The colonised curriculum? Lessons from Black Victorian history…

Today, activists, students and educators are working to redress the many colonial legacies in our education systems. As well as challenging statues and monuments to colonial ‘great men’, decolonising approaches to education query the canon and traditional syllabi, inequalities of experience predicated on racism, and diversity measures that so often fail adequately to address them. Researching this book allowed me to think afresh about colonialism and education as I peered into the experiences of black (African and Caribbean) students, many of them colonial subjects, in Britain at the time of empire’s ascendancy.

Specifically, Black Students in Imperial Britain examines the African Institute, Colwyn Bay, a school created in north Wales by an ex-missionary named William Hughes, which was attended by around 90 individuals between 1889 and 1911. I detail the students’ journeys to Colwyn Bay, their experiences in Britain, and their lives after attending the school. The book is particularly interested in how the students experienced charitable interest in them, and it argues that, where circumstances allowed, the students utilised that interest to pursue causes that mattered to them. It identifies black students as participants, even agents, in late-Victorian charitable schemes.

Situated in the heart of empire, it is unsurprising that students of the African Institute received an imperialistic education. In the book I detail how the students’ classes in geography and ‘biography’ were based around David Livingstone, the famous and much-adored missionary explorer. In around 1895, the students were asked to study David Livingstone, an 1889 biography by Thomas Hughes, who was better known as the author of Tom Brown’s School Days (1857). In such a text as this, the African geography that many students counted as home was conceived in generic terms of slavery and heathenism, given definition and history only by the exploits of the heroic biographical subject. Even if Livingstone’s own relation to formal colonial rule is complex, texts like Hughes’s biography helped convince young readers of the right, indeed obligation, of Britain to govern in Africa.

Thomas Hughes, David Livingstone
(originally published 1889)
Mojola Agbebi (1860-1917)

But education doesn’t just happen in classrooms. Beyond the curriculum the students were exposed to new voices, including black intellectuals from West Africa, the USA, and beyond who visited the Institute in the mid- to late-1890s.  Such encounters were facilitated and certainly not discouraged by the schoolmaster, William Hughes, and they were applauded by the local press and the communities who supported the school with donations. On occasion, the students would join notable black visitors in giving public speeches or talks in Wales and beyond. Noteworthy lecturers included the radical Lagosian preacher Mojola Agbebi, who based himself in Colwyn Bay for six months in 1895, during which time the students certainly heard his progressive views on the need to adapt Christian customs to African cultures. Inspired by a rising tide of black intellectualism in Britain, some students helped, in 1904, to form the Ethiopian Progressive Association of Liverpool, a small, humanitarian organisation seeking to better the circumstances of black people (in particular students) in Britain.

Students of the African Institute, with Mojola Agbebi, in 1894-95

We can and must revise today’s curriculums to incorporate more diverse cultures and voices. But one of the lessons of the African Institute is that reading lists are only part of the story. It’s equally important to foster an environment of support and community, which might which enable students to speak confidently about their experiences, and to think critically about the wisdom that others would have them receive.

For more information on Robert Burroughs’s new book Black Students in Imperial Britain, or to read it Open Access, visit our website.


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