18 April, 2008

Horrible History

The Barmy British Empire
Terry Deary

It was quite odd to me, reading this book: I really felt that i had been dumped back into the 1970s, perhaps, and was reading something written in the throes of guilt by a Briton undergoing passionate regret for everything that the British Empire stood for and did. Now, i am not one who will say that it was an unadulterated good thing for civilisation in general, and for the colonies in particular, that the Empire was built. Neither, however, will i permit it to be seen as an unmitigated evil that held the world groaning in slavery until the colonies could be wrenched from greedy Britannia's grasp and given their freedom. The truth of the matter is that immeasurable amounts of evils were done, as well as positive actions; many people suffered because of the Empire, and some still do today, and yet more are probably in a positive position today as a result. For Deary, however, the second part of each phrase just doesn’t seem to exist: Everything he says, with the exception of small mentions of positives at the end of the book, is negative. Even at the moment of mentioning a positive ~ the extinction of the slave trade, for example ~ he cannot but subsume that in a far more powerful negative which essentially devalues completely anything positive said. Certainly Bristol and Liverpool were built by the blood of slaves; certainly the trade was not stopped until two hundred years had passed; certainly hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Africans died in the Middle Passage. On the other hand, the fact was that the trade was stopped; British Christians of different varieties saw and recognised the evil and worked for years to correct it; Sierra Leone was set up with the best of intentions to provide for men and women torn from their homes and families. It is, maybe, fine rhetoric to ignore certain facts in order to improve your case; it is poor writing, however, not to mention intellectually dishonest to pretend that shades of grey are all black ~ especially in a book for children, who are less likely to be able to pick out the illogicality and dishonesty for themselves, and thus will imbibe an incorrect view of the past. Not, i am afraid, one of Terry Deary's better outings.

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