I rarely watch TV documentaries about history, as many of them are quite badly researched. I saw a brilliant exception this generalisation last night.
When he unveiled the BBC’s plans to mark the centenary of the First World War with four years of WWI-themed documentaries and dramas, Director-General Tony Hall promised that the programs would have “a profound impact on the way we think about World War One”. In other words, they wouldn’t just rehash old interpretations of the war but would be based on cutting-edge academic research. The BBC is producing 2,500 hours of programming about the war!
Last night, BBC Two broadcast The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire a moving documentary that showed the ways in which racism influenced the conduct of the war. (Any serious student of this war must recognized that the imperialist and racist assumptions of the era make the moral universe of the various combatant nations utterly different from that of liberal democratic people today, which is why efforts to depict the war as a crusade for liberty are hilarious). Anyway, the documentary shown last night was hosted by the Anglo-Nigerian journalist David Olusoga. It’s about told the four million non-European, non-white soldiers who got caught up in what started as an intra-European struggle.The documentary looked at the experience of Sikh soldiers in the British Army and the Senegalese soldiers who fought for the French. Olusoga shows how the complex racial ideologies of the era influenced the military strategies and tactics used. (French generals favoured the use of Black troops on the dubious grounds that Africans’ had less developed nervous systems and were thus less able to feel pain). The British rulers of India had their own pseudo-scientific ideas about ethnic groups and castes made for good soldiers (the so-called martial races). The documentary shows Olusoga sitting in libraries such as the British Library and reading racialist texts from that era.
Olusoga is a journalist not an academic. However, his documentary draws on the considerable volume of academic literature the straddles the boundaries between the history of racism and military history. I hope that his excellent documentary is shown in all nations for the former British Empire and that a sub-titled version is shown in Francophonie countries.
As a business historian, I’m left wondering whether we could produce a similar documentary that talks about how the racial ideologies of that era influenced commerce between countries that were considered to be of different “races”. I think that the number of scholarly secondary sources we could draw on would be much smaller, unfortunately. It seems to be that David Olusoga has created a challenge for us business historians.