The Missing Link: Early Empire and ‘Decolonising’ the Curriculum

The Thinking:

If March – June 2020 was a similarity and difference enquiry and we were to play the ‘generalisation game’ with regards to our experiences of lockdown learning arguably we could safely say we have all been spending a lot of time with our screens. Whilst being admonished for my own increased screen time I have noticed with interest that in the media and twitter debates surrounding the ‘decolonising of the curriculum’ have appeared with frequency including amongst the history teacher community on twitter.

In our community of history teachers, we have a very strong dedication to discussion and improvement. For decades the brilliant work of a brave and dedicated core of ‘pugilists, diggers and choreographers’ (to lift the phrase of Justice2History’s Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud) have been pushing for us to do the past justice through rigour and building more voices and representation into the historical diet of our students. In recent years our community has benefitted from the advent of the thematic GCSE ‘Migration’ topic and the scholarship of historians such as Toby Green, David Olusoga and Miranda Kaufmann. At our fingertips are a range of brilliant resources from the York Clio groups ‘Diversity’ resource list to the Runnymede Trust’s ‘Our Migration Story’ which have helped us to build representation into our KS3s with alacrity. Yet I can’t help but feel as a former student of the early British Empire and product of postcolonial south London that building representation alone is not enough.

Some of us may remember the debates surrounding the threat to Mary Seacole’s place upon the primary curriculum with the curriculum reforms of 2013 that resulted in Michael Gove being accused by Sir Richard Evans of attempting to create a falsified “Little England” narrative of our nation’s past. Since those debates in 2013 many voices have added to the call to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. To detractors to engage in ‘decolonisation’ ranges from everything to the placing of anachronistic moral values upon the past to engaging in a left-loony culture war at the expense of British identity. Opponents will often argue that in adding representation or diversity to our curriculums we are building a new narrative to meet the demands of multiculturalism. Such takes speak to wider debates surrounding what the purpose of history (and in particular Secondary history) is.

To the proponents in the university context ‘decolonisation’ is (as us history teachers will appreciate) knotty in its meaning. According to the experts at SOAS (link – it means both the building of representation of BAME experts and figures whilst also shining a critical light upon how preconceptions surrounding racial, cultural and civilizational structures were constructed via past European colonisation. It is about understanding this and seeing how we are still unpicking these colonial hangovers today. The movement in universities are clear that ‘decolonisation’ does not constitute a ‘kicking to the curb’ of the canon of thinkers, events or figures but instead studying the past with greater contextualisation. For example understanding that the Civil War and interregnum coincided with the development of slave economies of Jamaica and Barbados or that enlightened thinkers could at once talk of those without political freedoms as ‘slaves’ whilst simultaneously ignoring the plight of the actually enslaved.

In considering anti-‘decolonisation’ opinions I find the work of the philosopher Charles W. Mills instructive. Writing in 2007 he argued that for a century the framing of history in the Western world has alowed an active and dynamic gap in understanding to develop that has shielded generations of learners from the histories, legacies and realities of European colonialism creating a ‘missing link’ of understanding. It is a reminder of why shifts in Secondary and University history receive emotional responses, but also why these shifts are vital.

If we seek as teachers to just build representation into pre-existing topics, I worry that representation alone is not enough. Taking the lead from the University movement to decolonise I think alongside studying the Black Tudors or Forgotten Soldiers of Empire of Empire we must also provide our students an opportunity to critically engage with the deep-rooted connections between Empire, British history and identity. We need to give our students the opportunity to see British history through the ‘lens of Empire’ as Professor Kehinde Andrews and Dr Emma Newbigin have argued in a recent BBC History Magazine article. Without this our students will not have the tools to understand the historical process that have allowed for the stories of Olusoga’s Forgotten Soldiers of Empire or Kaufmann’s Black Tudors to go missing from the popular understanding of our nation’s past and why when such stories are told they often receive a very negative and emotional rejection from certain sectors of the public.

The Action:

Having looked at the debates surrounding ‘decolonisation’ I think it’s vital for our students to have the opportunity to critically analyse how ideas of Empire have historically impacted upon British identity building and the historiography of our National story. One really powerful topic through which we can do this is through an enquiry into the early Empire – here I am talking about the early colonisation projects in North America, the Caribbean and Ireland as well as the formation of companies such as the East India Company. I have always felt quite frustrated that, barring a few topics such as ‘Migration’ and ‘Reformation England’, most American topics at GCSE begin with either the American Revolution of Manifest Destiny. Similarly, in irks me that Elizabeth I topics take a quick glance west to Ireland and skim over joint Stock Companies in a wider topic on finance from 1558 – 1603. I am on a bit of a mission to re-establish the English roots of courses upon America or in a clunky phrase ‘make American colonialism English again’!

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time studying the early Empire, its shadow pops up in unexpected ways in otherwise familiar stories of the Tudor and Stuart periods. I will give an example from my own research. We probably teach Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War at some point. We also probably touch upon what is an example of colonial violence in Ireland with the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford, but do our students also know that he almost joined the Puritans in New England? That the Transatlantic Slave Trade took off during his interregnum? Or that his daughter’s father-in-law was a man both connected to the kidnapping of Pocahontas, the arrival of the first enslaved peoples in Virginia in 1619 and the establishment of the first largely slave-based colony off the coast of modern-day Nicaragua? The connections to Empire are everywhere.

At the moment I teach the early Empire through a causation enquiry in which we answer the question ‘Why was the world ‘opening up’ to the Tudors and Stuarts?’. Through this we investigate the main factors behind colonisation: religion (both tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism as well as the moral imperative to convert the Natives), trade/wealth and diplomacy. I use the jumping off point of the story of Diego as told in Kaufmann’s Black Tudors. I have shared my resources for this in a google drive of lessons and enquiries inspired by her text (

English and British identities were ‘reinvented’ in the crucible of the early modern colonisation of Ireland, America and the Caribbean. Migration and trade meant that places such as Southampton and London were home to diverse communities of artisans and merchants from all over the world by the start of the Tudor period. By the later Elizabethan and early Stuart period inspired by texts such as More’s Utopia, population pressure and competition with the Catholic empires of Portugal and Spain, the  English colonists sailed off to the New World with charters that held them to both seeking profit and bringing the Natives out of “the darkness” of their heathen “ignorance” (Virginia Charter, 1606). Their mission was inspired by earlier incursions into Catholic Ireland. It is interesting to note that the Irish and the Natives were often cast with the same visual tropes. It was even believed that the Natives might be easier to convert than the stubborn Irish. When the mission to convert came across difficulties or opposition the Natives, Irish and later enslaved Africans became an easy ‘other’ against which to bolster a sense of British identity tied to ideas rooted in Protestant superiority and civility.

So, in the process of constant evolution of the curriculum and inspired by the ERC Tide Projects ‘Matters of Belonging’ I want to break this enquiry down into a short overview still focused on causation followed by an evidence based enquiry looking into the question of who ‘belonged’ in both the Old World and the New. We have such a wealth of material – letters, texts, sermons – which highlight how the thinkers of the early modern period grappled with ideas of foreignness, national identity and civility. Students will be guided through attitudes to ‘foreigners’ at home as well as indentured servants abroad, how attitudes towards the Irish, Natives and people of African origin changed over time. This I hope will provide a deep contextual knowledge to the ensuing topics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Abolition and will allow my students to consider what had changed in British society between the stories of John Blanke or Diego and the lives of Bill Richmond and Ignatius Sancho in the eighteenth-century as well as the deeper historic roots of later studies in the rights of Native Americans in the modern period.

English painters and writers enjoyed highlighting the similarities between Irish (left) and Algonquian dress (right) and society. Such images and writings were popular providing a comforting ‘mirror’ to consolidate a sense of the superiority of English civility and a justification of colonisation.

As part of this enquiry an investigation into the story of Pocahontas provides a brilliant window into the impacts of the early Empire upon the position of Native American peoples as well as how the colonial project has skewed the narrative of her life. Pocahontas is a fascinating study in the liminality of the Native American in English America. Our chief sources upon her life are the ever-so-slightly-exaggerated travelogue-cum-adventure-story that is Captain John Smith’s Generall History of Virginia, New England and the Summers Isles as well as the many volumes of the works of Samuel Purchas – an author based in England who relied upon second hand testimonies including that of the man who had kidnapped Pocahontas from amongst the Patowomeck in 1613.

The portrait engraving of Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe. The only image we have of her in life is highly stylised to present her as an English Princess.

The only image we have of her in life is from her visit to London in 1616 following her kidnap, baptism and marriage to John Rolfe. The signifiers of her status as the daughter of Wahunseneca (also known as Powhatan) the paramount leader of the Algonquian speaking tribes of the Virginia Tide Water basin are not of her culture but instead English. She is shown in a fashionable Jacobean gown and stiff collar with a fine (and expensive) beaver hat. Pearls fall from her ears and she holds a fan. The inscription in the language of noble portraiture tells the reader that they are looking at Matoaka, alias Rebecca (Pocahontas being her nickname), promote the colonisation that would lead to her people being pushed off their land and the process of reservation.

In the nineteenth century her story and image became a powerful tool for those wishing to promote the need for Native tribes to accept assimilation. It is with the rise of Native American studies that we have come to understand her story better. we have come to see a central part of her myth – the saving of John Smith – as actually being part of a misunderstood Powhatan adoption ceremony. We also see discrepancies. In the English sources she elected to remain amongst the English after her kidnap and become baptised as Rebecca. In the oral histories that survive amongst her people she had no choice.

MA Bay Seal
The Massachusetts Bay Colony seal featured a pliant Native warrior begging the English to ‘come over and help us’ e.g. convert us to Christianity. During Anglo-Native warfare in the 1670s between 500 – 1,100 ‘Praying Indians’ who had converted to Christianity were left without food or adequate shelter on Deer Island. Even when converted, they were not trusted.

For me the study of history is not about identity building but instead building a curriculum which shifts with scholarship and highlights different scales and perspectives allowing my students to understand that history is constructed and complex.


In providing my students with the opportunity to engage with how ideas of who did and didn’t belong were formed and calcified in the context of the early Empire, I hope I am providing my students with a strong meta-cognitive framework through which to check both their own biases and the biases of wider popular histories, as well as the news. From understanding historic attitudes towards Catholicism allowing them to be able to deconstruct why Elizabeth has been cast is ‘Gloriana’ and her sister as ‘Bloody Mary’ to being able to unpick why the story of modern Ireland is so contentious and emotive. I also want them to understand that as historians we can actually trace when ideas of race of ‘whiteness’, ‘blackness’ and ‘redness’ (in relation to the Native Americans) were constructed and calcified. I really firmly believe that in understanding the historic roots of these ideas our students are better equipped to see and deal with their modern consequences.


Helpful Resources:

The Justice2History website and blog –

The Runnymede Trust’s ‘Our Migration Story’ – and

York Clio Diversity Resources –

‘Teaching the Black Tudors’ –

The Colonial Countryside Project –

ERC Tide Project – ‘Matters of Belonging: Teaching Race and Identity in Tudor and Stuart England’ –