History documentary series

April 1, 2024

Racism a History is one of the landmark documentaries, aired by BBC4. This is cover-photograph for the Wikipedia page.

Racism: A History
Directed by Paul Tickell
Narrated by
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
Executive producer(s) David Okuefuna
Original network
Original release

Racism: A History is a three-part British documentary series originally broadcast on BBC Four in March 2007.

It was part of the season of programmes broadcast on the BBC marking the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act 1807, a landmark piece of legislation which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. The series explores the impact of racism on a global scale and chronicles the shifts in the perception of race and the history of racism in Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia. The series was narrated by Sophie Okonedo.


The series was researched and prepared by the BBC to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain (which did not abolish slavery itself) and consists of a chronology of events beginning with the invention of the concept of race in the 17th century as a result of colonisation and slavery and ending in the continued struggle for equal rights that still goes on. The story line narrated by Sophie Okonedo is illustrated by photographs, dramatic representations and on-site filming and is liberally interspersed with interviews with leading researchers and witnesses.

List of experts interviewed[edit]

Prof James Walvin

Prof Joe AD Alie

Ibrahim Bangura (Caretaker of Bunce Island)

Dr Talabi Lucan

Dr Barnor Hesse

Prof Gary Taylor

Prof Laurent Dubois


The magnitude and conditions of the slave trade are explained centring on a tour of Bunce Island - the role of Sir John Hawkins, the brutal treatment and resulting deaths that provided the greatest wealth the growing capitalist system could build on. It engendered a mutual relationship built on fear, with slave owners becoming an armed camp controlling the labourers.

The need for African slaves came about when the writings of the Dominican monk Bartolomé de las Casas in 1552 led to the enslaving of Native Americans being outlawed by the Spanish crown. The horrors and atrocities leading to the prohibition become clear in the telling.

In his interview, Dr Barnor Hesse shows how the system that produces race is the colonial system, projecting onto the native populations the category of Indian or Negro, the legal, anthropological and finally biological debates that turn all different peoples into objects of investigation, two elements that progress hand in hand - the institutions keeping the colonial system in place and the debates relating to the nature of the populations.

The theories of polygenism, the preoccupations of philosophers like John Locke and others gradually created the black stereotype exploited by the entertainment industry with Shakespeare's Caliban as its earliest personification - predestined and bred to be a slave, animalistic, sexually obsessed and savage. In this way racism becomes the justification of the slave system, backed up by Aristotle's indication that slavery was a natural state, and the legend of Noah's curse on Ham. In the middle of the 18th Century some Christian thinkers began to see slavery as a sin for the first time since the beginnings of Christianity, which had always regarded slavery as part of the natural order, an unfortunate situation.

The Native Americans were not slaves, but colonisation nevertheless left most of them dead or displaced. George III in 1673 attempted to put the brakes on white settlement, a contributing factor to the American Revolution, when the American nation became very unfriendly to Native Americans and began its programmed extermination. But once these had been evicted, they were taken into the white cultural identity like a symbol. Intermarriage was not taboo as was white/black intermarriage, where the one-drop rule applied. The philosophers of the Enlightenment developed views that some people are more equal than others, supporting a white elite amongst the four tiers of race. It was as if the other races were a different species without the right to sign contracts and be a part of society. Philosophy till today whitewashes race out of the view of these humanist enlightened philosophers.

In South America there was a more liberal mixing of populations in intermarriage, far fewer Spaniards or Portuguese emigrating to South America. The US the system of solidarity among whites precluding an active white working class, with the poorest among whites being generally the most racist and the higher echelons of society more integrated, is contrasted to South America, where the upper echelons were more racist, almost purely white and the lower classes integrated.

The tragedy of Sierra Leone, of the marginalisation of Olaudah Equiano, or Gusavus Vassa in favour of William Wilberforce are given as examples of the mind set of white domination and finally the tragic injustices of the Haitian war of Independence in 1781 and its aftermath until today. This revolution was the only one that outlawed slavery and discrimination on the basis of race. The costs to Haiti were enormous, yet it marked the gradual end of slavery, which ended in the British Empire in 1833, in the US with the American Civil War and in South America in 1888. However, the quality of life for the ex-slaves was no different than before, their rights curtailed and their options limited to the same work they had done before. Abolition was by no means an anti-racist movement, but the basis for a greater empire.


Prof Bain Attwood

Dr Jan-Bart Gewald

Pastor Izak Fredricks

John McNab (Kaptein Rehoboth Basters)

Casper W. Erichsen


The episode opens with scenes from death camps depicting victims of the truth behind the "myth of the white man's burden." "Throughout the 19th century European scientists writers and philosophers developed ideas to justify the mass killings of the age of Empire. These same theories went on to inspire some of the horrors and the savagery that would consume Europe in the 20th century." After freeing the slaves, Imperialism developed another vision - to exterminate the dark races.

Examples depicted are the Black War fought. despite all legal constraints, by the settlers, against the Tasmanians, the Koi-San people, who were hunted like animals in South Africa, the Beothuk of Newfoundland and the Pampas Indians of Argentina. The dark races were felt to be beyond civilisation by writers such as Thomas Carlyle, who spoke of the necessity for inequality. Men should rule women, white should rule black and educated people the ignorant.

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Source: en.wikipedia.org
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