Past and Present: Commentary By Bridget Brereton

Trinidad Express Story By: Bridget Brereton

The centenary of the beginning of World War 1 (1914-18) has been commemorated in many different places, and these events will continue over the next four years. A hundred years is a long time, but this terrible conflict, and what happened as a result of it, shaped the world we live in today. Recently, I watched an excellent three-part series on the Ottoman Empire presented by the BBC’s Rageh Omaar. It told the remarkable story of how this Islamic, Turkish dynasty came to rule most of the Middle East, North Africa, and the part of Eastern Europe known as the Balkans. The programme’s last part dealt with this empire’s collapse after World War 1. The Ottomans joined the losing side during the war, and British and French troops fought them in their Middle Eastern and North African provinces. (Trinidadians, including Captain Cipriani, took part in this fighting as members of the British West Indies Regiments.) With the war over and the Ottomans defeated, the empire was dismantled in 1919. Its former provinces in the Middle East were handed over to Britain and France. Britain got Jordan, Iraq (a new state cobbled together from three separate provinces of the old empire), and Palestine; France got Syria and Lebanon. And in these arrangements by the victorious powers of World War 1, and in what happened in the post-war years, we can see the genesis of most of the conflicts raging in the Middle East today. As Omaar said at the end of his programme, you really can’t grasp what is happening there unless you know something about the Ottoman Empire and its end. Of course his point can be applied universally: the past shapes the present and we must know something of history to understand our present-day world. Teaching history in the schools is the most effective (though certainly not the only) way of developing a history-conscious population. So I want to congratulate my distinguished Jamaican UWI colleague, Prof Verene Shepherd, for her recent public call for more history to be taught in T&T’s schools. She visited last month in her capacity as co-chair of the Caricom Reparations Commission and spoke on several occasions. Shepherd was quoted as saying (Express 13 August) that a powerful strategy in the reparations struggle was “lobbying for compulsory history education to be taught in the Caribbean’s schools”. In another article (Express 12 August), she told reporter Michelle Loubon that there was an urgent need to reintroduce history into Caribbean schools “since students were leaving school without any solid knowledge about their countries’ histories”. Though history is included in the social studies curriculum, it’s a “watered-down” version, as Shepherd noted, just one bit in a syllabus that also has bits of economics, sociology, geography and so on. 

Relatively few regional students opt to do history at C-SEC, and even fewer at CAPE. Of course historians at UWI’s St Augustine campus and at other local tertiary institutions have been making the same points for a long time, in many different ways and in many different places, but it’s always useful when a distinguished visitor lobbies for the cause, so we owe Prof Shepherd on this one. It’s also good news that the Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration has stated that he is in favour of making T&T’s history compulsory in the primary and secondary schools (Sunday Express 6 April). In fact, students should be introduced not only to the national history, but also to regional, Atlantic and world history, if even at a basic level. How else—to echo Rageh Omaar’s point about the Middle East—will they be able to understand the world they have inherited?

Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of History at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades. 

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