Jeremy Paxman’s Empire: student review

The Green Ribbon Club is still very young, and it was very lucky, still in its infancy, to have seen Jeremy Paxman give a talk on the British Empire. Jeremy Paxman, though he told us that he does not consider himself to be a historian, nevertheless gave a hugely interesting and unusual account of the history of the empire as well as its continuing importance.

The empire is not often discussed: for so long the British were proud of what they had achieved abroad and had no moral qualms in benefiting from the riches that were reaped from invasions of Asia and Africa. Now, however, we more commonly talk about it with shame: the massacres, the slavery, the general ill-treatment of the indigenous people by the British. The phrase ‘the white man’s burden’ has become something to be embarrassed and disgusted by.

Jeremy Paxman looked at the story of the British Empire slightly differently; without excusing the horrors or the behaviour of the white settlers, he looked at the positive effect that holding a huge empire had on the ordinary British person. He concluded by stating that the British were left with a kind of get-out-and-go spirit, which has been the propeller for some bad, and some good – the readiness of Thatcher and Blair to launch Britain into war may be attributed to the Empire, for instance, but so too may the willingness to enter World Wars I and II.

He used a variety of photographs and paintings to illustrate his talk, and as a result the audience were able to see both the side of the empire that was presented to the people at home, and also to hear of the story behind each image. For instance, a photograph of the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny 1857 massacre showed many skeletons in a courtyard; Jeremy told us that the photograph had been taken months after the people had been killed, and that the bodies had been dug up again for the purposes of the photo.

We were also able to learn much more about the historical figures that we may have known only by name. We discovered that Dr Livingstone, apart from being a passionate explorer, was also both a terrible missionary (he performed only one documented conversion all the time he was in Africa) and also completely impossible to get on with, driving most of his acquaintances to leave him in frustration (including Stanley, who met him in Africa with the words ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’).

As the audience (the majority of whom were students) had most likely never heard the empire discussed, to hear about it from such a distinguished speaker was a fantastic experience. The Green Ribbon Club were also lucky enough to have dinner at Keith’s house that evening and talk more about history and politics with Jeremy, which reportedly led to several (quite heated) debates. The talk and meeting with Jeremy Paxman has left the Club full of information, not only about the empire but also about the way that we look at history; and it is also looking forward to its next meeting.

By Nell Whittaker, 6.2

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Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

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