Monday, 21 May 2012

Imperial History and the Public

I was at the National Maritime Museum at the weekend, and some things I saw made me think. I was in the excellent East India Company gallery (which was made with assistance from my MA supervisor, Prof. Huw Bowen), and at the end, it asks visitors to comment on the disputed legacy of the EIC.
As far as I could tell (and perhaps, as a scholar, it is difficult for me to have a 'member of the public' opinion), it was a well balanced, well told story, which both told of the immense riches the company brought to Britain, and  the effects, good and bad, this had on India and China.
The comments contained a predictably wide ranging spectrum of opinions. One Indian visitor reflected that British rule had united his country, and had, despite the bad, had lasting good effects on modern India. Several voiced disapproval of the policy of profit above all else, notably the plight of the Indian and Chinese. Both, I think, hold a lot of merit.
One, however, made me question myself. It was, in essence, a tirade against the 'bias' of the exhibition, stating that it focused on the bad only.The arguments are familiar to any imperial historian. We are taught to be ashamed of what was out country's crowning moment. All imperial historians push this myth, with their left leaning agendas.
It is often assumed this is the voice of an older generation, however. But I am starting to think it might not be. Recently, one of my students voiced a similar opinion about the course I was teaching. Frequently, when asked what I study, people respond with pride about the empire, assuming I am some sort of 1900s historian waxing lyrical about how we brought civilisation to the savages.
So where is this coming from? People often say that it is taught badly in schools, but I don't know of anyone who ever got taught about it before university. So if, not taught there, then where? Are people just taking the opinions of an older generation as fact? Are scholars like Niall Ferguson being seen as the most reasonable voice on the Empire? Or are imperial scholars out of touch with the public, and/or reason?
I would be interested to hear any views on this.