Congratulations to Channel 4 for four fantastic new programmes this week challenging key episodes in British history as part of its Bloody Foreigners season. This theme may sound xenophobic but the hour long docu-dramas in fact, in my opinion, showed the positive contributions that immigrants have made to Britain over the years.
On Wednesday night the ‘Untold Great Fire of London’ set out to explore whether the fire, which devastated large swathes of the capital some 350 years ago, really was started by accident in a bakery in Pudding Lane. Experts interviewed on the programme reeled off historical documents which suggested that it was started arson and that foreigners were to blame.
While the flames were still burning, Dutch immigrants living in London were attacked in their homes and beaten in the street; there was nowhere in the capital that was safe for them to be. As bloody re-enactments on the programme showed, it must have been terrible for all the families that were caught in the chaos. Soon the blame moved to another of the Britain’s foreign enemies, the French, and more innocent people became caught up in the terror.
But then those advocating the blood foreigners theory had cause to celebrate as a Frenchman himself confessed to the crime of starting the Great Fire of London. They wanted someone to blame and now they had their man. He was sentenced to death and killed.
Over time it became apparent that the man in question couldn’t have possibly started the fire – he wasn’t even in the country at the time according to witnesses. Still it wasn’t until the 1820s, long after his killing, that the ‘guilty’ man’s name was publicly cleared.
The hatred for foreigners at the time was tied up with the long-running Reformation – Protestants blamed the Catholics for starting the English Civil war but even after the fighting on the battlefield ended, the religious conflict and suspicion continued. Even so in wider history, Britain’s treatment for immigrants has never been that great. Look at how some refugees fleeing recent violence in places like Uganda and Somali have been beaten up in their own homes – just for being foreign. Somehow though the contributors on the ‘Untold Great Fire of London’ thought that times had changed and that London was today a cosmopolitan place where everyone is welcome. If only things were that simple.
During the Fire of London there are records of Dutch immigrants pulling down their homes to stop the fire spreading, something that many of the English refused do. In another programme in the Bloody Foreigners season which re-considered the battle of Trafalgar, the contribution of foreigner fighters in the Navy was recognised. This totally counters the view that it was purely an English victory – there were in fact over 20 different nationalities involved in the battles, including ex-slaves.
Foreigners have in the past made an enormous contribution, and continue to make an enormous contribution, to Britain. Immigrants have brought new foods, they’ve started successful companies like Tesco, we’ve danced to the rhythms of their music and shared their smiles. Often their contributions are invisible from public view, which is a real shame. But they have played an amazing role in shaping the Britain that we have today.
As for the Bloody Foreigners season, as I said at the outside, I think Channel 4 should be commended because anything that make people take a fresh look at history has got to be a good thing. History teaching in schools has a reputation for being stale, but it’s well-made television programmes like these that make people sit-up and say: ‘actually history doesn’t have to be boring, I can see that what happened then matters to me today.’
At a time when the take up of history GCSEs is at an all time low, we need the people popularising history like Dan Snow, Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, to name just a few, to lead the way. There will always be some academics that would say that there are no real new revelations in the TV programmes that apparently challenge history. But judging by the high level of coverage on the listings pages in newspapers, at least they are generating plenty of debate. That has only got to be a good thing in engaging future generations in our rich history.