Tag Archives: G A Henty

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.


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.


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.


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.

Where are Blacks in Children’s History Books?


There are many biographies of famous Blacks and African-Americans for kids–but which kids?

It is February, which means that it is one of two Black History Months “celebrated” in the two countries in which I have some stake (the US and the UK). While many critics of the US celebration, held this month, suggest ironically that February was chosen because it was the shortest month of the year, African-American History Month grew out of Black History Week (so it is at least three weeks longer than it was originally—still paltry, but better). It was designed to acknowledge the contributions that two Americans—Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln—made to further the freedoms and rights of African-Americans; both Douglass and Lincoln were born in the same week in February. There are arguments on both sides as to whether Black/African-American History Month should be continued (“Black History should be celebrated every day” v. “Until people recognize the way that people of African descent contributed to the nation [whichever nation] throughout history, we will continue to need Black/African-American history month”); but as long as it is part of the calendar of these nations, Black/African-American History Month provides a good excuse to pause and look at what we are actually saying—and how we are “celebrating”.

And while there have been good efforts to publish more “famous figures” biographies for children, some of which are quite good, to honor Black British, Caribbean, African, and African-American contributions, these often seem to suggest that these books are especially for people of African descent, to boost their self-esteem and make them feel part of history. I applaud the idea that history books (of any kind) can make child readers feel a part of history, whether by giving them people to admire or by spurring them on to change their own world. But too often, when regarding these books as part of the overall historical offerings presented to children, the field of children’s history texts gives the impression that “real” history belongs to white people.


Book covers often show British history to be a white experience.


This can best be seen by books which look, not at African-American/Black history, but at “regular” history books. Regular history, by which I mean the history that everyone learns in school, is too often white history; and this then normalizes whiteness. White people are the ones in the history books, so they must be the makers of history. This is a cycle which self-perpetuates. Conscientious writers of history for children may include a figure or two from a non-white group, but by their very rareness, they highlight and reinforce the idea that white people act, and non-whites are acted upon.


Whites take action while non-whites look on.

This is especially true because history books are often connected with education—and not just in history class. One example of this is the Oxford Reading Tree series of texts, colorful and attractive books that look like trade books but are designed for schools (there are notes for teachers or other adults on the inside front cover). Reading Tree books, like many reading series, center on regular child characters doing various things together (not all are history stories). The three main characters in Reading Tree are Biff, Chip and Kipper, whose names are on the front cover of all the books. All of them are white. There are other characters who appear regularly, including Wilf and Wilma, who are Black, but they start out in a peripheral position: these are Biff’s, Chip’s and Kipper’s stories, and Wilf and Wilma are never central enough to be listed on the cover. Cover illustrations reinforce this; Wilf is often depicted as looking on while a white character takes a more active role. Although Wilf plays an active role within the texts, it is often a helping role; in The Jewel in the Hub (2010) he is the only modern character interacting with history, but he spends the whole time in 15th century Italy following Leonardo Da Vinci around, usually with his mouth open in surprise or concern.

Furthermore, the background of the historical parts of the stories in Reading Tree contrast sharply with the modern-day classroom. While the latter is diverse in terms of both gender and skin color, the former is exclusively white. This is true even in the theatrical world of Elizabethan London or among early 19th century seamen, places where people from all over the world often met.



They used to be the Zulu AND Boer Wars, but the young colonists saw to it that the name was changed.

In many ways, the Oxford Reading Tree history series inherits the tradition of historical fiction writers like the Victorian G. A. Henty. Although Henty’s books were for older readers, they had a similar plot device of “ordinary” youths figuring in major events in history. One of the differences in Henty’s texts, aside from the reading level, is that his stories often focused on imperial conflict, and the boys (they were almost all boys because men, like white people, have traditionally been seen as the history makers) figured in some major battle or skirmish with the “natives”. Modern day history for children tends to focus less on battles and wars; but in doing this, modern history for children often further sidelines the non-white character. Whereas Henty (and history textbook writers) in the 19th century could give a nod to those who threw off the yoke of colonialism, such as the Zulu warriors or Toussaint L’Ouverture—even if white violence crushed them or white indifference marginalized them in the end—modern texts shy away from history that might make people feel bad. Even Chip and Wilf’s journey to Nelson’s ship in 1805 suggest that the enemy is not the French (Trafalgar is never mentioned either), but “Virans”, who are described as “dark energy in human form. Their aim is to destroy history and so bring chaos to the future” (Mission Victory 3). Given the fact that these books consistently restore history to a status quo that is dominated by white people, maybe it is a history that ought to be destroyed.


The all-white world of Shakespeare’s England.

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.