Making digital history: The Dragon and the Eagle

By Colin Thomas

Putting history on television can be a hugely frustrating business. One history professor I worked with found it so frustrating that on one occasion he flung his notes down in front of the cameraman and stamped on them.

I could sympathise. In one television series we were cramming three hundred years into twenty-five minutes, no time for qualification or even to provide much evidence. On one occasion I managed to persuade Channel Four that a series needed to be backed up with document packs, four of them altogether each with a set of what historians call ‘primary sources’ but that was unprecedented then and would never happen now. And the Professor also had to cope with the additional aggravation of television’s demand for pictures, especially difficult to respond to on events pre1895, before access to archive film.

Professor Gwyn Williams died in 1995 but how excited he would have been by the possibilities opened up by digital publishing and the enhanced ebook. In “The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr” it is still possible to introduce each chapter with a video vividly summarising the argument of the chapter but then to back up that argument with footnoted text. And, where appropriate, to include interactive maps too, maps that trace the routes taken by different religious groups in their attempts to flee from persecution.

Children's Choir 1904

For the subject matter of the enhanced ebook that Thud Media and I have just published is Welsh emigration to America. We like to think that it tells a bigger story in microcosm, for Welsh migrants had to cope with the dilemma faced by all migrants everywhere – how to become good citizens of your new country whilst also holding on to your language, your culture and your values.

The experience of one man exemplifies that dilemma. Cadwalader Morgan was a Quaker farmer who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1690s and found himself short of labour at harvest time. Seeking advice from his mainly Quaker neighbours, he is told “Buy a slave.” Horrified by the idea, he writes a troubled letter to the Society of Friends in Philadelphia and, in an enhanced ebook, it is possible not only to put that letter on the screen but also to hear it read aloud -“I am in perplexity concerning it…- for readers who struggle with Cadwalader’s handwriting.

Then, in the video sections, a visual comparison can be made between the transatlantic crossing of the Quaker emigrants and that of the slaves who were still working for them at the end of the seventeenth century. Backed up the interactive maps, “The Dragon and the Eagle” can then go on to describe in its text sections the way in which the unease of men like Cadwalader Morgan eventually persuaded Quakers to become the driving force behind the ending of slavery in America.

Working for fifty years in television has made me very aware of its limitations, the broad-brush strokes it requires often conceal as much as they reveal. The emergence of the ‘enhanced ebook’ seems to me to suggest a way of retaining television’s benefits – the ability to make history accessible through vivid visuals – whilst more than compensating for its limitations.

You can download the ebook from the app store (Apple or Android £6.99).