In a 1999 episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, the eponymous BBC documentary maker interviewed a group of American black nationalists and members of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. In his beguiling manner, Theroux gently questioned them about their beliefs. Famously, he was told by the elders of the Universal Church of Practical Knowledge that the Vikings, William Shakespeare and Henry VIII were all black men. These beliefs are articles of faith, held by the Black Hebrew Israelites in the United States. They have a long track record of violent extremism, which continues to the present day, including a 2019 mass killing in New Jersey.
Theroux’s documentary invited viewers to marvel at the absurdity of such claims. We all knew it was ahistorical and ridiculous to claim that our mediaeval forebears were black. This was presented to us by the BBC as an opportunity to mock a peculiarly American historical fantasy, which was the legacy of America’s distinct racial relations.
A generation later, the BBC itself seems to have embraced the Black Hebrew Israelites’ worldview. A song from a 2021 episode of the children’s history show Horrible Histories, entitled “We’ve been here from the start”, was released to commemorate the achievements of black British people throughout history.
It includes the lyrics:
We worked in the Stone Age,
Went to war with Bonaparte;
Before these isles were British
Black people played their part.
Cheddar man was Mesolithic
10,000 years from now,
When the animals were terrific
(You should see his giant cow.)
And the Roman Emperor General
And the brave Aurelian Moors,
Were just a few of several
Who walked upon these shores.
Please lend me your ears
For this news I shall impart
Before Harold lost at Hastings
Black people played their part.
This is an interesting way for the national broadcaster to commemorate the achievements of a specific ethnic minority. The overwhelming majority can trace their ancestry back to two postwar migrations to the United Kingdom: the Caribbean migrants known as the Windrush generation; and waves of West African immigration from the 1960s, during the Biafran War and in the last decade.
It is a significant change from previous attempts to shore up black British peoples’ place in modern British society. These efforts focused on ties through Empire and trade, spotlighting the achievements of black British people in this era, with a particular emphasis on cultural and sporting figures, as well as politicians.
Only recently have efforts been made to identify some sort of ancient black heritage for Britain. The BBC of 25 years ago thought this eccentric and absurd, but today thinks it the right sort of thing to include in its programming for children. This is not an isolated case. As has been reported this week, Bloomsbury has published a book called Brilliant Black British History, promoted by the taxpayer-funded organisation The Books Trust. It claimed that Stonehenge was built by black people and that the very first Britons were black.
This goes beyond any attempt at national myth-making and takes us into realms of ideological fantasy. When Norman and Angevin kings of England swore their coronation oaths, they emphasised, sometimes tenuously, that they were the descendants of Alfred the Great — rightful heirs to the English throne that predated them by centuries. They made great efforts to appeal to an ancient precedent to ensure political consent to their kingship. This is very common throughout our history. The Magna Carta was trumpeted as the confirmation of ancient English rights that had existed for centuries. Even the Peasants’ Revolt and the Parliamentary rebellion in the English Civil War were justified as the return of a true and just, ancient English settlement.
In its own way, the BBC is attempting something similar with multiculturalism. By taking grains of truth (such as the relative ethnic diversity of the Roman army, or the wide range of nationalities present in Lord Nelson’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar) or debatable suggestions (such as the dark skin tone of Cheddar Man), it is trying to find a justification and precedent for modern Britain’s highly diverse demographics following recent decades of mass immigration.
This is national mythmaking to establish the post-war, or perhaps the Windsor, settlement in the United Kingdom. Instead of advocating a multicultural society on its own terms, the BBC, publishers and other state-funded organisations are attempting to say that we have always been multicultural. Therefore any political objections are illegitimate.
The British Isles have been remarkably homogenous since the ice age
The latest attempt differs from previous ones by choosing to transplant specifically modern race relations onto British history. Instead of highlighting and emphasising the lives of real ethnic minority people throughout British history, be it abolitionists like Ignatius Sancho or Olaudah Equiano, the BBC’s Horrible Histories and Bloomsbury have decided to draw a specific, ancestral link between ancient Britons (who may or may not have had darker skin and hair) and today’s black British population. It is in effect determining that anyone who does not, or did not, have fair skin is to be classified as “black” in the sense that we understand it politically and ethnically today. This includes the builders of Stonehenge, occupying Roman soldiers, and others who were on these lands “before Harold lost at Hastings”.
As Ed West highlights in his blog Wrong Side of History this week, there is essentially zero remaining DNA evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain in the contemporary British population. He cites various studies demonstrating that the white English population derive the majority of their ancestry from pre-Roman Britons. The People of the British Isles, a continuing population genetics project at Oxford University, has found how remarkably homogeneous the British Isles have been since the ice age, with its population made up from tribes from northwestern Europe. To deny this reality to justify contemporary multiculturalism is historic fabrication.
The BBC’s Horrible Histories is engaging in a new form of nation-building, attempting to bind Britain’s modern and diverse population to its ancient one. Whilst doing so, it has indulged in ahistorical fantasies of people like the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were once featured as an object of peculiar derision rather than prophetic scholarship. This is an institution that aggressively polices the speech of other organisations, with its newly established BBC Verify outlet. It investigates alleged disinformation online, despite being run by a journalist with questionable integrity of her own. The BBC should scrutinise its own output and reckon on why it is promoting black nationalist propaganda, before it engages in another clumsy and error-ridden effort to censure the political thought of others online.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe