Narratives of Imperialism: alive,well and living on BBC Iplayer By Catherine Hodge

A silver lining of commuting to lectures at UCL from Birmingham is the amount of time I have at my disposal to feed my insatiable documentary habit whilst travelling on public transport. I frequently spend time in the early morning scrolling through Iplayer ( other online multimedia platforms are available) to find and download programmes that might prove to be relevant to my studies, as well as those which are of more general interest. Last week I stumbled across BBC Scotland’s series The Last Explorers. I decided to watch their episode on David Livingstone and, admittedly, went into viewing it with a lecture on outsider representations of Africa and their frequent weaknesses from Kevin MacDonald fresh in my mind.


I will not pretend for one minute to be an expert on Livingstone’s life and work, but, unsurprisingly, this wasn’t my first encounter with probably the most famous missionary/explorer of the pre-‘scramble for Africa’ era. Indeed, during my undergraduate degree I’d spent a great deal of time investigating how this Scotsman had engaged with local medical techniques whilst suffering from various ailments in Southern Africa in the days before antibiotics, and how he had been the first man in the region to offer to pull out rotten teeth and perform minor surgery. This fairly niche image of Livingstone had piqued my interest and I was hoping for a nuanced portrayal from the BBC, which would also take into account Livingstone’s collaboration with his African expedition partners and reluctance to assume the inherent superiority of western knowledge, as well as examining the intentions and implications of missionary endeavour.

Sadly, this was not the case. While I can sort of appreciate the thought-process behind choosing Neil Oliver, a first-time visitor to Africa, to present the programme, one might have hoped that somebody in the production team could have investigated the current thinking surrounding how it is appropriate to speak about the continent, its landscape and, most importantly, its people. Instead, the now long-disputed concept of ‘tribalism’ is called upon throughout the narrative in order to assert the dangerous conditions in which Livingstone found himself when faced with African communities, while Oliver consistently and unreservedly refers to Livingstone’s ‘discovery’ of features, which had previously been encountered ‘only by Africans’. For example, in the same breath with which he marvels at Livingstone’s daring do, Oliver also tells the camera that he was led to Victoria Falls by his African companions, who, in this narrative, have no names. Many historians of 19th century missionary work in Africa over recent decades (e.g. Richard Gray, Adrian Hastings, Patrick Harries) have lamented the lack of records relating to African collaboration and creativity in the missionary encounter, but the programme makes no reference to the erasure of these figures from history, instead choosing to continue a trope which sees them as an easily negligible feature of a hostile landscape, to be negotiated and manipulated by Livingstone. In fact, Livingstone DOES mention the names of Africans who helped him in his missionary and exploratory expeditions in his writings (, but the documentary ignores this completely, while choosing to name many of the Europeans who accompanied Livingstone on his second trip.

The way the programme approaches African people present during the filming of the programme is even more disturbing, with Oliver conducting interviews with white academics in unnamed locations where black Africans who presumably live there are ignored as they stand in the background staring at the camera. When Oliver’s voice-over turns to discussing Livingstone’s commitment to ending the internal slave trade through a programme of ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’, which, he says, failed because “Africa refused to be tamed”, the camera turns to a market-place filled with young African men, again staring wordlessly into the camera.  Only one interview with a black African takes place, when, at the end of the programme, Oliver asks the ‘Chief’ of an, again, unspecified group in Zambia, who are shown during a festival, dancing and wearing masks and head-dresses, what the legacy of Livingstone has been in the area surrounding Victoria Falls. The suggestion in this interview, which takes up less than a minute, is that the work of Livingstone and others like him was what allowed Africans to overcome their own ‘savagery’ and that he is remembered fondly, in contrast to the agents of colonialism, about whom who Oliver is, unsurprisingly, far from complimentary.

At the end of the hour-long show, Oliver states that it is for the best that Livingstone did not live to see ‘The Scramble for Africa’, as he surely would have found it offensive to his sensibilities and entirely at odds with his own projects in Africa. This seems to me to have a disconcertingly political element, with Oliver and BBC Scotland casting Livingstone and other, independent, missionary and explorer figures as beneficent humanitarians with only the best interests of African people at heart, who cannot be seen as complicit in either the slave trade or in what came later. They are distinct from the colonial agents who came later, with their state sponsored oppression and subjugation of the continent. There is, it seems, something about the Scottish outsider, Livingstone, which would clash interminably with the imperial project. However, what Oliver fails to address is the extent to which the paternalistic views he attributes to Livingstone and his European companions about the need for Africa to be enlightened through ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’ fed directly into colonial discourse about the need to bring African peoples into line with the only ‘true civilisation’, that of Western Europe. Oliver constantly points to the landscape in which he is presenting, highlighting its emptiness both now and at Livingstone’s time, detracting consistently and thoroughly from the social structures which existed in Africa long prior to European involvement and failing to mention the troubling idea that introducing ‘Commerce’ often meant introducing forced migration and labour.

The only criticism of Livingstone presented here has nothing to do with his racialized assumptions or his claim on landscapes long populated by others, but on his misrepresentation of the landscape when writing back to the London Missionary Society to tell them about his attempts to ‘penetrate the interior’. This may seem like nit-picking to some, but we must remember that the BBC is, for many, a well-respected institution, which can be trusted to produce accurate and responsible content, and thus is often used in educational settings. The series is, I believe, an attempt to raise the profile of Scottish figures in the history of both the UK and the world and this is certainly laudable, but, in idealising Livingstone and seeking to separate him entirely from the actions of the British colonial state, the BBC has participated in the white-washing of history, which, perhaps now more than ever, we should be challenging, not re-perpetuating. The tag-line to the whole series refers to “men who planted ideas, not flags”, as though ideas might not be as harmful as anything else.

Sadly, the programme is no longer available on Iplayer, but if anyone else gets to see it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Catherine Hodge is a student on the UCL African Studies Masters Programme, taking the Health pathway. Catherine conducted her undergraduate studies in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge and is interested in the ways in which local and international politics impact upon health and well-being in Africa. She has a particular interest in the treatment of populations following national trauma, when narratives of speedy recovery may be politically advantageous to regimes. Catherine is very excited to be able to engage in the inter-disciplinary study of Africa at UCL.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s