The histories that we learn

Moving house

When I was about 17, in my final years of schooling in Eswatini, during the summer holidays, given that we were moving house from one part of Johannesburg to the other, and I had to throw piles of school documentation that I had been hoarding out of my bedroom, I found myself rummaging through artefacts from my earlier years of schooling in South Africa. 

Among the childish art projects and textbooks I came across was my history notebook from my Primary School. On the first page my own clumsily formatted 8 year old handwriting spoke to the maturing young person I had become. The trembling, awkward letters carried much of the sadness and solitude I had experienced as a child: looking at my own handwriting almost created a sense of pity in me for my earlier self.

But it was less the form and more the content of what I read that struck a strange, dissonant chord within:

“South African history started in 1488 when Bartholomew Diaz planted a stone cross at Kwaaihoek”.

This was when South African history was to begin. The next sentence jumped forward over 100 years:

“On the 6th of April, 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope”.

The next pages of my notebook, the contents of which had been copied off the blackboard word for word, spoke of how the Cape was empty and how Dutch settlers simply moved in and took over. My notes also mentioned how the climate in the Cape was “Mediterranean”.

Early Days

The notebook took me back to the classroom of my former all boys, almost exclusively white school. This was a place where you would get the cane if you stepped out of line. The history lessons were highly formatted pieces of propaganda, singing the praises of Afrikaaner nationalism, the heroes of the Boer War, with caricatural representations of Zulu chiefs such as Chaka and Dingaan.

My teacher, who taught us Afrikaans as well as humanities, was a terrifying little man with piercing blue eyes, a thick moustache, burly tanned, hairy forearms and a sickeningly sweet smell of musk perfume mixed with cigarette smoke that would trail behind him. He was well known for his use of the cane, in fact he called it “bliksem”, which means lightning in Afrikaans. Beating us was clearly a pleasure for him, as was teaching us how white settlers roamed into a garden of paradise where, conveniently, there was no one to stop them before they were attacked unfairly by aggressive Zulu warriors.


My life changed when I relocated to Eswatini (then Swaziland) to attend a United World College, Waterford Kamhlaba, which was also an established anti-Apartheid school. Here I learned shoulder to shoulder with the children and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela, Albert Sisulu, Mosiuoa Lekota and Desmond Tutu.

My history teacher here was completely different: he was passionate about South African history and we learnt about it. However, the core of our learning was about Apartheid, from the 1930s all the way through to the 1990s. We learnt every Apartheid law, massacre and injustice. As my learning of my own history deepened, so did the unlearning of what I was told before. In my old school, the so-called “great trek” (white settlers exodusing the Cape to travel to Johannesburg) was presented as a Moses-out-of-Israel type fleeing from British persecution; at Waterford our teacher explained that it was because the settlers refused to abolish slavery, which had become illegal; in my old school, the earliest Cape Settlers had to defend their property from marauding thieves, at Waterford we learnt how they would shoot down locals who dared to walk across their land.

Understanding the past to understand the present

And the history lessons were not just about the past, they were about the present too. Each holiday, when I would travel back to South Africa, I would be confronted with my friends and even family who were still wallowing in the lie of Apartheid education, not knowing their own history, not even being able to name some of the most foundational Apartheid laws, facts and figures.

It was at Waterford that for the very first time I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela. He was a banned person in South Africa and it was impossible to see any images of him. The picture is a famous one of him in London, young, bearded, looking wisely but somehow mournfully into the middle distance. At Waterford, because of my history classes, the invisible was made visible.

None of this was easy to learn. I would find myself sitting in classes with friends from different African countries feeling deeply ashamed to be a white South African, having to endure in front of everybody what people like me were doing. When we put on a school play about South Africa, there was a riot scene and students were needed to play the soldiers who would open fire on the crowd. Everybody turned to look at me. I volunteered reluctantly.

We also studied the holocaust at Waterford. I remember having nightmares for several nights consecutively after seeing the black and white footage of bodies being discovered in the camps. Knowing that the early architects of Apartheid were Nazis connected the two quite seamlessly: it was part of the same vicious cruelty.

David Olusoga and Shashi Tharoor

A few years ago, as part of the extraordinary Guest Speakers Series that we run at the International School of Geneva, I was lucky enough to meet with the softly spoken, dashing and consistently poignant British historian David Olusoga. He addressed our students on British history with a focus on the experience from the point of view of Black people. I was familiar with his work on German concentration camps in Namibia ( The Kaiser’s Holocaust) and his television documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Some months later a colleague lent me a book by Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness, about the British colonial empire in India, the resources that were exploited and the financial reparations that amending this might imply.

I had learnt about British colonialism at school, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of a train line from the Cape to Cairo, the “jewel in the crown” that was India for the British Empire, the Opium Wars and so on. However, these anecdotes were not particularly well developed and there seemed to be more emphasis on abolitionism, the suffragettes, Common Law, the Bill of Rights, extraordinary inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Michael Faraday and so on. In other words, British history was presented more as a series of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution positive contributions to humanity and science than the slave trade and colonisation. It was only after coming into contact with these pointed, detailed and harrowing accounts by Olusoga and Tharoor that some of the more shocking facts became fully available to me. Notably:

  • The 1837 slave compensation act in which 20 million pounds were paid to slave owners and their families up until 2015
  • That the slave trade was financed directly by British monarchy 
  • Over a period of 200 years, the British East India Company and the British Raj syphoned out at least $44.6 trillion worth of resources from India, which is more than 17 years gross domestic product of modern day Britain 
  • Over a span of 40 years, leading up to 1920, between 50 and 100 million Indians were killed because of policies under the British Empire in India, more than all the “famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea combined”

The list goes on.

How much of this is widely accepted and taught in schools? In the late 1930s, the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams’ thesis Capitalism and Slavery substantiated the huge benefits slavery had brought to industrialisation in Britain, something that has since been reiterated by economists such as Thomas Picketty. However, he would have to wait more than 20 years before finding a publisher. This was because he was accused of understating the role Britain had played in abolitionism. It was only last year that the book was published by a mainstream group (Penguin) to become a best-seller.

Even today, according to the British academic Kehinde Andrews:

“The orthodoxy of the history of the Industrial Revolution is that slavery wasn’t important. If you go to most universities, most academics will say that and they’ll dismiss the book – because they just cannot accept that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery” (Feguson, 2022).

In  2022 article, Sean Matiluko says that British Schools have “whitewashed history”, leaving out important annals describing the contributions of Black people to British history and the extent of racial exploitation that built up Britain’s economy.

Since teaching Britain’s role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade was not compulsory, a 2021  petition was signed in parliament with over 260 000 signatures requesting this. The response was mitigated: a School minister rejected the outcome, claiming that such a programme would “lower standards”.  

So the question is, when will the teaching of British history face the past squarely with all the facts? The same questions can be asked for a number of national history narratives: there are too many to mention, Britain is merely an example.

It takes courage to look much more critically at the histories of global powers whose legacies are taught partially, emphasising the positive and leaving out the painful stories of colonialism and slavery. There have been several genocides, and they must be known.

There is a diversion tactic which consists in the discourse of saying that things have changed and such historical facts are water under the bridge now. But are they? How can such important chapters of history not be taught and then treated as already forgotten when evoked? It is by bringing them into public discourse and problematising them that society will become more sensitive and aware. If the historical inequities behind the current dispensation are taught clearly and formally in school, it also allows younger generations to embrace questions of inclusion and social justice more openly. If not, any discussion on equity becomes a quarrel, a painful and humiliating one at that for those who have lost out historically because of systemic racism and exploitation. It should not be for these groups to have to fight their way into a space of representation, that work should be done by schools.

The histories that we learn must be true, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hide skeletons in the cupboard when the world wide web makes research readily available to the public. Those writing history textbooks need to understand that if we do not relate the whole story, no matter how shameful and painful it is, no matter how much it becomes a thorn in the side of nationalist, imperialistic and romanticised discourse about nation state history, the more dangerous it is, for those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

My textbook 

I toss the textbook into the rubbish bin. I’m not looking for things to hang on to as we move house, since we are down-sizing, and I can’t see the purpose of hanging onto a historically incorrect, propaganda-glazed set of notes from my pre-adolescence.

As I throw the book away though, in particular because I know the history of my country and feel part of it, I am reminded where I come from and, perhaps more importantly, the responsibility I have as an educator to tell it.

The histories that we learn should not be ideological narratives or partial stories, they should not be a crafted story to influence minds and shape opinions, they should aim to do one thing and one thing only: tell the whole story.

Ferguson, D. (2022). Groundbreaking work on slave economy finally back on UK shelves. The Guardian. 

2 thoughts on “The histories that we learn”

  1. Thank you Conrad for this illuminating and quite moving piece of reflection- as a British Asian, I can resonate with your sentiments and as a History/ Humanities teacher at an international school in Switzerland , this piece becomes an important point of discussion in the kind of `internationalism` and `ìnternational education` we are presenting and teaching in our international schools….thank you for this stimulation and I`m also reading some of your journals for my MA in International Education. Thank you!

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