Empire? What Empire?
One of my regrets in recent years is not being able to get to the Chalke Valley History Festival which for some years now has been a wonderful celebration of Britain’s history. Of course, I have always realised that such festivals are commonly used to flog books or wares and that the commercial element is an essential part of running such an event, but as a way of engendering enthusiasm amongst the young it is unparalleled and hugely commendable.
My enthusiasm was somewhat dampened, however, when I read the programme and did a quick survey of the more than 120 sessions. The results make disappointing reading for those like me who want to see the Festival, as with our teaching of history, reflect our full history, not just parts thereof . While no doubt there are reasons for the programme being as it was (and speakers with something to sell are the easiest group to attract), it is time to consider a little social engineering.
The most popular subject was, inevitably, the two world wars with the number of talks on the subject totalling some thirty four. General studies of war and warfare accounted for another sixteen sessions while social history (trees, clothes, bread and magazines) accounted for another sixteen talks. English History up until to 1485 accounted for twelve sessions, 1485 – 1689 accounted for a mere three (the Tudors apparently being given a year off) and the period from 1689 to 1900 another two sessions . Twentieth century UK accounted for another six talks, (including three on Brexit), the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece and Egypt six also; the histories of other countries (nine) biographies (sixteen) which completed the list apart from those that I lumped into a section called ‘General.’ (A History of Birds, Wine and War etc) numbered eight.
Oh, there was one other section. The British Empire from 1600 until the present day. Let’s see. Yes, I found one. Lizzie Collingham’s ‘The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World.’ A wide-ranging culinary journey explaining how some of the food we crave reached our plates and satiated our palettes.
I don’t want to detract from the value of the Festival or the work of the organizers; nor do I want to ignore the fact that a very significant number of contributors were there selling their books (as we do). But what worries me is the balance. The list of topics reads like a white man’s History Festival. Very little on suffrage and women; very little on trade, exploration or migration. Very little on diversification, on the Windrush generation, on how Britain became so diverse; Most distressing of all, however, was the absence of anything on the relationship between Britain and its vast empire or its individual histories with China, India, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas or the Pacific, nothing that would help us learn about our historic relationships with those countries. It is said too often that we are uncomfortable talking about Empire, but that it is no reason not to do so. Quite the opposite. Perhaps in the absence of writers, the organisers could organise a few academics, specialists in Empire History to address the balance. Surely we have heard enough of the two world wars (and too little of their consequences in the redrawing of the world map, the depression and all that followed). Perhaps our children need to be offered a more balanced view of history than they are being served at the moment.
A last word for the Festival. It is an excellent celebration of this wonderful subject. They may well respond by saying they are in the market looking for speakers and have to take who is available or simply that they don’t mind the imbalance of subject matter for that is not the point of the festival. Perhaps the challenge is for some of our historians to take on the more contentious and problematic part of our history, the subject that sits right at the heart of this island’s story and address it
Peter Tait is currently writing a book on: Line’s and Crosses: The Cartographer’s Story of Empire having just finished the draft for ‘The Last Twilight: The British Empire in the Pacific, 1800 – 1914’