Documentaries: Who Tells the (Hi)story?

Historians know that most people learn more history outside rather than inside the classroom. Arguably the most important way people learn history is through film. Academics such as Marnie Hughes-Warrington and Robert Rosenstone take the difference between film and professional histories so seriously that they write books on the subject. No film, they acknowledge, can tell the whole story or get all the facts right.

This is important in considering the most classroom-like means of learning through film. The television documentary aims at presenting historical facts informatively and enjoyably. Although perhaps less popular public histories than films and computer games, they rely more heavily on the historian’s input. Historians bring their own perspectives to documentaries, perspectives they use in academic debates. With this in mind, are you really just getting the facts when you watch a documentary?

The easiest way to test this is to look at two programmes about the same events. Take for example Anglo-Scottish history between 1695 and 1707, the subject of “Britannia Incorporated,” from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (BBC, 2001) and “Let’s Pretend,” from Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland (BBC Scotland, 2009).

In this period Scotland’s economy suffered from the collapse of the Darien expedition. Blessed by the Scottish parliament during 1695 and led by William Paterson, the Company of Scotland planned to set up a trade colony at Darien, Panama. This plan would boost Scotland’s economy by sparing European Pacific traders the dangerous journey around South America and making Scottish merchants the middlemen. The first of three expeditions set sail during 1698. The colony soon collapsed amidst tropical diseases, hot weather and opposition from Spain, England and King William III.

Antagonism between England and Scotland remained after William III. A brief legislative war between the countries ended when Westminster passed the Alien Act in 1705. This law threatened sanctions against Scottish holdings in England unless Scotland agreed to treat for political union by Christmas that year. The English would as part of the treaty pay the Scottish elite the equivalent of their losses at Darien, effectively bribing the Scots into union. A diplomatic convenience for England and an economic necessity for Scotland, the Act of Union created the United Kingdom on May Day, 1707.

Representing such facts seems simple enough, but consider what that two-paragraph summary of events emphasises and may have left out. Documentary makers face a similar dilemma when compressing twelve years of history into part of an hour-long documentary. Even when trying to provide “just the facts” the way you see Scottish/British history largely depends on your preferred nationalism.

Simon Schama presents the events from an English/British perspective. His account of the Darien expedition leaves out the London market’s initial interest in the colony and William III’s opposition to the scheme. Schama emphasises the law against English assistance to the colony, which an unnamed William III helped pass through Westminster, intended to protect English trade. He also does not mention Spain’s opposition, which at times included military action against the colonists. For Schama, independent Scotland failed at Darien.

Schama’s conclusion about Darien does not allow him to consider the Scottish parliament’s independence between 1703 and 1705. Instead, he jumps to political union, the solution to Scotland’s failings. He mentions the equivalent payment from the 1706 union negotiations before the Alien Act of 1705, recasting them as the carrot and the stick. His conclusion at the end of the episode, that the Act of Union benefitted the Scots, ignores the unpopularity and initial difficulties of the Union in Scotland. The pro-union sentiment, its emphases and omissions, of Schama’s argument bears similarity to written historians such as George Trevelyan and Thomas Macaulay.

Neil Oliver presents the same events from a Scottish nationalist perspective. The local focus of the programme allows Oliver to provide more detail about the Darien failure’s political background. Unlike Schama, he mentions William III blocking English and Dutch investment in the Company of Scotland and warning the Scots against interfering with English and Spanish interests. Politics, as well as the tropical climate, led to the failure of the Darien colony.

Without directly mentioning the English and Scottish laws of 1703-5, including the Alien Act, Oliver portrays Scottish parliament as still independent after Darien. The episode privileges the voice of George Lockhart of Carnwath, an opponent of union involved in the 1706 negotiations. Oliver presents the equivalent payment from the negotiations as a bribe for the Scottish elite, a view which comes from Lockhart’s memoirs. The rest of the episode details the immediate failings of union. Scots, Oliver concludes, “had learnt to live with it.” His argument mirrors those of historians such as Tom Devine or Cowan and Finlay.

Documentaries do not provide “just the facts.” So when you next watch one, think “who tells the (hi)story?”

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3 comments on “Documentaries: Who Tells the (Hi)story?

  1. Ron Chambers says:

    Hi Alfred,

    Great post. It never occurred to me that two such different views as Schama’s and Oliver’s could come out of one historic event. You did a great job of alerting us to be aware that who does the telling is arguably just as important as the tale itself. I would say – in defence of historical documentaries – that we ought never take just one view or format of history as definitive. It’s always good to take leaf from journalism’s book; check your sources and compare and contrast. I just wish that Neil Oliver’s accent was not so relentlessly Scots. Ah well.

    All the best,

    Ron Chambers

  2. joannairving says:

    Dear Alfred,

    I enjoyed the way that you presented how English and Scottish historians view an event differently. You have created a great comparison, which encourages your readers to be aware that historians’ opinions in documentaries can dictate how the public perceive certain events. It is also evident that you have a thorough understanding on your subject. My only comment is whether you could have presented it in more of a unique way like a documentary review? I really enjoyed learning about your topic.

    Good job Joanna

  3. Kate says:

    Great work, Alfred! A very nice switch in tone for both your pieces. Good luck in the future. Kate.

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