How I learned to ask about forgotten history

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Author, publisher and co-founder of the Black and Asian Studies Association, Marika Sherwood, explores the idea of forgotten history by looking first at her own journey to understanding the politics of what is taught and what is omitted.

Image: Australian patrol office in Papua New Guinea 1964.  Image Credit: Christopher Viner-Smith

Along with what was left of my Jewish family in Budapest after World War II, I migrated to Australia. I didn’t much like it there, so some years later went to work in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. White children there were regularly checked for the tuberculosis that was spreading fast as the native people had no resistance to it. When my son was diagnosed with the beginning of an infection, I had to return to Sydney. I went to university part-time as I had not understood the racial discrimination I had witnessed in Papua New Guinea; it didn’t help much. After some years, with guidance from a friend, I realised, to put it politely, that I was being miseducated. Brainwashed. But I persevered, and after graduating I migrated again, this time to the UK.

In school in Australia one was taught nothing about the native peoples of Australia. The British had come to christianise and civilise as they were the most civilised people on the planet. Everything about Britain, we had been taught, was glorious. That is not what I found when I arrived here in 1965 and began to teach in schools. Social class discrimination was disgraceful. Discrimination against people with dark skin was monstrous.

Ignorance among teachers was profound. None of those working in any of the three schools I taught in could tell me anything about the West Indies, from where most of our immigrant pupils had arrived.One could not even help me find the islands on a map. They had absolutely no interest in discovering anything about our West Indian children’s homelands, histories, or why they had come to the UK.

What the possible effect of this would have been on the children was brought home to me when a fellow teacher took me and my son to visit his parents, as I was new to England and had not been to Sussex. His kind parents asked my where I was from. ‘Hungary’, I replied. ‘Oh. Do you have your own language?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it written?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh. So are there even books in your language? And schools?’ ‘Yes, both,’ I replied.

This conversation was not only a demonstration of the profound ignorance of even middle-class adults, but also of how important it was that I knew about my language, my culture. What would I have felt like had I not known? I would have been nothing. NOTHING.

This experience led me to read and read, and then to begin researching aspects of the history of migrants to the UK, especially from the West Indies and Africa, and also from India. I slowly discovered that England - Britain - is really a nation of immigrants. After all, a small island with good soil off the coast of Europe was bound to attract not only people fleeing wars in their own countries, but just looking for places to add to their empires. But to this day, very few among us want to acknowledge this. ‘We are homogeneous Anglo-Saxons’, I recollect Prime Minister Thatcher telling us. As if the Saxons were the same as the Angles!

So, for me, the Runnymede Trust’s Our Migration Story is crucially important. It tells stories about the many many peoples who are the ancestors of the ‘English’ people. I trust it will reduce prejudices and lead to a much greater understanding of our world.

What the site does not do is tell the reverse-side of this history. I mean about the millions of people who emigrated from Britain, seeking a better life, escaping from poverty or prejudices here. Add to them the prisoners exported from the overcrowded jails. The Americas, including the West Indies, Australia and New Zealand and then South Africa were the targets of these emigrants/refugees. And they exterminated a vast proportion of the native inhabitants of all those lands.

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