Tag Archives: British Empire

And the Ship Sails On: The Sea and the Racialized Other in Children’s Literature

In Federico Fellini’s 1983 film, And the Ship Sails On, all the pretty (and not so pretty, but rich) people of society are gathered on a luxury ocean liner to scatter the ashes of a famous opera singer; their memorial is interrupted by some refugees that the captain brings on the ship’s deck. The society doyennes believe that the refugees are terrorists, and demand that they be isolated. When another ship demands the refugees be returned, the captain agrees—but one of the refugees hurls a bomb at the other ship, causing it to open fire on the luxury liner. The liner sinks while the orchestra plays and the cinema projectionist watches film clips of the dead opera singer saying goodbye at the end of a concert.

This is a very brief summary of Fellini’s brilliant satire (among other things, it ignores the love-sick rhinoceros) but I wanted to include it for any of my blog readers who haven’t seen it. Despite the film being set in 1914, and concerning Austro-Hungarian aggression, I was reminded of Fellini’s film this past weekend when, at the BAMEed 2017 conference in Birmingham, I listened to Darren Chetty’s talk on education and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Chetty commented that Britain’s education rhetoric is often expressed in nautical terms—running a tight ship, for example—and he wondered if this was a hangover of Empire, when “Britannia Ruled the Waves”. I would go so far as to suggest that it is not just education that suffers from this hangover, but government rhetoric in general. By recalling an imperial past, Britain not only recalls its days as global superpower, but racializes the discourse. White people sail and run tight ships. Racialized others are refugees to be rescued, or impediments to the success of the mission. Or terrorists.

This can be seen throughout British children’s literature. In days when Britain thrived as a seafaring nation, primarily due to the slave trade, the hierarchy was obvious, with white sailors on deck and African slaves in the ship’s bowels. But even as slavery was abolished, children’s books continued to highlight the global inequality Britain had helped create through the presentation of racialized situations. Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge (Collins 1895), for example, has sailors rescuing two West Indians when their canoe gets in trouble. The illustrations, by WS Stacey, show an angry West Indian man, dressed in rags, preparing to smash an idol which was meant to bring him luck, while well-dressed sailors do nothing to alleviate his distress but stand around and look amused. Clearly, they would never be superstitious enough to believe in idols and “luck”, like West Indians, and so they would never end up in rags and rage on someone else’s ship.

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Britons rule the waves, while racialized others foolishly depend on superstition to keep them safe from the sea. WS Stacey’s illustration from Michael Scott’s Cruise of the Midge.

During the 1920s, Britain’s empire was at its largest, but was also beginning to face the rumblings of independence movements throughout the colonies. British children’s literature during this period was filled with children (and water-rats and moles) “messing about in boats”. As Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons children’s father says, “Better drowned than duffers.” The white British child was now in charge of ruling the waves, as this cover from the children’s magazine Fairyland Tales from 1925 indicates, and they, like the sailors in The Cruise of the Midge, find it amusing to leave the racialized other—in this instance a caricatured toy version of a racialized other, further indicating their position on top of the racial hierarchy—in a precarious position. Britain continued to enjoy its position of privilege without regard to how the rest of the world was affected by its assumption of control.

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The Non-Stop Boat of British racial imperialism carries on.

It might be argued that this is not, in fact, a racial issue; that Britain’s (idea of) control over the seas extended to other European countries and often America as well. But it is important to look at how white Britons are placed in comparison with not-white others in children’s literature to understand the way that the trope of British control over the seas becomes naturalized and normalized. In 1953, for example, Alice Berry-Hart published To School in the Spanish Main (Puffin), a WWII story about British children sent to the Caribbean to sit out the war. Rather than being portrayed as war refugees, welcomed in by Black Caribbean foster families (as so many evacuee stories set in England show white British families doing), the children are portrayed as being on an extended holiday, even when they have to deal with German spy ships. The Caribbean islanders are portrayed as incidental to the action. Britain still owns the Caribbean, and even as technical refugees they rule the waves.

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You don’t have to live like a refugee–at least not if you’re white. Richard Kennedy illustrated the cover.

Now that Britain is no longer a naval—or any other kind of—superpower, however, the rhetoric has shifted. The language of ships, as Darren Chetty points out, is still used to demonstrate white British need for control. But in children’s books now, the control is over the land and borders. White people can isolate racialized others on islands, as in Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything. The sea segregates “us” from “them”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross (Scholastic 2017) is set in Australia, but demonstrates a similar rhetoric. White people (who first came to Australia by sea as British colonizers) “own” the land. The main white character, Michael Blainey, is the son of the founder of “Aussie Values” which tries to “Turn Back the Boats” (1) of refugees. “Australia has the right to protect its borders” (35), Michael comments, and, “There has to be a limit [to immigration] or we’ll be flooded” (71; there is no irony displayed in any of this rhetoric because “Aussies”–whites–are not immigrants and have a right to the land). Mina, a “boat person” refugee from Afghanistan, is not buying his attitude, and calls it racist: “Is it all immigration, or just Muslim immigration?” (170) she asks him. Michael argues that he’s not racist, and that “we don’t have a choice who we’re born to, or where” (219), but Mina counters, “You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done to make the majority comfortable” (219).

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Although Michael and Mina eventually work through their personal differences, The Lines We Cross never resolves the larger societal issues, and one of the later images in the book returns to a nautical image to describe Mina’s family’s position in Australia: “It’s like we never left the boat. Ten years on and we’re still on deck, being rocked and swayed, coming closer to the rocks and then pulling back, smashing against the waves” (345). Racism continues to pervade society, but we would do well to remember that, as with Fellini’s film, we are all in the same boat—and if we let racism sink it, it will sink us all.

 

With You in History: Using Traditional Forms to Tell Black Britain’s Story

In the nineteenth century, Britain’s G. A. Henty was advertised as “The Boys’ Historian” because of the novels he published. And while Guy Arnold, who wrote a monograph about Henty entitled Held Fast for England: G. A. Henty, Imperialist Boys’ Writer (Hamish Hamilton 1980), claims that “Henty was no historian, nor did he ever claim to be one” (88), the fact remains that many British boys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their first grounding in imperial history from Henty’s stories and novels. The books, which had titles like With Wolfe in Canada, With Clive in India, A Roving Commission or Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti, and The Young Colonists: A Tale of the Zulu and Boer Wars offered British (and other) readers a chance to experience vicariously the conquering and securing of the British Empire throughout the world, with frequent reminders about white British superiority. One of the key reasons for Henty’s success is that, unlike a traditional history book or even many historical novels, his stories used a young white British boy (there were a couple of exceptions, where a girl character was center stage) to focalize the history. When Henty used a title such as With Wolfe in Canada, he addressed both his main character (in this case, teenaged doctor’s son from Sidmouth, James Walsham) and his potential reader as being with Wolfe; essentially, Henty was urging the reader to go along on the journey.

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George Washington calls the main character of Henty’s novel “a spirited lad”.

 

Any readers choosing to do so were rewarded by “introductions” to famous figures in history. In With Wolfe, for example, not only does James interact with those involved in the battle over Quebec in Canada, he also meets General George Washington, the future first president of the United States:

James resolved, at once, that he would speak to Colonel Washington, and ask him if  he could join the Virginian militia. He accordingly went up to him, and touched his hat.

“If you please, sir, I am anxious to join the Virginian militia, and, as they tell me that you are adjutant general, I have come to ask you if I can do so.”

“I see no difficulty in it, my lad,” the colonel said; “but if you have run away from home, in search of adventure, I should advise you to go back again, for we are likely to have heavy work.” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17766/17766-h/17766-h.htm)

James manages to convince Washington that he is not a mere adventurer, and the general calls him a “lad of spirit” and organizes his entry in this militia, recommending he go to the stores for “a brace of pistols and a sword, a blanket, and cooking pot”. James, and the reader, are riding by Washington’s side when the battle begins.

 

Henty’s style of writing invites identification with the young protagonist, rewards that identification through equality of status with “history heroes” like George Washington, and then enforces the values—including white privilege and white supremacy—of empire through use of language by, about and for non-British, non-white subjects and characters in the books. In With Wolfe, Washington discusses the Indian tribes as savage, in more ways than one: “The Indians will pounce upon a village or solitary farm house, murder and scalp the inhabitants, burn the buildings to the ground, and in an hour be far away beyond reach of pursuit,” he says, and Henty describes them elsewhere in the book as “swarming”—a word which suggests animal, rather than human behavior. These are just a couple of examples, and With Wolfe is not the most racist of Henty’s novels; his description of Black people, whether slaves or insurrectionists or rebel fighters, are far worse. British empire history and racism go hand in hand in the 19th century boys’ adventure novel.

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Johnson’s history is both similar to and different from Henty’s. Cover illustration by Royston Knipe.

 

I mention all this because I have recently been reading historical novelist Catherine Johnson’s Blade and Bone (Walker 2016), a sequel to her 2013 Sawbones (also published by Walker). I had a brief moment of déja vu at the beginning of Blade and Bone when the main character, Ezra McAdam, finds himself in Revolutionary-era France. Sixteen-year-old surgeon’s apprentice Ezra is performing an amputation on an infantryman when a historical figure enters Ezra’s makeshift operating theatre: “Lieutenant Colonel Dumas, the head of the American regiment” (10). Like Washington did in Henty’s novel, Dumas praises Ezra’s skill, gives him guns, and invites him to stay with the regiment. The respect Dumas accords a mere boy is not depicted as surprising in any way, because the reader has already been encouraged to identify with Ezra, the character through whom the novel is focalized. In this way, Johnson’s novel is a 21st century version of 19th century Boys’ Adventure stories such as those written by Henty.

 

However, while Johnson may be writing boys’ adventure, she is not writing the novel of empire. In fact, in many ways, Johnson’s novels act as anti-Empire narratives. Ezra is not, like James Walsham, a born-and-bred white British lad but a former mixed race West Indian slave. Unlike slaves and former slaves in Henty’s novels, Ezra is not an escaped slave turned rebel (or, “insurrectionist” in Henty’s terms) nor is he brought to England as a servant or page boy. Instead, he is taught to use his brains and his hands to become a surgeon, nearly equaling the skill of his employer, William McAdam, by the time of the surgeon’s death. Dumas, too, is the mixed race son of an enslaved mother and a white father who did not remain in slavery but was educated in France, becoming the first Black person in the French army to be made a brigadier general. Both the fictional Ezra and the historical Dumas defy their imperially-designated roles in life, but while both are remarkable, neither is shown by Johnson to be so remarkable that readers could not aspire to similar greatness.

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Johnson’s character Ezra McAdam first appeared in Sawbones (2013). Cover image by Royston Knipe.

 

Additionally, Johnson writes Ezra as a British character who neither likes nor approves of the idea of Empire; in so doing, she reminds us that although Ezra may have been of the minority opinion, he was not alone and surrounded by the flag-waving British imperialists of Henty’s novels. For Ezra, Empire and slavery are inextricably linked throughout the world; in Sawbones he tells the son of a Turkish sultan, “No one man should belong to another. No man should have that power. That is wrong . . . My life has been thrown into chaos because of your stupid empire” (189). And in Blade and Bone Ezra writes to his friend Loveday Finch that “I think it a sign of Great Advancement for any people to want to Govern themselves without the Intercedence of any Kings or Lords or Suchlike” (7). Ezra is an anti-monarchist, and in favor of the principles of the Revolution (though not, as he later finds, the methods of it); but he is not anti-British. At the end of the novel, he wants to go home—and home means London. Johnson’s novels, like Henty’s, take the reader through British history by creating a young, highly skilled British character who meets up with famous figures and has a hand in affecting history. But unlike Henty, Johnson takes readers with her through different kinds of histories, and makes room in the past for Black Britons and anti-imperialists.

Let None Tell Me the Past is Wholly Gone: Aborigines and Children’s Literature

The children’s publisher Puffin was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a fabulous success. Part of the reason for this success was its excellent marketing, which was aimed squarely at middle-class, white British children and their parents. The firm encouraged reading by having a book club, whose slogan was There’s Nuffin Like a Puffin (there is a song that goes with this; you can find versions of it on YouTube, but I warn you: you will have it in your head all day); they published a magazine and an annual that gathered together stories and artwork from some of the finest (mostly British) writers and illustrators of the time.

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Puffin reached its readers through books, magazines, annuals, and even songs and outings.

While paging through the 1975 Puffin Annual (part of Seven Stories’ Kaye Webb collection), I came across an unusual picture that made me pause. The picture is unusual because it is not of white people. There are very few non-whites in the Puffin Post or Annual, although the books published by Puffin do slightly better at producing visual diversity. The picture is a photograph (by Axel Poignant), not a drawing, and shows two naked children (from the back) walking on a beach. It is not immediately clear from the picture the ethnic origin of the children. The photograph is accompanied by a poem, “The Past” by Kath Walker. The poem’s speaker begins by saying, “Let no one say the past is dead” and then goes on to contrast “tribal memories” with an “easy chair before electric heater” in “suburbia”. Presumably the tribe of the poem is somehow connected with the photographed children, but there is no further explanatory information on the double-page spread. These children do not appear to have lives that suggest even a need for electric heaters, so the placement of photograph and poem side-by-side position them as the past that is not dead, but are they representations of a past that IS past, but remembered? Or a past way of existing that still carries on today?

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Whose past?  Whose present? Kath Walker’s poem next to Axel Poignant’s photo.

If one is a highly-skilled reader—which of course all Puffin Club Members were—it is possible to find a clue toward the answer to this question by turning the page. The next story (also with photographs by Axel Poignant, written by Roslyn Poignant) is “A Story of the First Australians.” This piece discusses the lives of contemporary Aborigines, and like many articles about non-Europeans, it walks the line between celebrating the culture and reinforcing imperial stereotypes about “natives” as something vaguely sub-human. For example, the encounter between Europeans and Aborigines is described like this: “When the Europeans first came, 200 years ago, they built their cities along the coasts, turned grasslands into sheep pastures and wheatfields, and scrublands into cattle runs, and they paid scant attention to the black people they found already living there, and so their numbers were greatly reduced” (61). Leaving aside the convoluted nature of this sentence (which seems to suggest that it is the Europeans whose numbers were greatly reduced), the sentence makes European colonization a benign event. It also implies that a lack of European attention will cause a group of people to begin to become extinct. If this were true, I would argue that only Europeans would be left on the planet today.

 

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The Poignants’ article ignores the brutality of colonialism on the Aborigines; the colonizers here are merely indifferent.

Reading through the article itself, you would discover that Kath Walker—the author of the poem that precedes the article—is an Aborigine herself. She was in fact, by the time of the annual’s publication, quite a well-known poet, but part of her poetic fame derived from the fact that she was Aboriginal. She was the first Aborigine to have her poetry published in book form in Australia, though many questioned whether an Aboriginal could write poetry and suggested it was ghostwritten. Walker not only faced her critics, she was crucial in lobbying for citizenship rights of Aboriginals. She also had an MBE, granted in 1970 (which she returned in 1987 in protest against the Australian bicentenary celebrations). None of this information is present in the article or accompanying the poem, and yet it is crucial for understanding how her political views came out in her poetry. Knowing these facts about Walker would, however, have made the Poignants’ article an entirely different animal, because it celebrates the primitiveness of the Aborigines and downplays the ways in which Aborigines interact with white society. Walker’s poem validates her Aboriginal history, but also explores the tension between the comfort of modern life and the way that modern life is devoid of spiritual meaning. The speaker wants to preserve the meaning of her past life while knowing that she will have to—and in the electric heater sort of way, wants to—accept some aspects of white society. The article fails to acknowledge this tension. Kath Walker fought for Aboriginal rights throughout her life but her activism could easily have been missed or mistaken by even the most careful Puffin reader.

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And what of the authors of the article itself? Again, the article gives no biographical information, and it is unlikely that the reader would (even if she thought to do so) be able to find anything out about the authors in a pre-internet age. But Roslyn Poignant,continued to have an interest in Aborigines throughout her life. In fact, she published a book about the history of Aboriginal society and its interactions with their Australian colonizers in 2004 entitled Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle. The book discusses the way that Aborigines in the 19th century were often displayed in circus acts, fairs, and museums, and were photographed by anthropologists as examples of human “types”. Let no one tell me the past is wholly gone, indeed.

The Wild Kind: Non-White People in Magazines for the Very Young

This week’s blog comes once again out of my work in the Seven Stories Archive in Newcastle. Their book collection includes a wide-ranging and invariably random (as it relies on donations) collection of children’s magazines, from the traditional Boys’ Own Annual and some missionary magazines from the 19th century, to Dandy and The Beano from the 20th century. Although I’ll undoubtedly go back to these magazines at a later point, I spent my research time paging through magazines for younger readers. This is a genre that, even in the mostly-ignored area of children’s magazine studies, is generally left unconsidered. I am guessing this is from a combination of two factors—one, generally magazines for young readers are considered to be too simple and/or bland to be of much research use; and two, unlike their counterparts for older readers, magazines for younger readers are generally colored, cut up for scraps, or torn out of use to the researcher. However, Seven Stories has managed to preserve some of these magazines (not all of them, mind you, without some coloring or missing pictures here and there) and I’m going to look at two British magazines, about forty years apart, designed for the 5-9 age range, Fairyland Tales from the 1920s and Pippin from the 1960s.

Fairyland Tales goes non-stop into the future--with Golly in the most precarious of positions . . .

Fairyland Tales goes non-stop into the future–with Golly in the most precarious of positions . . .

Fairyland Tales, despite its name, did not rely on fairy stories for its content; instead, it was a fairly standard (for the 1920s) mix of short stories, puzzles, poetry and regularly-featured comic strips. Most of the stories were domestic (magazines since the 19th century Chatterbox used stories based in the home, and less often school, for younger readers), but one of the stories, in the 21st February 1925 edition, takes children to colonial Africa. “Jungle Chums” has twins visiting their photographer father who “took pictures of the wild people of the jungle and sent them home” (the pictures, presumably, not the wild people) and the twins are very excited to see, as Bobby the boy twin puts it, “real negroes—the wild kind, I mean; not like the ones we saw at Mombasa dressed in white people’s clothes, and they’ve got great big spears.”

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“Jungle Chums” aligns ideologically with two of the regularly-featured comics in Fairyland Tales that also took children beyond the borders of the home, and indeed beyond the borders of the nation. “Jenny and Jimmy’s Jolly Adventures” detail the travails of two pith-helmeted white English children who are connected with a circus that travels the world. Circus life in and of itself allows the children to encounter the “Other”; their “trainer” (presumably for the animals, rather than Jenny and Jimmy) is an African or Afro-Caribbean named Rastus.

Jenny and Jimmy look on while Rastus and some "Arabs" do the heavy lifting.

Jenny and Jimmy look on while Rastus and some “Arabs” do the heavy lifting.

However, in addition to their own internal Other, Jenny and Jimmy’s travels take them all over the world. They must run from most of these encounters; Chinese sailors try to mutiny Jenny and Jimmy’s ship, and an enraged Sultan imprisons the children when they show the wrong film (the film they showed made fun of the Sultan). Ultimately, the world outside England is full of slightly mad people, but they make life for Jenny and Jimmy jolly, rather than dangerous. The other regular comic feature in Fairyland Tales is the ironically named “Sammy Snowball’s Funny Tricks”—ironic because Sammy Snowball is a black caricature, and also because there are few tricks and they are rarely funny. Given how the white authors treat Sammy Snowball, it is no wonder he complains, in one episode, of being turned a “beastly white”.

No mimic man: Sammy Snowball doesn't like his "beastly white face".

No mimic man: Sammy Snowball doesn’t like his “beastly white face”.

It is surprising, given the imperialistic attitudes of Fairyland Tales, to see how much had changed in just 40 years. Pippin, the other magazine for young readers that I examined, existed in an entirely different world from Fairyland Tales. For one thing, it was a magazine subtitled “the Coloured Picture Weekly for the Very Young Viewer” and published by TV publications limited. Many of the features (I couldn’t tell whether ALL of them) were based around television shows such as Camberwick Green and Trumpton. Like its earlier predecessor, Pippin is largely domestic in its setting, but British life had changed dramatically since the 1920s. An influx of migrants from the Caribbean after World War II had literally changed the face of the UK, and this is reflected in one of the features in Pippin, the serial story of a little boy called “Joe”, the first episode of which I found in the 3rd June 1967 Pippin. Joe’s parents run a truck-stop café, and one of their employees (seemingly their only employee) is a Black British teenager named Abel. Abel is pleasant, enjoys playing with and helping Joe when he’s not acting as grill cook, and drives a motorbike.

Never too busy to help: Joe and Abel have a friendly relationship.

Never too busy to help: Joe and Abel have a friendly relationship.

“Joe” is a generally lovely comic, especially given the dearth of British depictions of Black Britain in white-authored literature for small children at the time. But it is not entirely free from stereotypes either. Abel prefaces nearly every speech he makes with the exclamation, “Man,” as in, “Man, it’s hot.” Nobody else in the comic has a similar verbal tic, suggesting that it is an attempt by the author (who, by the way, is never listed) to mark Abel out as different. It’s not necessarily a bad difference, but it is noticeable. Worse, though, is the “Topsy” episode, where Joe’s mother comes in from a windy day outside with crazy-looking hair, and Joe compares her hair to that of his golliwog doll named Topsy while Abel looks on in the background.

Gone with the Wind: Even progressive comics can slip back into stereotype.

Gone with the Wind: Even progressive comics can slip back into stereotype.

Joe’s mother is “offended” by Joe’s comment, and ties a scarf around her head until she can get to the hairdresser’s. I guess that, even in the more progressive 1960s, white Britons didn’t want to be too closely associated with the “wild kind” of the Other.

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.