Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time is one of those shows which seem to justify the BBC’s existence all by itself. For those who don’t know it, a thumbnail: three experts engage in a discussion of a particular historical subject, chaired by a pre-briefed and always intelligently confused Bragg. Its website includes a complete archive of the show, which has covered topics as wide-ranging as Free Will, Carbon, Robin Hood and The Nicene Creed.
So wonderful is the programme that one hesitates to criticise it, but criticise it I will. Although it’s not really Bragg’s show I’m criticising, it’s an entire model of British historical narrative, which is a bit much for a morning blogpost, but there you are.
In Our Time is, by its nature, a sky-high bird’s-eye view of culture and history, and as such it places a great weight on narratives to explain things. A well-told anecdote trumps a list of numbers and dates, at least in a 40-minute radio broadcast covering Big Ideas.
When discussing science and culture, this is fine and dandy. I don’t expect to lean to understand Relativity in 40 minutes; all I can hope is to narrowly lessen the scope of my ignorance.
But when discussing history, the format can lead to a breeziness and occasional triviality which can mask some of the horrors of the past.
I’ve only been properly offended twice when listening to In Our Time. Once was during its show on the South Sea Bubble, which focussed almost entirely on British society and British concerns and only mentioned in passing that the South Sea Company, whose shares were the cause of the bubble, was set up for a very specific purpose.
It was a slaving company. And this matters because the core idea that led to the Bubble – that slave trading would turn out to be so lucrative that Britain’s national debt could be debited against it in a demonic early version of Enronomics – was a foul and pestilent one. It needs saying again and again.
The second offence came this morning, and sparked this post. It was during the show on The Berlin Conference of 1885. Even that title suggests a northern European bias in IoT’s worldview which is understandable but also unfortunate. For the Berlin Conference involved the diplomatic legitimisation of the rape of Africa (for once, the R word is the only one strong enough). As European arms destroyed African societies, as the palm oil trade replaced the ivory trade (for all the elephants had gone from the western side of the continent by then, to make, in Bragg’s phrase, ‘piano keys and billiard balls’), and as Leopold of Belgium continued his larcenous and genocidal takeover of the congo, Bismarck invited the European powers to his place for a grand jolly involving maps, rulers (in both senses of the word) and pencils.
I could count the African names voiced during the programme on the fingers of one hand. Leopold’s activities in particular were described in a breezy pantomime villain way what made me want to find a way to give a voice to every one of the ten million Africans he and his minions destroyed.
Such a task is impossible. But it does seem to me that Britain in particular has difficulty discussing its past when it comes to such matters. It’s something I’ve talked about at panels and on here: our joy in celebrating the abolition of the slave trade, and our profound discomfort at discussing what went before it. If Britain is to ever find its true level in the world – somewhere comfortably around Sweden and Canada – it needs to find an accommodation with these matters.
So here’s a start. When discussing imperialism in particular, for every explanatory narrative featuring Europeans, look for an explanatory narrative featuring Africans, or Indians, or native Americans. Give a voice to the dispossessed by giving them their stories back.
Try, for instance, reading about Msiri, as I just did on Wikipedia. Discover an African protagonist as vivid as any European : a Nyamwezi from Tabora in Tanzania, a trader in copper, ivory and slaves who went to Katanga in the mid 19th century armed with European guns and forced himself on a Wasanga chief as his successor.
Msiri used Katanga’s copper and ivory to buy more guns and started acquiring wives and territories, and eventually controlled a unique trade route from the west to the east coast. He had more than 500 wives, each one of them from the village of a conquered chieftain, and each one of them a spy for Msiri.
In 1886 he invited in western missionaries on his own terms in an attempt to learn more about the Europeans whose power was growing in the region. Later, these missionaries would advise Msiri to have all contracts from Europeans translated before signing them, and this resulted in Msiri’s enraged refusal to sign a one-sided contract with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. Msiri also refused contracts and agreements with Leopold’s Congo Free State, such that a force of 400 men were sent to seize Katanga. Msiri was shot by a Belgian lieutenant who, it is said, cut off Msiri’s head and carried it round, shouting ‘I have killed a tiger! Vive le Roi!’.
It’s not a bad story, is it? I didn’t know it before writing this post. And now I do know it, I know a little bit more about Africa – about its own heroism and wickedness, its pride and its hubris, its greed and its cleverness. I know that Africans are subject to the same impulses as Europeans, that their portrayal as victims robs them of their complexity and their humanity, and that their narratives are there to be found if we look for them. It’s well worth the effort to do so.