2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 12

The Importance of Teaching Colonial History to Tackle Contemporary Racism

By Rebecca Mason

The Holocaust has been remembered in history as one of the most devastating atrocities on behalf of humanity. The large-scale and centrally coordinated genocidal attack on minority groups, mostly constituting of Jews, possesses the largest magnitude of deaths in history. Yet, the many other acts of genocides that were of consistent occurrence throughout the twentieth century cannot be overlooked. As Robert Melson, an author in the field of genocide studies and a holocaust survivor himself stated, ‘I would suggest that if the Holocaust is not compared to past and contemporary instances of genocide, its message and significance will wither’. This reinforces that the devastation caused by genocidal attacks on specific populations is not solely an issue for the victims of the system, but instead an assault on humanity as a whole. Moreover, Melson asserts the importance of identifying parallels between the holocaust to other examples of genocide; in this instance, I will draw comparisons from the holocaust to the atrocities that the British Empire itself was accountable for, both directly and indirectly. 

A large problem in the failure to acknowledge the devastating consequences of British imperialism is due to the fact that history is simply a construct, and the British history academic curriculum is shaped and moulded by government propaganda works. The death of millions of subjects of the British empire through episodic and localised genocidal massacres is hardly discussed in British historiography, as it inevitably depicts Britain as an oppressor. It exposes the true nature of the British empire, which the education system essentially desires to distance itself from. Yet, to understand the systematic and internalised racism that is still prevalent in society today, it is essential to learn about the oppressive frameworks that black and ethnic minority groups were enslaved to and suffered from.

Disturbingly, whilst figures such as Winston Churchill have been widely portrayed as national war heroes that defended the British empire from the evils of Nazism, there is little acknowledgement of the many deaths that the British empire were indirectly responsible for during the time of his premiership. A prominent example is the Bengal famine of 1943. This devastated India with an estimated 2-3 million people dying from malnutrition and diseases, whilst the British government starved them of supplies to replenish the people and help recover the casualties. Journalist, Madhushree Mukerjee’s research found that Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet exacerbated the famine conditions by opting to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire, which the British would essentially profit off. Churchill’s ignorant comment that the famine occurred as the Indian people were ‘breeding like rabbits’ reflects his perceived racial supremacy. 

Furthermore, another tragic incident that the British empire was accountable for was as recent as the 1950s. The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1951-1960) saw members of the Kikuyu tribe detained in concentration camps, in which they faced torturous treatment including the removal of men’s genitals and the raping of women. The genocide on the Kikuyu tribes resulted in an estimated 20,000-100,000 deaths, yet it is hardly discussed or remembered as a tragic event of the twentieth century as the papers documenting it were destroyed and the British colonial secretary lied about its existence. This was undoubtedly a racially motivated attack which wiped out victims to British colonialism.

Whilst Britain has commemorated the genocides that other nations have been responsible for on Holocaust Memorial Day, such as the Nazi extermination of Jewish populations or the Serbian expulsion of Kosovo Albanians, there is no acknowledgement of the genocidal devastation that the British Empire provoked. This reflects the prevalence of systematic racism embedded in contemporary society, as the suffering and injustices committed by the British empire are not documented or acknowledged enough. Furthermore, specifically in light of recent events, it is essential to commemorate the genocidal violence that occurred as a response to British colonialism. This will allow for overdue changes and reforms upon the racist features of society that currently remains.


Vahakn N. Dadrian, ‘Patterns of twentieth century genocides: the Armenian, Jewish and Rwandan cases’, Journal of Genocide Research 6.4 (December 2004) pp. 487-522

Samuel Osborne, ‘5 of the Worst Atrocities Carried Out By the British Empire’, Independent (2016) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/worst-atrocities-british-empire-amritsar-boer-war-concentration-camp-mau-mau-a6821756.html 

Michael Safi, ‘Churchill’s Policies Contributed to 1943 Bengal Famine- Study’ The Guardian (2019) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/29/winston-churchill-policies-contributed-to-1943-bengal-famine-study 

Martin Shaw, ‘Britain and Genocide: Historical and contemporary parameters of national responsibility’ Review of International Studies 37.5 (December 2011), pp. 2147-2438

Michelle Tusan, ‘”Crimes against Humanity”: Human Rights, the British Empire, and the Origins of the Response to the Armenian Genocide’, The American Historical Review 119.1 (February 2014), pp. 47-77