University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Empire and its afterlives 2: How do you teach history with primary sources?

This is the second post in the Empire and its afterlives series. The introduction can be found here.

Primary sources represent a wide range of materials which historians can draw on, and students made the most of this diversity. The podcast episodes included discussions of armed forces recruitment posters, political speeches and pamphlets, as well as a board game, a novel, and a series of photographs by a renowned photojournalist.

Poster "Together", printed 1939, Imperial War Museum photograph Art.IWM PST 3158. It shows men of different races marching together.

Poster “Together”, 1939, Imperial War Museum photograph Art.IWM PST 3158

Two of the students selected a recruitment poster from the Second World War as their recommended source, but suggested different ways of including it into the English and Welsh curriculum. Drawing on two articles on active remembrance and military multicultural heritage Adam Taylor recommended that the poster be used at two different points: at Key Stage 2 (ages 8-11, final two years of primary school), and at Key Stage 4 (ages 15-16, leading up to GCSE exams). He argues that the teaching of the Second World War has been oversimplified by focusing only on civilian issues such as rationing, and in being exclusively told from the perspective of white people, despite the crucial role of troops from the colonial in Britain’s armed forces. Re-integrating military history into the teaching of the Second World War and of Black history would thus be a key focus of using this poster for teaching at primary level, whereas GCSE pupils would be able to also discuss the interconnections between the war effort, colonisation and decolonisation, thereby refining their understanding of complex issues without discrediting what they had been taught earlier in their schooling. In contrast, Layla Chishti recommended this poster be used at Key Stage 3 (ages 12-14, first three years of secondary school), while history is still compulsory for all students in England and Wales. She similarly argued that the teaching of the Second World War ignores or dismisses the contribution of the colonies, and that both world wars are re-imagined as European wars. The poster could thus be used to present a global perspective on the events, as well as offering a way to engage critically with the colonial origins of contemporary stereotypes. She particularly mentions analysing the racial hierarchies that are hinted at in the ways the soldiers are ordered visually, with the Black and Asian soldiers at the back and behind the white troops, as well as discussing with students the wide range of motivation of soldiers from the colonies, from coercion to opportunities and political beliefs, from coercion to opportunities and political beliefs and, as Adam also highlights, the role they would play in the struggles for independence after the end of the war.

Adam Taylor recording

Layla Chishti recording

German board game, c. 1890

Deutschland’s Kolonien-Spiel, German Board Game, c. 1890, Getty Research Institute Digital Collections, 2004.PR.67*


Olivia Hall suggested an 1890 German boardgame be taught to primary school students . Like many contemporary games which feature exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating as key mechanisms and backstories the game play is here focused on “touring” German colonies and collecting travel stories of the “Other”. It could be used to introduce European powers’ brutal conquest of various parts of the African continent, and the ideologies and beliefs that made the 1884-1885 Berlin conference possible, where European powers divided the continent amongst themselves with no consideration of existing African governance systems and land use. Olivia disagrees with people who believe that only events which portray Britain in a positive light should be taught, for fear of making pupils not like their country, and instead draws on the example of Germany as a model for the teaching of History.

Olivia Hall recording

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841-1942( © Gallica Digital Library, digital ID btv1b10336568f/f13

In contrast, Angus Grieve drew on research on European empires, such as Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History and Tony Chafer and Amanda Sackur’s Promoting the Colonial Idea. He presented a speech given by then-Member of the Chamber of Deputies Georges Clemenceau in 1885, in response to Prime Minister Jules Ferry’s views on colonial expansion. The speech questions the legitimacy of colonialism and the racial hierarchies which underpin it, and could be used as an introduction to European attitudes towards empire and race, and the links between white supremacy and imperialism. Angus suggests Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 as most appropriate for the inclusion of this source, as pupils would by then already have some understanding of history, colonialism and racism, as well as know Clemenceau from his role in the creation of the Treaty of Versailles.

Angus Grieve recording


The Reverend John Hoobis Harris (left front) and his wife Alice Seeley Harris (right front) with a group of indigenous people on their visit to the Belgian Congo.

The Reverend John Hoobis Harris (left front) and his wife Alice Seeley Harris (right front) with a group of indigenous people on their visit to the Belgian Congo.

Alice Seeley Harris was a missionary in the Congo at the turn of the 20th Century, and took hundreds of photographs of the atrocities committed as part of colonial rule and commercial exploitation of resources in the region. Natasha Richards-Naseem suggests including one photo in particular in the GCSE History curriculum, of a man looking at the remains of his daughter, killed in retribution for not fulfilling the rubber quota. She highlights how these photographs echo images used for anti-modern slavery campaigns, and could therefore be used not just to discuss King Leopold’s colony in the Congo but critically appraise Britain’s role in colonial conquest and rule across the continent, as well as contemporary issues. She also draws attention to the 2019 TIDE-Runnymede report on teaching migration and empire in secondary schools, which highlights that 71% of teachers surveyed wanted more training in teaching empire, and critically reflects on the difference between images of violence and violent images.



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