Is the Sun Rising Again? The British Empire and Children’s Literature

Last week, I was looking for something for Sunday lunch; I fancied a pie, so I went into the pie aisle at a major grocery store and found . . . Empire Pie. EMPIRE pie? I looked round, wondering if I had been transported back to the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time, Empire-themed dishes were quite popular; the Empire Marketing Board made sure of it. But no, I was still in 2015. So it led me to wonder as I ate my Empire Pie (well, it sounded tasty—and, to be fair, it was): Is the British Empire making a comeback? Could I find any evidence in children’s books out now?

Let’s eat the empire, 20th century version.

Let's eat the empire--21st century version.

Let’s eat the empire–21st century version.

There was a time when you could go to a British (or colonial/former colonial) bookstore and find, in the children’s section, multiple volumes with “Empire” in the title. This would range from periodicals like The Empire Annual (there were versions for Boys, Girls, and Youth, depending on the year) to history texts such as H. E. Marshall’s 1908 Our Empire Story to novels by G. A. Henty (With Clive in India: The Beginnings of an Empire was first published in 1884 but was reprinted constantly throughout the beginning of the twentieth century) to ephemeral items such as Animals of the Empire: A 3 Way Tracing, Puzzle and Story Book. All of these texts were designed to prepare young Britishers (as they were once called) to take over the care and keeping of the British Empire from the previous generation. They ranged from the merely informative to propagandistic, but all celebrated the idea of an empire that the British owned.

Once, empire was everywhere.

Once, empire was everywhere.

After World War II, the idea of celebrating Empire had become untenable, even for its most ardent supporters (they switched instead to mourning the good old days and complaining about the changing face of Britain). The Empire Annual became The Commonwealth and Empire Annual in 1952, but even that only lasted a few years. Empire became a semi-fantastic subject for literature, lived out in the pages of Biggles for children and James Bond for adults. History texts were vague on the subject, especially more sensitive parts such as slavery (slavery, beginning in the Victorian period, was often depicted as something other countries did, while Britain acted as the primary force to abolish it). The first map that British school-children encountered was no longer the one that was colored pink in large swathes where the Empire had been.

But now—had anything changed? The Empire Pie was still bothering me. I went to the bookstore, and was frankly relieved not to find the titles I feared; there was no Charlie and Lola: We Completely Must Eat an Empire Pie or recommendation signs saying, “If you loved the Hunger Games, try The Empire Chronicles”. But in the children’s history section, I did find two books that suggest that the old ideas of empire might be making a comeback. Both are from 2014, although one, Ladybird Histories: British History (written by Tim Wood, with illustrations from Phil Page, John Dillow, Peter Dennis and Carlo Molinari) is a reprint of the 2011 edition of a 1996 title (got that?). The other, an appealing “lift the flap” type book, is entitled See inside the History of Britain by Rob Lloyd Jones and Barry Ablett (London: Usborne, 2014).

Britain beyond Britain is an 'empire' (why the quotation marks?)

Britain beyond Britain is an ’empire’ (why the quotation marks?)

In the latter book, the empire is dealt with only on a single page: “Britain beyond Britain” in which we learn that “From the 1600s to the 1900s, British influence spread around the world. Explorers set off on dangerous journeys, and traders set up colonies in far-off lands” (8). Looking at the page without lifting flaps, we learn that Britain “took control of large parts of Africa” and also “took control of India”. Notably, Australia “became” part of the British Empire. The difference in language harks back to language in history textbooks from imperial days, in which “white” colonies such as Australia and Canada, were described quite differently from non-white parts of the world. The page spread also repeats the phrase which was once so familiar to young Britons (although with a curious use of quotation marks): “By 1900, Britain ruled over a quarter of the world—a vast ‘empire’ that stretched across the globe” (8).

The main story in See Inside tells us the empire is all about trade.

The main story in See Inside tells us the empire is all about trade.

Lifting the flaps does let you in on some darker secrets of this glorious empire.

Underneath that history of glorious trade is a darker story.

Underneath that history of glorious trade is a darker story.

For example, lifting the flap about trade (which described a list of raw materials and products, such as tea and sugar), we learn that another of the items that Britain traded was slaves who were treated “dreadfully” (9) and “like animals” (9). Shockingly, we also learn that some people “resented” (9) being ruled. It is a good change that See inside the History of Britain does admit British people’s role in the slave trade, but still more than a bit troublesome that the main page—what children see when they open the book—is purely celebratory of British power.

You can see why the British had to conquer the warlike Zulus from this picture in the Ladybird History.

You can see why the British had to conquer the warlike Zulus from this picture in the Ladybird History.

Ladybird Histories: British History has little to say directly about the British Empire (empire is not listed as a subject in the index, and commonwealth, which is included, refers only to the period of Britain under Oliver Cromwell), but some of what it does say is disturbing. Slaves are labelled, confusingly, as “cheap labour” (111) and the “Indian Mutiny” (otherwise known as the Sepoy Rebellion) started with “resentment” (127) and ended with the British building “roads, railways and postal services” (127), all resentment apparently put aside. The most disturbing reference to empire, though, is on the page about “The Zulu War”. The illustration and text return to imperial descriptions of the war between the British and the Zulu; the “vast British Empire” is threatened by the “warlike people” who “massacred” 1500 British troops in a “disaster” that was later avenged when the British army “destroyed” the Zulu capital (all page 128). There follows only two further references to the Empire; on page 132, “Representatives came from all over the Empire to pay their respects” to Queen Victoria; and on the final page, “The great overseas British Empire was about to disappear” (146) after WWII, apparently for no particular reason. If it was so great, why did it have to go?

Well, I suppose Empire Piecrust promises are just the same as any others: easily made, easily broken.

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One thought on “Is the Sun Rising Again? The British Empire and Children’s Literature

  1. Pingback: Of Interest (18 October, 2015) | Practically Marzipan

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