Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures

Mastering the MOOC: Reflections on the controversies of British Empire.

Darjeeling by moonlight

Darjeeling by moonlight. A postcard from the Das Studios, Darjeeling

I came upon the concept of the “MOOC” – Massive Open On-line Courses, only recently. I’d heard of them but they hadn’t really impinged on my day to day consciousness. However, after 2 friends recommended some courses they had completed via Future Learn, I was inspired to find out a little bit more.

I did some browsing of their list of on-line courses from a really wide range of universities. Some are very specific and suited only to people who may work in a particular specialist field. I’m not sure that “Dysphagia: Swallowing Difficulties and Medicines” would really be of that much interest to many, but one did catch my eye: Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism, run by the University of Exeter.

Keventers cafe Darjeeling

Keventers – the shop and cafe managed by my grandparents in Darjeeling. Photo by Anja Schmidt

Now, I have some quite strong links to the British Empire as several generations of my family lived in India, so the idea of a course that discussed and explored what Empire meant and indeed still means, intrigued me enough to sign up for the full six weeks. The British Empire was not an area of study I had ever covered at school. Despite doing History to ‘A’ level, the main focus was typically on the Tudors, Elizabethans and Stuarts or the world at war in the 20th Century. Empire and the role of the British Empire was rarely, if ever, discussed.

The course was structured through thematic “controversies”; money, violence, race & religion, sex & gender, propaganda and power. For me the most fascinating elements were the propaganda and sex & gender weeks.

I had not considered how much the sense of Empire filtered into the mainstream consciousness through such ordinary things as adventure stories like “Robinson Crusoe”. In his fascinating video lecture, Paul Young, a senior lecturer in Victorian literature and culture at Exeter explains: “…the novel can be read as a bourgeois fantasy, so too it’s an imperial fantasy. Robinson Crusoe heroically transforms and cultivates his island environment, subduing it and the native people he encounters in order that they serve his own ends. At a moment in history when Britain’s economic and political interests were more and more bound up with imperial expansion,perhaps most notably in the form of the slave trade then, Daniel Defoe writes a novel celebrating Britain’s rights to conquer, rule over, and draw wealth from distant lands and their inhabitants”. (Week 5, The Adventure Story)

It was with this in mind that I was intrigued to see how my changing awareness of the Empire’s legacy crept into my impressions of the images in Ladybird books of the late 50s to early 70s, currently exhibited at the De La Warr Pavilion.

Women Tea pickers in Himalayas

Women tea pickers in the Himalayas

The second week that I particularly enjoyed focused on sex and gender. The course raised the concept of “intersectional identities”, that people are “embodied beings”, who are shaped by the interactions and societal expectations placed upon them at any particular point in time. To some extent, the experience of Empire normalised the typical gender roles; it was men who joined the army, travelled and managed the colonisation process around the world. However it can be argued that women, once they also started to engage in the wider opportunities available to them, were able to experience and observe the lives and cultural expectations of women around the world. Women in fact had to learn how to navigate Empire in different ways because of the differing class, colour and power relationships they experienced once they were there.

Overarching the course, however, was the notion of controversy. I think it is easy to see the many wrongs that were committed in the name of Empire and the way the British assumed a right to rule. There are many documented incidents and events which viewed through the lens of hindsight are now seen as a the negative impact of Empire. Yet in some of the small stories shared it was also apparent that there were positives, moments in time, which enabled people of different cultures to come together in a common purpose.

1953 Everest celebrations in Darjeeling

1953 Everest climb celebrations in Darjeeling

This photo is my own small story. It shows my grandparents and great aunt, with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the Darjeeling Gymkhana club in 1953 after the successful Everest climb. The photo shows a group of Indian and European couples, all dressed up. The men, Indian and European are all in smart lounge suits, although one is wearing a turban. The women are either in richly embroidered saris or the very staid British fashion of the times. They all stand together, smiling for the camera with a palpable sense of pride in the achievement, that I think does transcend race and class.

©Chez l’abeille 2015


Comments are closed.