David Olusoga on Empire

For those outside of the UK, David Olusoga is a British TV historian. He’s charming, erudite and witty, which is exactly what you need for a TV presenter. He’s also black, which is a very rare thing among British historians. Yesterday he gave a talk at Bristol University as part of Bristol Museum’s winter lecture series. It was excellent.

The subject of the talk was the British Empire, a topic on which Olusoga is currently writing a book. It also ties in with the Empire through the Lens exhibition at the Museum. As a Nigerian-British person, Olusoga has a very different view on this history than your typical white male British historian. He’s not shy in expressing his political opinions, but equally he is very honest about the complexity of the subject.

Some of that complexity is, of course, historical. The British Empire as a project began in Tudor times. (It was, in large part, John Dee’s idea.) From there the British went on to found a vast empire in North America, lose half of it to revolution, found a new empire in the far east, go on to colonize large parts of Africa, and then give that empire away because it no longer had the means to hold it. As Olusoga noted, there are Nigerians who were alive before their country became part of the Empire, and who lived to see it free again.

The complexity also arises from how we teach and remember empire. If we did so well, surely idiots like Boris Johnson and Toby Young would not be able to get away with waxing all nostalgic about our supposed glory days, and dream of Empire 2.0 as an outcome of Brexit. Olusoga described them as being like some lonely bloke looking up his exes on Facebook and wondering if they might get back together again. He didn’t mention the bloke’s rather poor record of domestic violence, but then he didn’t need to.

Part of the remembering is about how we connect with Empire. As a man of black and of white working class ancestry, you might expect Olusoga to regard himself as morally above the whole “our Empire” thing. And yet he confessed that his genealogical research suggested that his white ancestors might have been involved in slave trading, and his black ancestors might have sold slaves to the British.

That willingness to confront complexity also came through in a brilliant answer that he gave to a young Bangladeshi woman who asked about Churchill. Her own family had been badly affected by the famines that Churchill refused to try to alleviate. Olusoga notes several other examples of Churchill being a deeply unpleasant human being. And yet there was that one moment when, had he not been there, the Tories would have made peace with Hitler and the world would be a very different place now.

Sometimes Nazis need punching, and you may need someone who is prepared to do that.

I was a lot kinder with my question. I tossed him what I hoped was a juicy half volley and he obligingly whacked it out of the park. I asked him about the ridiculous notion that the British Empire somehow brought “civilization” to the world. He noted that when the Empire began the Chinese and Mughal empires were far richer and technologically sophisticated than the Europeans. The Ottomans weren’t bad either. The idea that there is somehow a single strand of human civilization stretching from Greece through Rome to London is ridiculous. He didn’t mention, though I would have done, that one of the most egregious acts of barbaric vandalism wreaked by European colonialism on the world was the spread of homophobia and associated neuroses to previously far more sensible cultures.

Those of you who have access to BBC iPlayer are warmly recommended to try Olusoga’s current TV series, A House Through Time. I loved the first episode. The second was broadcast last night. I didn’t get home in time to watch it, but I’ll be catching up this evening.