Paradigm, No. 21 (December, 1996)

A Curriculum Palimpsest:
Continuity and Change in UK Geography Textbooks, 1820-1870

 David Wright
19 Birchfield Lane,
Norwich NR14 8BS


This study uses the concept of the curriculum palimpsest, where each ‘new’ curriculum overlies former curricula rather than destroying all traces of what went before. Textbooks provide the concrete evidence of the palimpsest: the continuity of themes is as striking as the contrasts between books. The examples quoted all come from tropical Africa, but many of the points made apply equally to the treatment of other parts of the world in old Geography books.

The first element in the curriculum palimpsest is the so-called ‘cape and bay’ geographies. They are by no means confined to capes and bays. The main pedagogical feature was rote-learning. Thus, in the Rev. J. Goldsmith’s Grammar of Geography (1827), 1 Question 650, ‘What is the present state of Madagascar?’ is meaningless unless the words of the answer have already been learned by rote: the exact words are found in paragraph 252: ‘the inhabitants . . . are in general barbarous’. Despite their reputation for dry-as-dust facts, such books were by no means value-free:

Man in this quarter of the world exists in a state of lowest barbarism . . . Abyssinia is chiefly (inhabited) by degenerate Arabs . . . Barbary’s inhabitants are chiefly remarkable for their piracies and their political debasement . . . Bornou . . . is less barbarous than might be expected.

Later ‘cape and bay’ texts are less obviously ‘racist’, but ethnocentric attitudes persist. For example, Gill’s Geography 2 proclaims, ‘Abyssinians profess a low form of Christianity’; while this is doubtless preferable to being described as ‘degenerate Arabs’, it is very clear who decides the relative heights of Christianity. This ‘cape and bay’ style of book was by no means absent from schools in the 1960s. The thirty-four question test on ‘Central Africa’ in Jackson and Penn’s Groundwork Geographies: Southern Continental, 3 is very similar in style and format to Goldsmith’s 1827 Geography. Only two questions ask ‘why?’; the other thirty-two ask ‘what?’ and ‘where?’, or order the pupil to ‘Name . . .’. Some questions in some of the other tests are virtually identical: Goldsmith’s Question 646, ‘What is the extent of Barbary? 4 I has become in Jackson and Penn Question 36 ‘Name the Barbary States’. The ending of piracy, well over a hundred years ago, led to a change of name in common usage, but in Geography books the precolonial terminology could still be found. It is also noticeable that this book, frequently found in schools in the 1960s, lists ‘The Pygmies’ as the first of three groups of ‘Natives of the Congo’; there is no suggestion that the other two groups may be greater numerically. The facts are presented in a style similar to Goldsmith and to Gill, and are as numerous and indigestible; pupils even have to learn (p. 112) that Chake Chake is the chief town of Pemba. The fifth edition of Jackson and Penn is metricated and with new pictures, but the style of question is unchanged. In addition, the ‘cape and bay’ style, as exemplified by Jackson and Penn, had one feature that was notably similar in the many Regional Geography textbooks of the 1930s and 1950s; the titles of chapters consisted merely of ‘pieces’ of Africa.

The second type of book for Geography teaching in the late nineteenth century was the Geography Reader: this forms the second element of the ‘palimpsest’. These books have received less attention but were numerous and widely used. The Readers sought to avoid the naming of parts of the continent as the chapter headings of their books &emdash; a rebellion against ‘facts for facts-sake’ that is also a characteristic of several recent texts. Thus The World and its People - Africa 5 includes titles such as ‘Hunting Scenes’, ‘The Story of the Niger’, ‘Livingstone’s Last Journey’, and ‘The Cape to Cairo Railway’. The appeal is to the affective rather than the cognitive domain alone, and the responses expected include expressive writing as well as transactional writing. Africa was an ideal focus for ‘Geography Readers’: the so-called ‘Dark Continent’ offered many opportunities to imaginative authors. The style of the Readers fitted well with the heyday of exploration and imperialism, and gave more scope for ethnocentrism than did the ‘cape-and-bay’ Geographies. The anonymous author of the Nelson Reader sums up the inhabitants of tropical Africa as follows:

In character, the Negro is best described as an overgrown child: vain, self-indulgent, and fond of idleness, but with a good heart . . . . life is so easy to him, in his native home, that he has never developed the qualities of industry, self-denial, and forethought.

The assumption that it is the ease of life in the tropics, rather than the difficulties, that led to ‘backwardness’ is an interesting example of ‘inverted environmental determinism’, perhaps linked with the ‘puritan work ethic’. The book abounds with ethnocentric or racist statements.

To clarify the nature of ‘racism’ 6 in this book, certain statements have been selected, probable implications of the statements to pupils outlined, and an attempt made to express the same facts in a non-racist manner. The results are summarised as Table 1.



 Possible Implication


 Alternative ways of expressing same facts

[Gambian] natives are more Hamitic than Negro, and some are quite handsome (p. 182)

Rich but pestilential regions . . . climate so un-healthy that Freetown has been called the ‘White Man’s Grave’ (p. 182)

The Ashantis are a fierce negro race who in 1872 invaded British territory . . . soon [the King] resumed his bloodthirsty ways . . . since 1895 Ashanti has been part of Gold Coast Colony (p. 185)


Of course in a barbarous country like Ashanti there are no manufactures and little agriculture.


Most negroes are ugly.


There is a connection between black people and nasty diseases.


There is a connection between being black and being ‘fierce’ and ‘bloodthirsty’. When the British take parts of Africa they are not bloodthirsty. If Africans reconquer it, they are bloodthirsty.


Either crafts are non-existent (untrue) or crafts are irrelevant.


The inhabitants have some Hamitic characteristics e.g…..

Many Europeans fall ill from diseases in these areas since they have no resistance to them (unlike local people)

The Ashantis resisted the British imperialists successfully in 1872 but were defeated in 1895.




The Ashantis build huts, work iron, weave baskets and use many other craft skills. They also undertake some cultivation.


The Readers continued to have significance, long after the nineteenth century. One wonders if members of Charlotte Mason College of Education are familiar with Charlotte Mason’s Ambleside Geography Books. Book 1 was ‘Revised’ for the 1926 edition, but still included this fascinating paragraph:

Some countries are more civilised than others. That is, the people know better what is right and wrong; they behave more properly; send their children to school, and so are better educated; and know how to do their work in a better way. They also care more about books and reading, and are kinder in their ways to one another; they are so at least in Christian countries. 7

Thus, the two dominant types of nineteenth-century Geography both found Africa an ideal area for study, albeit for different reasons. Fairgrieve (1926), 8 while radically changing the character of Geography, nonetheless once again found Africa an ideal focus, albeit for a different reason. In this case, the ‘Natural Regions’ of ‘Mediterranean Lands’, Desert, Semi-Desert, Savannah, and Jungle were at their clearest in Africa, and the climate and vegetation seemed simple. By contrast, in Asia man had been altering the natural vegetation for thousands of years; savannah was not widespread; and the monsoons made climatic regions ‘untidy’. The division into ‘Natural Regions’ conveniently came before the possible man-made origin of African savannahs had been widely considered, and before man’s influence on desertification had been studied.

Therefore, by the time the ‘Five-year regional syllabus’ came to dominate the curriculum, there were already three major elements in the palimpsest, all of which had given prominence to Africa. It was therefore almost inevitable that Africa would continue to figure prominently. Thomas Pickles, in his preface to Africa, Australia, and New Zealand (1935) explains the logic of the normal sequence:

The continents are dealt with in ascending order of complexity, beginning with the relatively simple landforms and simple social organisation of Africa, and finishing with the highly complex region of Western Europe.

This statement is fascinating for the misconceptions and ignorance it displays about Africa. Nevertheless, Pickles at least attempts to explain the logic of his sequence. It is notable that most post-war series of books written to cover four or five years of school work offer no explanation in the introduction. Apparently the authors assume that teachers expect this approach and know the reasons for it. It is in this context that Hall’s (1976) accusation of the ‘sabre-toothed curriculum’ seems to have some validty. 9 ‘Winds of change’ had crossed Africa, our perception of the world had changed, and Africa was seen not as the simplest area, but as one of the most complex areas to understand &emdash; yet it was still placed among the first overseas areas to be studied.



 The most common ‘Regional Geography’ syllabus, shown by school year, in map form.
(The ‘Third World’ is shown in black.)

 The map shows the most popular means of dividing the world for Geography Syllabuses of the 1950s. This offers a combination of the so-called ‘simplest’ continents in year 2 with a recognition of the physical similarities of areas on the same latitude. As the map shows, the Third World is split between Years 2 and 3. This was by no means a uniform situation. Year 1 often included a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of the world; some series of books adopted a ‘North-South’ grouping rather than an ‘East-West’ one, by grouping North and South America together. Within Years 2 and 7, many schools gave more attention to the two ‘white’ continents than to the three more populous ‘non-white’ continents. Nevertheless, Africa still had its secure place in the Geography curriculum.

The establishment of the series of Regional Geography books marked a swing back to the cognitive domain, and away from the affective domain that was a feature of the Readers. One piece of evidence for this is the chapter headings of the books. Most books of the 1930s and 1950s have bald headings that merely state the part of the world that is covered in that part of the book.10 There is no indication of objectives; one can only presume that the major objective was coverage. While ‘racism’ is less widespread in the Regional Geography series than it was in earlier books, it is still present. Stembridge asserted in World Wide Geographies 11 in the chapter on ‘The Guinea Lands’: ‘Many of the savages never go near the mines at all’. This raises a number of questions: why ‘savages’ rather than ‘people’? Why does he imply that they should go near the mines? Many English people never go near mines either: is this equally regrettable?

‘Racism’ continued in the 1950s. To a large extent, this seemed to be part of a larger problem: the search for reasons for facts. The commendable movement towards reasoning, rather than mere fact-learning, led to oversimple explanations. Geographers were quick to criticise reasoning based on ‘determinism’, but this criticism was limited to overemphasis on the influence of physical geography; racial determinism received less attention. Although it is possible to trace studies which included criticism of the widespread use of terms such as ‘energetic’ or ‘lazy’ peoples, it seems that these criticisms did not reach a wider audience of teachers until Michael Storm’s articles about primary school texts appeared in Teachers World 12 in 1971, and were subsequently reprinted. Nevertheless, the 1971 edition of Spink and Brady still asserted that, for Britian and the Low Countries, ‘Their natural vigour created great empires’. It was also not until 1971 that a blatantly racist phrase of Morris and Brooker, published in 1953 in their book The Earth &emdash; Man’s Heritage was criticised by White, who was not even a geographer. For eighteen years pupils could have read, ‘The natives, in fact, seem as destructive as the baboons, but it is very difficult to get them to change their habits’. Presumably many thousands of pupils had noted that natives and baboons were similar, and failed to note that the European has destroyed far more of the environment than the African. Many of these ‘Regional’ books showed no evidence of racist statements, but in books such as Coysh and Tomlinson, or Jackson and Penn, the absence of ‘racism’ is but a consequence of the absence of people generally.

The Regional Geography books never dominated the scene between 1944 and 1970, despite a widespread assumption to that effect by Geography teachers today. There were large numbers of books adopting a non-regional approach in Years 2 and 3 of the course; among the best known are E. W. Young’s series Our World, 13 and A Course in World Geography, for Grammar Schools. 14


It is easy to be negative about old textbooks, and one can fail to notice the qualities of the books and the concepts which remain valuable from one generation to another. Many people seem to assume that concerns about ‘racism’, sexism, and the environment were almost absent until the 1980s. Yet in an interview of nearly twenty years ago, which refers to books published almost thirty years before that, Young’s words have a relevance which today’s anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-environment authors could not better:

Geography teaching should have a moral, perhaps even a spiritual motivation . . . I hope that I can help young people to derive some interest and pleasure and satisfaction from the diversity of humanity and the Creation as a whole, and to develop a feeling; of One World . . . Another important thing is to write for girls as much as for boys . . . 15

 I have a feeling: that, if the Rev. J. Goldsmith (or, for that matter, D. R. Wright) had been interviewed, they might have expressed the same sentiments. Some values are not ephemeral.



1. Goldsmith, J., A Grammar of Geography (Longman, 1827 edition).

2. Gill, G. Gill’s Geography (1864); 117th Edition, 1925.

3. Jackson and Penn Groundwork Geography. First published 1959. 5th ed. 1967, p. 117.

4. Nelson’s Geography Readers, 1903.

5. Nelson’s Geography Readers, 1903.

6. The word ‘racism’ is everywhere placed in inverted commas, to indicate that it is a perception of the 1990s and not necessarily the word that would have been used at the time.

7. Mason, Charlotte Ambleside Geography Books no. 1 (Kegan, Paul, 1926 ed.)

8. Fairgrieve, J. Geography in School(University of London Press, 1926).

9. Honeybone, R. C. and Roberson, B. S., The Southern Continents (Heinemann, 1958); Beddis, R. A., New Secondary Geographies Book 2: Africa, Latin America, and lands of the South-West Pacific (University of London Press, 1988).

10. Stembridge and Pickles of the 1930s; Coysh and Tomlinson, Honeybone and Roberson, and Jackson and Penn of the 1950s all have a chapter entitled West Africa’ or ‘The Guinea Lands’, and another called East Africa’ or ‘Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika’.

11. Book 6 (1932) reprinted 1940.

12. ‘Faraway places with strange-sounding names’ Teachers’ World (June, 1971) Reprinted in Fyson, N. L., The Development Puzzle (VCOAD, 1972).

13. For Secondary Modern Schools, with J. G. Mosby.

14. For Grammar Schools, with J. Lowry.

15. Wright and Young 1977.

Beddis, R. A. New Secondary Geographies Book 2: Africa. Latin America, and Lands of the South-West Pacific (University of London Press, 1988).

Coysh, A. W. and Tomlinson, M. E. The Southern Continents (University Tutorial Press, 1951).

Fairgrieve, J. Geography in School (University of London Press, 1926).

Fyson, N. L. The Development Puzzle (VCOAD, 1972).

Gill, G. Gill’s Geography(G. Gill, 1864; 117th Edition, 1925).

Goldsmith, J. A Grammar of Geography(Longman, 1827 edition).

Hall, D. Geography and the Geography Teacher (George Allen & Unwin, 1976).

Honeybone, R. C. and Roberson, B. S. The Southern Continents (Heinemann, 1958).

Jackson, N. and Penn, P. Groundwork Geographies: The Southern Continents (George Phillip, 1959).

Marsden, W. E. Stereotyping and third world Geography. Teaching Geography, 1 (1976), p. 228.

Mason, C. Ambleside Geography Books No. 1 (Kegan, Paul, 1926 edn.).

Morris, W. F. and Brooker, R. W. The Earth: Man’s Heritage (George Harrap, 1953).

Nelson’s Geography Readers The World and its People (Nelson, 1903).

Pickles, T. Africa, Australia, and New Zealand(J. M. Dent and Sons, 1935).

Spink, H. M. and Brady, R. P. New Ventures in Geography, Book 4. (Schofield, 1961, new ed. 1971).

Stembridge, J. Worldwide Geographies, Book 6: Africa, Asia, and Australia (Oxford University Press, 1932).

Storm, Michael Faraway places with strange-sounding names. Teachers’ World (June, 1971). Reprinted in Fyson, N. L., The Development Puzzle(VCOAD, 1972)

White, L. Impact: World Development in British Education (VCOAD, 1971).

Wright, D. R., and Young, E. W. A walking-stick, not a crutch. Teaching Geography, 2 (1977) pp. 173-75.

Young, E. W. and Lowry, J. H. A Course in World Geography, Books 1-9 (Edward Arnold, 1959).

Young, E. W. and Mosby, J. E. G. Our World, Books 1-4 (Edward Arnold, 1949).


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