who died there were, err … white men. In one particularly painful lesson, I ended up having to teach the Battle of the Somme by asking the class: what does the story of Chinese labourers reveal about World War One? Funnily enough, as it turns out, not that much! I’m sure being subjected to racial slurs whilst doing manual labour behind the front wasn’t much fun. But I felt something fundamentally dishonest, even borderline offensive, in prioritising their story over those of the Pals Battalions who went over the top that morning. 

Rather than turning our nation’s story into a set of grievances to be “confronted”, we should encourage the idea that our nation’s story is there to be shared by all regardless of race. Why can’t a young black kid from Lewisham take pride and interest in the fact that our country would be very different had it been absorbed into the world’s most powerful Empire in 1588 (or indeed Drake’s later alliance with freed slaves)? Why must Churchill’s stand against fascism in 1939 be constantly overshadowed by the idea he was one of the worst racists in history? The list can go on, because more or less every historical figure we have will have been implicated in some way. I already know there is no reason for the above not to take place, in part because I’ve seen it happen in my own classroom. Our nation’s story, in all its complexity, is human, engaging, exciting and intellectual enough to appeal to everyone without having to be served up through the ever adjusting focus of racial justice.

History is a discipline that goes beyond extolling national heroes (the proper practice of which might have stalled the decision in Lewisham). When taught on a limited timetable in schools, it finds itself having to piece together a narrative of our nation’s story. Such a story, I would argue, is much needed as we face the increasingly elusive idea of what it means to be British in the 21st century. With regards to this dilemma, there are many rich seams in our national story for everyone in society. Perhaps we don’t have to go full Our Island Story, but I do hope to meet some of the more ardent zealots of Cruel Britannia halfway. Rather than turning our past into some sort of emotional baggage to be reckoned with, we might be better served to focus on the story of how we ended up as a country, where for the most part, people couldn’t really give a toss about the colour of your skin. 

The cynical trend of seeing Britain’s past at permanent odds with the Britain of today and tomorrow is starting to take root in our schools. Britain is now a nation of slave traders, colonial thieves and “problematic” white men, whose finest hours may only be acknowledged if first examined through the grubby lens of imperialism. Fine. Where exactly is this understanding of our past going to take us? Who is it really going to serve?

Presuming historical relatability based on race is bizarre

As a teacher, I witnessed a strange sort of vision of where we were going with all this. Whilst observing one lesson about Black History Month, I watched the extraordinary moment when a class of twelve year olds were asked to vote on whether they felt they could relate to the history curriculum. Unsurprisingly, despite the best efforts of everything from Black Tudors to Forgotten Armies, they voted by a majority that they did not. Of course, the question was moronic. History isn’t there to “relate” to. Moreover, presuming historical relatability based on race is bizarre. It’s just as hard for me to “relate” to an Elizabethean sailor as it is for a black kid from the local estate. The past is a foreign country which we all set out to explore together. 

As defenders of the Drake renaming observed, there is a difference between teaching someone and mindlessly celebrating them. That distinction also rests on the assumption that we are blessed with choosing our national heroes rather than confronted with them by virtue of historical consequence. Drake thieved and murdered his way across the New World, but he was also the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. Drake worked on a slave ship as a young man, but he also played a pivotal role in 1588 and confirming the naval superiority which went on to define our nation. From Gandhi to Genghis Khan, few nations have the luxury of having a national hero without some stain on their record. It is even more arrogant for an adult to presume they can meddle with this in order to right a perceived racial grievance on behalf of a child. Whether it’s changing the name of a school or offering some patronising and tokenistic understanding of history, it is based on the same faulty logic that the nature of our past can be manipulated to suit the perceived slights of the present. The complexity of our history, with both its pride and shame, is one to be shared by all of us regardless of our racial background.

Well, Mr Skulthorp, was everyone in history racist? Well, yes, of course, by today’s standards. But what are you going to do about it? Alter, cancel, rename, select our way to a more “inclusive” and “diverse” past that never existed? Teaching our history in all its glory, shame and bloodshed isn’t some conscious political choice we should sit down and workshop with concerned community stakeholders. It’s our duty as adults to try to help students from all backgrounds not to make sense of themselves, but of the country, for whatever reason, they now find themselves living in. To do otherwise does them and their history a disservice. If we do go down that path, who knows what silly questions teenagers will be asking in their history lessons in a hundred years time?

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