Tag Archives: Sepoy Rebellion

All in this Together? Wartime Britain and its Colonies in Children’s Literature

In Britain, Monday is the celebratory day known as Spring (or sometimes Late May) Bank Holiday.  This particular bank holiday used to be connected with the religious celebration of Whitsun, as Philip Larkin can attest (somehow, “Spring Bank Holiday Weddings” just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but I suppose given the changes in society, naming a day off after capitalism is really much more appropriate.  It is a time of year in the northern hemisphere when a long weekend is welcome; the French still celebrate Whitsun and the Canadians take a day off for a dead British queen (any excuse…).  In the US, however, Americans celebrate the first of two days (Veteran’s Day being the other) to honor the military.  Memorial Day’s origins go back to the US Civil War, when people needed an outlet for nationwide grief over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in that conflict.  Back then, it was called Decoration Day, and it wasn’t an official holiday.  In fact, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, when the Vietnam War divided the country (at least ideologically) once again.


From the IRR’s Patterns of Racism, one of the many incidentsWalt where the British turned weapons on colonial subjects.

What struck me about all this is that both the US Civil War and Vietnam were divisive in large part because of race.  The Civil War’s connection to race is obvious; the Vietnam War perhaps less so, but “during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action” (http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/african-americans-in-combat/).  And the other thing that struck me—since I was thinking about Canadians and Victoria Day—is that if the British had started a similar holiday in the 1860s, there would probably be a huge debate over whether or not to celebrate it, since many of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” were about putting down the rebellious colonial subjects (the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the Morant Bay Uprising of 1865 are two examples that spring to mind where the British military turned guns on colonial subjects).


Together . . . as long as you know your place.

And yet, particularly during the twentieth century, Britain relied heavily on her colonies to provide human power to fight the war against Germany.  A poster from WWII to encourage recruitment was, I’ve always thought, remarkably upfront about how Britain saw their help—we need you, but if you’re not white, please stay at the back of the parade.  Most mainstream children’s books about the world wars (as I’ve written elsewhere; see “A Medal for Walter: Representations of Black Britons and World War I” in Lion and the Unicorn 41.2) show only white British soldiers.  But books by smaller and independent presses have done better in showing the contribution of the colonies to Britain’s war efforts—as well as how those efforts were not always repaid with gratitude.

The oldest of the books I’m going to look at today comes from the Institute of Race Relations’ racism series.  Book two, Patterns of Racism (1982) shows the many armed struggles between Britain and her colonies, including the Sepoy Rebellion and the Zulu Wars.  Book three, How Racism Came to Britain (1985) points out that, following World War II, “Having helped to win Britain’s war . . . [West Indians] were asked to win the peace for Britain too” (24).  The book goes on to detail how Black Caribbean people who answered Britain’s call for workers then faced discrimination, racism, and poverty.

Neither of the IRR books focuses directly on the West Indian soldiers from the world wars, but Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (Windrush Foundation 2005) tells the story of four individuals who contributed to Britain’s success, all from the West Indies.  The book tries to highlight their successes, but downplays their struggles, and racism is almost entirely absent.  One possible hint is found in Norma Best’s story; after the war, she qualifies as a teacher and secures a job in Cambridge, but “was told that she had to return to British Honduras” (11), a rejection that would be echoed decades later in the recent Windrush deportations.


Despite centuries of colonial oppression, Britain’s former subjects still answered the call to the ‘Mother Country’.

The best biography of a Black World War I British soldier also comes from an independent press.  Historian Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull (Northamptonshire Black History Association 2007) highlights Tull’s skills and talents—but also how those skills and talents were constantly being challenged and threatened by racism, from “ordinary” Britons as well as the British Army in which he served.  “He knew the rules in the Army as well as anyone.  It was written down in black and white.  ‘No negro or person of colour to occupy officer rank’” (22).  Claire’s book rightly celebrates his achievements, but also notes that it took years to recognize him. Describing a memorial dedication service in Northampton, Claire writes, “It is Sunday, July 11th 1999.  Walter died more than 80 years ago, but he has not been forgotten . . . Walter Tull, the first black professional footballer in Britain, the first black officer in the British Army is, at last, being publicly honoured” (28).


Racism on the playing field and the killing fields in Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull.

The hesitation over people of colour in the British armed forces continued through World War II, despite Britain’s even greater need for help.  Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, wanted to help Britain fight fascism.  But as Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust 2007), written by school children in Manchester, points out, she had to become acceptable to the British in order to do so.  “Noor changed her name to Nora Baker, so the WAAF would accept her” (13).  She later became a spy, and, like Walter Tull, was killed in the line of duty.


Noor becomes Nora to please the British in Liberte: The Story of Noor Inayat Khan.

Perhaps these children’s books from independent publishers have started to have a slight influence on the way that mainstream publishers depict the war for their readers.  In 2014, Collins Big Cat put out a book by white author Clive Gifford.  This book was not about the war, but it mentioned it; The Empire Windrush indicates that one of the reasons that Caribbean people came to Britain in the Windrush years was to “rejoin the Army or Air Force units that they’d served in during World War II” (12).  The book gives the example of Sam King (who also appears in We Served), and celebrates his contribution to the war but also to London after the war as mayor of Southwark and as a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival.  But the book doesn’t shy away from the racist attitudes people like King had to face.  Britain may have promoted an image of the entire empire fighting together, but Britain’s Black population had to fight two wars—against the enemy of the Mother Country, and against racism.


From Gifford’s Empire Windrush, Sam King gets no help from the British to return across the sea, even though he didn’t hesitate to help Britain in the war.

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.