University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Empire and its Afterlives 3: Using primary sources to avoid simplistic narratives of history

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

Photograph by Desmond Bowles of the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph by Desmond Bowles of the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town, 9 April 2015, via Wikimedia Commons.


Several students mentioned current debates around #RhodesMustFall in South Africa and the UK and the idea of decolonising the curriculum, in order to reflect on what that might mean for the teaching of colonial history and its legacies. They had worked on a range of publications and reflections on the topic in class, and drew on their own reading as well to inform their discussions of the curriculum. Some students outlined ways in which black history and black political philosophy could be made a full part of the curriculum (see the forthcoming fourth installment in this series for more details). Others recommended the inclusion of challenging sources which reflect how racist beliefs served to justify colonial conquest and rule, and how those narratives are still to be found today in stereotypes, political discourse, and depictions of people living on the African continent.

Isabel Zanella proposed to include La difesa della Razza (1938-1943), a magazine that promoted scientific and cultural racism under Mussolini, in the last year of the high school History curriculum in Italy, in order to highlight how colonialism contributed to the creation of racist national identities which can still be found today across Europe. Teaching about this manifesto of racial pseudo-science would be a way of integrating discussions of colonialism and its legacies to the curriculum, and could also provide a space to discuss the current rise in nostalgia for fascism in the country.

Similarly, both Samantha Chihuri and Harley Saint Beckett suggested integrating Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden in order to make visible the crucial role that racist ideas, pseudo-science and notions of the “civilising mission” played in justifying empire. While Harley would teach the poem as part of the English curriculum and would relate the poem to contemporary issues of racism and inequality, including voluntourism and white saviourism, Samantha proposed adding the text to the IGCSE History module and underlining the ability of literature to be used as both a means of resistance and a form of attack towards others.


President of the French Republic Paul Doumer and Paul Reynauld, Minister for the Colonies, visiting the 1931 Colonial exhibition in Paris, source: www.flickr.com/photos/13476480@N07/43269930084/sizes/o/


A poster for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris is Joseph Savage’s recommended source for inclusion in the GCSE History curriculum in England and Wales, and also foregrounds discussion of racist beliefs which underpin the “civilising mission”. This particular poster could be used in the Germany topic to show how colonial propaganda and claims of territorial control exacerbated tensions after the Versailles Treaty and contributed to the rise of the populist Nazi party.

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