Hidden Histories: Empire and Emotion

Both in the world of academia and in popular representations in the public domain, the history of emotions and the British empire has generally received a paltry amount of attention. This stark lack of coverage on empire and emotion, furthermore, is compounded when narrowing the research margins to my own dissertation on the emotional newspaper coverage of the Amritsar Massacre, 1919. 

Nevertheless, there are a plethora of readily available documentaries, books, films and podcasts on the history and contemporary legacies of British colonialism in a wider sense. For example, the Amritsar Massacre is depicted in films and documentaries. One popular representation of this can be seen in the 1982 feature film Gandhi, in which there is an accurate depiction of the massacre ordered by General Dyer. In this particular scene, many of the factual details of the massacre in the film remain intact, such as Dyer’s order to shoot the crowd, the fact that armoured cars could not fit through the narrow entryway to the Jallianwala Bagh, the presence of women, children and elderly people and, indeed, the exact number of ammunition fired. However, the film omits that soldiers shot for a period of ten minutes, and that additional troops were stationed around the walls of the Bagh which enclosed the crowd of peaceful protestors. Therein lies the problem of popularising history, namely, sacrificing the analytical nuance and historical facts of academic history for, perhaps, the entertainment value and consumablity of popular history. My proposal is centred on tackling this very problem, and it is my aim, therefore, to bridge the chasm between academic and popular history. 

Firstly, my project endeavours to create a documentary mini-series for the BBC focused on exploring and presenting the incidents of emotion during the British empire in a meaningful, engaging and innovative way. Titled as ‘Hidden Histories: Empire and Emotion’, each series would consist of three 8–10-minute episodes. Episode one would introduce the topic with a walk-through of a UK city and would use its connections to British colonialism, through statues, architecture, or a museum exhibit etc., as the talking point from which to delve into a captivating story of the ‘hidden histories’ of Britain. Episode two would explore the primary sources such as newspaper articles focusing on emotional language, and episode three would link the past to a contemporary issue or legacy of imperialism/colonialism.

In terms of applying this structure to my research into the emotional newspaper narratives of the Amritsar Massacre, episode one could begin with panoramic film clip of Caxton Hall, Westminster the former East India Association and the Central Asian Society pictured here. This building holds significance and relevance because it is the place where Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab who approved of General Dyer’s action in Amritsar took place, was assassinated in 1940. Here, the main questions that will be explored are O’Dwyer’s approval of General Dyer’s order to shoot into the crowd of protestors and how many newspapers at the time repeat a similar rhetoric and response. 

This would, therefore, transition smoothly into the second video which would explore British newspaper articles on the massacre during 1919-1924 located on Gale Primary Sources. These would be presented on-screen in a narrated montage highlighting the emotional language used to abscond both the colonial regime and General Dyer of culpability for the deaths and injuries resulting from the massacre. Below is a cross-section example of some of the newspaper articles that would feature in the video. 

Newspaper clippings taken from Gale Primary Sources from left to right.

Furthermore, this will then be related back to my research which is based upon William Reddy’s theory of  ‘emotives’ which states that the process of outwardly expressing emotions, otherwise known as emotional utterances, can be located in speech and language. This would be a great way to present emotional history to the public through an engaging example that can be applied to almost any historical and cultural context. 

Having already explored the historical context in episode one, and a series of primary sources in episode two, this would set up episode three to look at the contemporary legacies of the Amritsar Massacre, the British newspaper narratives of such and the pervasive nature of emotions in global power matrices. This could entail looking at press narratives in contemporary society and the use of emotion with, for example, Russian propaganda aimed at diminishing the the war launched on Ukraine to a series of military training campaigns. 

In terms of pitching the proposal to an organisation, the BBC seems to be the best fit. Firstly, the BBC has a large public platform and a social media presence which holds a healthy amount of dissemination power in reaching a public audience. In addition to having over 1.9 million followers on Twitter and 4.2 million on Instagram, the BBC has also been involved in creating and presenting British colonial history in documentaries, radio shows, and REELs (short video clips). Recent examples are BBC iPLAYER’s documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History, the BBC 4 show, The British Empire’s Legacy, and a BBC REEL titled The Toxic Legacy of Britain’s Empire

Where my project builds upon these and stands out lies both in the content and the execution. For example, a documentary mini-series is highly innovative as it caters to an audience with an increasing desire for expedient and engaging information. This is evidenced by the rise of TikTok, a platform which allows users to post edited clips containing short bursts of video fragments. I have, however, chosen not to use TikTok to disseminate my documentary mini-series for two reasons. Firstly, the very nature of TikTok posts, as alluded to above, runs the risk of significantly simplifying the history in order to suit the platform. Secondly, although TikTok as a platform is one of the most popular social media platforms at the moment, in terms of the sustainability and longevity, TikTok may not be the best for the project in the long run. Therefore, the BBC’s Iplayer as well as the Instagram, Twitter and Youtube accounts seem the best option. 

The proposed audience for the series is 14-18-year-olds. Between these ages most students will already study GCSE history and from 16-18, although some will study A-Level history, this number will be much less. Furthermore, although the National Curriculum omits large sections of British colonial history and its contemporary legacies, this age group have a expressed a desire for these things to be incorporated into the curriculum and look for outlets to learn about these things in a supplementary way to their own A-Level studies. Especially since the Black Lives Matter movement, young people in this age bracket have expressed their desire for this, for example in many petitions and protests. Therefore, my proposal will address this desire and also cater especially to this audience. 

In terms of marketing the mini-series to 14-18-year-olds, the BBC’s extensive social media portfolio would be vital to reaching this audience through Instagram stories and Twitter posts. In addition to this, sponsored posts across the BBC’s social media would also boost exposure and help reach a wider audience. Furthermore, a tease trailer could be released comprising snippets taken from the mini-series to entice the audience. As elucidated above, although the mini-series would not be available to watch in full on TikTok, the platform itself could be used to advertise the series and provide links to the full videos. Therefore, the majority of marketing would be free as the platforms are readily available. The only costs to consider here would be in creating a tease trailer and sponsored posts. 

In addition to these marketing costs, there are other cost considerations to be made. In terms of the wider budget, the wages for a lead videographer, an assistant videographer, a producer and an editor need to be considered. Although previous BBC drone footage can be used, there will need to be some film taken in new locations. Therefore, these costs as well as travel expenses are necessary to factor in. Another main cost, however, is the renumeration payment for the presenter for three days of filming. In terms of approaching someone to be presenter, David Olusoga, or another renowned historian in the public eye would be desireable. The costs and contingency budget are featured below, the total of which has been calculated through consulting ProductionBase, a website dedicated to making sure that freelancers are paid the industry standard. 

The main challenge to be considered is securing the presenter for the mini-series. However, as David Olusoga has presented several documentaries on colonial history and the legacies of slavery on British society, it is feasible that he would be interested in this project. Other potential presenters could include Satham Sangera. Perhaps as plan B, a young person within the projected audience age group could present the mini-series. 

Finally, in terms of the impact and legacy of this project, there are a plethora of ways to ensure the longevity of the series. For example, a review phase of 6 months up a year can be included in which feedback or criticism can be applied to future additional episodes. The impact of this series, however, would rest upon the idea that it would boost young people’s critical thinking skills and potentially pressure the government to include this kind of history into the National Curriculum. 

Published by calebhowie

History Student at The University of Liverpool

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