Simon Schama: ‘Do you think I’d be allowed to write that book now?’

As his new book on pandemics is published, the UK’s best-known historian tells Matthew Reisz that identity politics is inhibiting history, nationalism only intensifies during global crises, and a refusal to communicate history to the public amounts to mere ‘connoisseurship of the dead’

May 25, 2023
Simon Schama portrait as described in the article
Source: David Levenson

Simon Schama is a historian who exudes scholarly authority in his many books and television programmes, across a dizzying range of topics. But even he admits that he is venturing into bold new territory in his latest book, Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations.

“I have absolutely colossal impostor syndrome!” he confesses cheerfully. “Does it rob me of sleep sometimes? Yes.” He was pleased, however, to have been able to get help from his wife, geneticist Virginia Papaioannou, who checked the detail of his page-turning stories of death, disease and scientific discovery.

Yet finding out about new things is simply what the 78-year-old Schama does. Much of the appeal of studying history, as he sees it, lies in “reaching out to understand the cultures of people who are not like you”.

Even as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, he explored a good deal of Indian history and nearly specialised in the field. Indeed, two episodes of his landmark television series, A History of Britain, the 15-part BBC saga that made him a household name in the early 2000s, focused on the rise and fall of the British Empire, with India at its heart. The professor of history and art history at Columbia University has also worked, published and broadcast on Dutch, French, Jewish, American and art history. He is, therefore, “rather fiercely worried about history as an identity-affirmation project. I don’t hate it, but it’s not for me. What I do hate is a kind of ban on someone writing about a culture which isn’t his or her own because they’re accused of some sort of cultural appropriation.”

 Simon Schama in Edinburgh filming his programme as described in the article
Ian Bremner/bbc archives

His Columbia colleagues Eric Foner and Ira Katznelson, he points out, are clearly not African American but are still regarded as “absolute colossi and role models” for their work on black history and race. When he published Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution in 2005 (and presented a television programme of the same name two years later), he was “completely gripped by the story” and it “never crossed [his] mind” that his ethnic background “could be a problem. It never crossed my publisher’s mind.”

Nonetheless, he cannot help asking, “Do you think I’d be allowed to write that book now?”

So what are Schama’s core beliefs about the value of history and the role of the historian?

Some interesting answers emerge from a 2009 “forum” in the American Historical Review devoted to A History of Britain, originally broadcast from 2000 to 2002 and still available to stream on the BBC, in which experts in different eras offered some fairly mild criticisms – to which Schama robustly responded. Making the programmes, he said, had been “every bit as exacting as any more conventionally scholarly project”. He had no time at all for the notion that “somehow, popular and scholarly history are mutually depleting” and instead insisted that “without an abiding sense that we can work to make the past live for the public, we will doom ourselves to an intellectual graveyard: that of the connoisseurship of the dead”.

In television, he added, “story must come first, the handmaid and condition of analytical debate, not the other way about…Story is the thread that connects our scholarly work with the listening, reading public, and we break it at our peril.” This did not mean “dumbing down” or excluding serious analysis, however. “The Body of the Queen”, an episode devoted to the conflict between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote Schama, could be enjoyed simply as “an astounding dynastic drama” (something he did not “see any need to apologise for”). But it also drew on and made accessible important scholarly work about “the politics of gender” and “the reproductive biology of sovereignty”.

The same basic argument, Schama tells Times Higher Education, applies as much to books as to television programmes. He was trained in – and still totally committed to – the belief that “you can do very hardcore analytical, scholarly writing and at the same time produce powerful narrative writing for the public”.

Among his own books, Schama’s “chronicle of the French Revolution”, Citizens, was notable for using dozens of striking and often harrowing individual stories to build up a broader picture and analysis. The result was widely acclaimed by right-wingers, he reflects, but was sometimes perceived as “more worried about violence as an integral part of what the revolution delivered than was thought to be respectable from a liberal or centrist historian in the bicentennial year [1989]. I remember giving a talk at a conference where I was interrupted by a rousing chorus of La Marseillaise.

Very much an enthusiast by temperament, Schama has no difficulty citing books by many historians that combine deep scholarship with gripping storytelling. Is he concerned about today’s career incentives pushing younger historians towards publishing articles in prestigious journals, often on small-scale themes, and therefore away from ambitious books that might attract a wide readership?

Although he acknowledges the challenges, he believes they are not insurmountable. He mentions a former student, Beverly Gage, who attended one of his narrative non-fiction classes and “wrote an amazing paper on a sort of bombing that happened on Wall Street just after the First World War”. She has now gone on to become professor of history and American studies at Yale University and has recently produced a “superb, much-acclaimed” book titled G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.

More generally, Schama, who was knighted for his services to history in 2018, is convinced that the engagement of historians with the wider public is flourishing, particularly in the US – because it has to. There is simply no way they can avoid “all the turmoil that race politics still generates or the grotesque abuse of history by someone like Donald Trump”, argues Schama. Equally dangerous is “the casual invocation of the Founding Fathers”, which, according to Schama, allows some right-wing pundits to “not worry about the bitter paradox [caused by] America’s founding original sin”. Namely, “that those who talked about freedom were slave owners themselves”. Many historians had been “constructive and helpful” in challenging such national myths.

Given the range of his work, does Schama see any underlying themes that led him over the past 45 years all the way from 18th-century Dutch history to bacteriology?

He has long been preoccupied, he replies, with what he calls the issue of “allegiance to the mystery that is nation”. For his parents’ generation, “though it sounds odd now, it was completely unproblematic that they were passionately British and passionately Jewish. I would go to synagogue with my father on Saturday, and on Sunday he would read Dickens out loud to us – they were both rituals for him.” He also remembers his history teacher at school announcing to the class: “Well, boys, we don’t know what the rest of the 20th century holds, but this we know for sure, organised religion and the nation state are dead as dodos.”

As prophecies go, this one proved spectacularly wrong. The nation state and indeed nationalism are still very much with us. When the pandemic struck, Schama was working on a book about “the culture of nationalism” titled The Return of the Tribes, touching on “the idea of national music, landscape painting, the abuse of history, the creation of myths”. When Covid emerged, however, he fondly hoped that “if there’s one moment when clearly national self-interest has got to yield to shared self-interest, it’s in a pandemic, with the hope that someone will develop vaccines. That’s how much of a chump I was!”

It did not take him long to be “disabused of that notion. In extremis, national interest will in fact be paramount, rather than yield to an intelligent sense of the necessity of collaboration,” says Schama.

It was this that led him to abandon The Return of the Tribes, at least temporarily, and embark on Foreign Bodies (Simon & Schuster), published on 25 May. It is partly animated by real anger at the way bacteriologists and epidemiologists, particularly in the US, were often derided during the pandemic as “an alien elite, the microbe and the scientist in cahoots against homespun wisdom”. A particular target was Anthony Fauci, the former chief medical adviser to the president, who was “demonised” by conservative media, "framing him not just as a ‘fraud’ but as a personification of the ‘medical deep state’”, as one Fox News presenter put it.

Spurred on by these current concerns, Schama began to look at the history of international collaboration in dealing with infectious diseases. He explored the foundation of the World Health Organization in 1948 and the series of international sanitation conferences that had preceded it. Voltaire proved to have been an eloquent advocate for vaccination, and another crucial figure was Adrien Proust, the doctor father of the novelist Marcel Proust.

But the undoubted hero of Foreign Bodies is someone Schama had never heard of before he began his research: the bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930).

Haffkine was a Russian Jew who got involved in radical politics in Odessa but later went to study at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He developed vaccines against both cholera and bubonic plague and was employed by the British government, in a kind of freelance capacity, in India.

“He was an enormous person,” reflects Schama. “He wasn’t an enormous personality: he was shy and reticent and slightly neurotic. But he’s a person of absolutely immense magnitude for the field that he’s in.”

Bubonic plague hit India in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, when great efforts were being made to proclaim the benefits of British rule. By June 1902, Haffkine had delivered more than 2 million doses of his vaccine to Indians and 200,000 more to Africa and 110,000 to Mauritius. A further 3 million doses were produced over roughly the next year – a feat that Foreign Bodies describes as “an astonishing and unprecedented achievement”.

This should be a wholly uplifting story about the triumph of science in relieving suffering, but unfortunately – just as in the recent pandemic – small-mindedness, politics and racial stereotyping soon intervened. The standard British response to the plague was what Schama calls a “martial disinfection campaign”, which involved “tearing down houses, segregating families, putting people in camps and dousing them in carbolic soap”. This caused so much suffering that it led to the first wave of mass strikes and demonstrations that would eventually bring an end to British rule in India.

It was also completely ineffective. Haffkine was the man, explains Schama, who “has the authority to say: ‘It makes absolutely no difference. If you would bother to understand and read the microbiology, you’ll understand that if you move people out of one place, the rats, the fleas and so the plague will simply follow.’ He offered a new way of seeing how you take on dangerous infectious diseases – and he paid the price. People didn’t really want to hear that.”

After a vaccination campaign in the Punjab village of Malkowal, 19 people died of tetanus poisoning. Although it later emerged that this was almost certainly the result of a pair of forceps being dropped and not properly sterilised, the British government needed a scapegoat – and Haffkine perfectly fitted the bill. “In the empire of gentlemen,” as Schama’s book puts it, “it was evident that…Haffkine was still thought of as a foreign body.”

It proved to be all too convenient that he was “a Frenchified Russian Jew with, it was said, a shady revolutionary past”. Blaming him was the ideal way of distracting attention from the huge failures of the British Raj, not least in providing medical care to its Indian subjects.

The past few years, Schama points out, have made painfully clear that the battle to combat diseases is “never disconnected with politics”. Foreign Bodies includes many other depressing examples. But it also celebrates several little-known but heroic figures. Haffkine in particular should haunt us with a sense that “in the face of calamity and the wilful obtuseness of the powerful, there is only so much he can do, but do it nonetheless he must…”

There are many reasons to be grateful for historians who have the talent to “make the past live” for non-specialists. Resurrecting people who can challenge our current complacencies is one of them.

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