Beeb’s ‘Horrible Histories’ Pushing Myths and Falsehoods as Black History

One of the major aims of the ‘History Debunked’ YouTube channel is attacking the myths and sometimes deliberate lies, which try to present past British society as far more ethnically diverse and multiracial than it really was. This is being done in order to create an image of the past that fits and reflects today’s racially diverse society. Although undoubtedly well meant, it is a fabrication. Simon Webb, the YouTuber behind the channel, is a Telegraph-reading Conservative, but I don’t think he can be fairly accused of racism. He’s a published author, who does know his history and the reality behind the falsehoods he tries to debunk.

On Tuesday he put up a video attacking the latest editions of the Beeb’s Horrible Histories programme. This is a children’s history programme based on a series of best selling books. This is intended to present history in a fun way with much comedy, though Webb, with rather more serious tastes, decries it as slap-dash and inaccurate. A recent edition of the programme was on Black British history, and was simply full of myths and falsehoods presented as solid, historical fact. So much so, that Webb said he couldn’t go through all of them, and described the programme as propaganda aimed at children. So he confined himself with a couple of the more egregious.

The programme began with the Empire Windrush and the statement that its passengers had been invited to England to help with reconstruction after the War. This is a myth that’s been promoted by a number of people, including Diane Abbott. The truth is that Blacks weren’t invited to Britain by anyone and definitely not the British government. They were appalled at the immigrants’ arrival because they didn’t have anywhere to accommodate them. Webb states that some ended up living in air raid shelters because of the lack of proper housing. The truth is that the Empire Windrush was a troop ship that was returning to Britain from South America. There was hardly anyone on board, so the captain decided to open it up to paying passengers to reduce costs. The adverts for places aboard the ship in the Jamaican Daily Gleaner simply gives the prices of the various classes of accommodation. There is no mention of work in Britain. As for the motives of the people, who took passage aboard the ship, the Sheffield Daily News in Britain reported the comments of a Jamaican businessman, Floyd Rainer, who said that the immigrants had come to Britain because they were dissatisfied with pay and conditions in the Caribbean. They were seeking better opportunities for themselves, not to help Britain.

The programme then followed this with an item about Black Roman soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall. These were Moors from the Roman province of Mauretania. However, Mauretania was in North Africa, in what is now Morocco and Algeria. It was a province settled by Carthaginians, who were Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon, and the Berbers. Although comparatively dark-skinned, they had Mediterranean complexions, and were not Blacks from the modern West African country of Mauretania, has an American website claims.

It then went on to St. Adrian of Canterbury, who it was claimed was also Black. But he came from what is now Libya in north Africa, and so wouldn’t have been a Black African. However, the programme stated that he was an African, and left the viewer to imagine that he would therefore have been Black.

Mary Seacole was also shown tending British soldiers in a hospital during the Crimean War, which is also a myth. She set up a bar and restaurant and never did any actual nursing. It also showed Cheddar Man as Black. This is based on a reconstruction that was widely covered in the press at the time. However, Webb has done a previous video about it and similar reconstructions showing how flawed they are. In the case of Cheddar Man, the scientists behind the announcement that he was Black actually retracted this in a piece published in New Scientist. No-one really knows what colour people’s skins were 10,000 years ago.

I think the BBC actually means well with all this, and its presenters and compilers probably don’t think that they’re falsifying history. I’m sure they genuinely believe that they’re uncovering previously hidden aspects of the British past. I think projecting the presence of Black people back into the past is part of an attempt to deal with the continuing racist attitude towards Black and Asian Brits that still sees them as foreign, even though they have now been here for three generations. And a smaller number will have been here for much longer.

But I also think that the Beeb is also prepared to falsify history in this direction as well simply to make a programme. Back around 2003/4 the Beeb screened a series about the way modern artists and musicians were taking inspiration from the Psalms of the Bible. In one edition, feminist icon Germaine Greer went to Jamaica to meet the Rastafarian musicians, who sang the Psalms in the origin Amharic, according to the Radio Times.

Historically, this is nonsense. The Psalms were originally written, like almost all of the Tanakh, the Christian Old Testament, in Hebrew. Hence its alternative name of Hebrew Bible. It very definitely wasn’t written in Amharic, which is the modern Ethiopian language of the Amhara people. But Rastafarianism is based on the worship of Haile Selassie, the late emperor of Ethiopia, as the Lion of Judah and Black messiah. Hence, presumably, the insistence that the Psalms were written in Amharic. It seems to me that the Beeb obtained the cooperation of the Rastafarian musos for the programme on the understanding that the programme would be presented from their theological point of view. If they contradicted the assertion that the Psalms were written in Amharic, a language that didn’t exist when the Psalms were actually composed, then no programme. And so the Beeb and the Radio Times published this piece of historical nonsense.

I think a similar process may also be working behind the Horrible Histories and similar programmes present long held myths as facts about the Black past. I don’t know, but I think some of them might be made in collaboration with Black groups and individuals, who passionately believe these falsehood. The Beeb wants to make these programmes and include the views of Blacks themselves. These individuals insist on the inclusion of these myths, which the Beeb won’t challenge because its researchers don’t know that their myths, and the organisation is afraid of these organisations denouncing them as racists if they ignore these long-held Black views.

There are some excellent books and materials on Black British history out there. Three I’ve come across are Gretchen Herzen’s Black England – Life Before Emancipation, the collection Under the Imperial Carpet – Essays in Black History, edited by Rainer Lotz and Ian Pegg, and Our Children Free and Happy – Letters from Black Settlers in Africa, edited by Christopher Fyfe and published by Edinburgh University press. But there is an awful lot of myth and falsehoods as well.

However well meant, these need to be rejected as falsehoods, even if they’re told as truth by the Beeb.

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13 Responses to “Beeb’s ‘Horrible Histories’ Pushing Myths and Falsehoods as Black History”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    Some of this post strikes me as Black Propaganda in the negative sense. Mary Seacole had no formal medical training, but she did nurse and administer herbal remedies, and met Florence Nightingale. Google “14 Exraordinary Facts About Mary Seacole”.

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    Likewise the “de-mythologising” of the Empire Windrush. Birmingham Corporation certainly advertised in the West Indies “Come and drive a bus in Birmingham”. Whether any recruits came aboard the E-W I don’t know. I know that there was a certain scizophrenia about this in government. Attlee, I believe, wanted to divert the ship to India! But the NHS was more than happy to recruit black doctors and nurses.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Brian – I’ve also heard things that contradicted his view of the Empire Windrush. One of these was that the British government had appealed for workers from the Commonwealth to come to Britain, but had expected them to come from the White colonies and were unprepared for the influx of Black and Asian migrants instead.

  3. Brian Burden Says:

    I’ve tried twice to post a further comment on this topic, and both times the robot has deleted my post when I’ve tried to send, so I’ll try again later.

  4. Brian Burden Says:

    Okay, let’s try again. According to her own memoir, Mary Seacole followed the British Army in Crimea, acting as a suttler and also nursing the wounded and palliating their sufferings with her herbal remedies. The intention, no doubt, was to “do well by doing good” but in the end poor Mary ended up bankrupt. Florence Nightingale used her medical, organisational and lobbying skills to improve the lot of wounded soldiers and to bring about favourable changes in the law, which puts her well in the lead in the sainthood stakes, but Mary deserves a place as an honourable runner-up. More…

  5. Brian Burden Says:

    Continued… Simon Webb’s attitude reminds me of that endless line of posters on the Mirror website eager to bad-mouth Meghan Markle for any reason on earth apart from her colour – It’s Meghan, of course, who “played the race card” by objecting to Princess Anne’s tactless remarks. By the way, it’s worth watching that “bombshell” Oprah interview in its entirety. It’s available on line. I challenge you to to find anything “bombshell” about it. It’s a perfectly civilised airing of grievances and the couple avoid naming names. More…

  6. Brian Burden Says:

    Continued… It’s interesting how Shakespeare handles race. He was way ahead of his time. Warren Mitchell has played Shylock, and says the character rings true. Regarding Othello The Moor of Venice it’s interesting how many white critics are keen to deprive him of his African complexion, insisting that a Moor could be a light-skinned Arab. He could, but it’s clear Shakespeare intended the character to be played in blackface. A few years ago, there was a school of thought which argued that the Dark Lady of the sonnets was an African, but it’s generally thought now that she was an Italian lady called Isabella Bassano. Olivier did an excellent blackface representation of Othello, though at the expense of upstaging the rest of the cast. Socialist Worker unkindly described his performance as “Olivier doing his impersonation of Cy Grant”!

    END OF LONG RAMBLING POST!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the post, Brian. Webb has cited Seacole’s biography to claim that she was really a hotelier interested only in catering to the officers. There’s certainly reason to doubt some of her claims, as there was a TV programme about a group of mainly Black nurses, who had a statue erected to her. As well as the nurses and the sculptor, there was also an historian providing the counter argument. I haven’t read her autobiography, so I don’t quite know what the truth is.

      As for Webb’s views on race, he’s certainly an opponent of what he sees as the deliberate distortion of history in the interests of promoting multiculturalism as well as the ‘bell curve’ nonsense about differences in intelligence between the races. However, he’s also posted pieces arguing against the Great Replacement and other noxious conspiracy theories, for which Fascist nutters have accused him of being ‘Jewish’.

      • Brian Burden Says:

        Re-Webb. It’s a matter of where you place the emphasis. Mary Seacole followed the army to make a living as a suttler – unsuccessfully. But she also tended the wounded for no reward.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks also for the info on Shakespeare’s racial views. I’ve heard of the accusations of anti-Semitism made against the Bard. I was interested to read your comment that Warren Mitchell believed that the Shylock character rang true. I haven’t seen the play, but I got the impression that Shylock’s vindictiveness came from the way he was despised and persecuted because he was Jewish, despite his common humanity. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed’, if I’ve got the right play.

      I think the attempts to claim that Othello is a light-skinned Arab rather than a Black African probably come from distaste at the traditional use of blackface for his portrayal. I think it’s a way for a White actor to portray him plausibly but without blacking up. Interestingly, a few years ago Radio 4 did a piece about a 19th century Black American actor, who emigrated to England. He also used to play Othello, but in White makeup.

  7. Pip Says:

    I CALL A SPADE A SPADE!
    Am I anti-spade?

    • Brian Burden Says:

      Sorry, Pip, I can’t cap that one – though Kier Starmer would certainly find an anti-Semitic trope somewhere there. Alternative answer: It depends who’s listening!

      One of the critics pushing of the “light Arab” argument was a 19th century US Southerner. There are plenty of indications in the text that Shakespeare expected Othello to be played in blackface, and, of course, Othello tells us that he came “up from slavery” (to quote Booker Washington’s phrase, not the Bard’s).

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