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OP-ED: Present perspectives on the past

  • Published at 07:26 pm March 1st, 2021
Winston Churchill statue in Minneapolis, London, Britain

Should historical figures be judged through today’s lenses?

Last week I received an email from my old alma mater Goldsmith College, University of London. It informed me that the college has now established what it calls a “Race Justice Strategy Board.” As part of its brief, the board will be discussing a building that it acquired during the 1990s; Deptford Town Hall. 

Now, you may wonder, as did I, why a body concerned with racial justice should be interested in an old building. Well, it seems that it is not the Town Hall itself that is causing them consternation but three of the four statues that adorn its exterior.

Deptford, in south London, has had a centuries-long connection with the British Navy. It is therefore not surprising that the architects of this municipal edifice, which opened in 1905, would somehow wish to celebrate that connection. 

Which is precisely what they did when they erected four statues on the facade depicting various naval figures: Sir Francis Drake; Robert Blake; Horatio Nelson, and a “representative” but unnamed depiction of an early twentieth century naval officer. The latter -- so far -- has escaped scrutiny and controversy. The other three have not and have faced demands that they be torn down. 

Francis Drake (c.1540 - 1596) was an English seafarer, adventurer, privateer, and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. During the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, he was second-in-command of the English fleet. His greatest achievement however, was his circumnavigation of the globe in a single expedition between 1577 and 1580.

So, a great English naval hero fully worthy of a statue then? Not so it seems. According to Goldsmiths, Drake was a “pioneer” of the slave trade who took at least three journeys to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them in the Caribbean.

Robert Blake, now surely there is a man we can all admire and be proud of. Blake (1598 - 1657), another seafarer, is credited with almost single-handedly founding the Royal Navy, which allowed it to become the pre-eminent naval force in the world, well into the early years of the twentieth century. Not for nothing has he been called the “Father of the Royal Navy.” 

But it seems that Blake too had a murky connection with the slave trade. Apparently, he was also responsible for the transportation of enslaved people from Africa to the West Indies and of establishing the plantation system in the Caribbean.

Finally, the last of the three offending sailors, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1805). Now Nelson must be one of the good guys? The hero of the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar, whose memory will be forever enshrined in street names and pubs the length and breadth of the country.

Why, there is even a statue of him atop a 170 foot (52m) column in the centre of London and Trafalgar Square is one of our best-known tourist destinations. But it seems Nelson also had a darker side. Goldsmiths informs me that some of his close friends in the Caribbean were slave owners and that he was even known to argue against the abolition of slavery. 

All of my childhood heroes now turn out to be damaged goods. Is it alright for me to even admit that they were heroes of mine or that I was in Drake Class at primary school and in Nelson Class at high school?

This sort of debate has been taking place all over Britain and the rest of the world in the last few years. Previously unimpeachable historical figures have been found, at best, to have some dubious opinions by today’s standards or, at worst, direct links to the slave trade. 

Even modern individuals are being blamed for the actions of their long dead ancestors in this regard. The British Library recently compiled a list of 300 individuals with “evidence of connections to slavery, profits from slavery, or from colonialism.” 

Included on that list was the poet Ted Hughes (1930 -1998). Hughes’s “crime” was that he was distantly related to one Nicholas Ferrar who was born in 1592 and whose family, the Library claimed, was “deeply involved” with the London Virginia Company whose central role was to colonize North America. Quite how closely related those compiling the list thought Hughes was to Farrar is questionable, given that the latter died childless in 1637. 

The British Library has since apologized unreservedly to Hughes’s widow, but the case illustrates how ridiculous this latest historical revisionism has become. Dig deep enough and it is possible to find something unpleasant about any figure from the past. 

Winston Churchill? Well, he opposed Indian independence didn’t he? Racist! Pull all of the statues of him down and forget what he achieved during World War II. William Shakespeare? Read The Taming of the Shrew and tell me he is not a sexist. Ban his plays from the stage and from school. Better still, burn them all! Charles Dickens? Wasn’t he beastly to his wife? Banish him from every bookshop and library in the country. Abuser! Misogynist! 

Go back 20 or 100, never mind 400 years, and you will discover that people had views that many of us today would find unacceptable. That’s in the nature of history -- things change, people change, attitudes change. We may not like what people back then said or did. It may be that, judged by modern standards, many of their beliefs and attitudes are abhorrent to us. 

But that is the crux of the issue; if we judge the past by modern standards then almost every person, every action, every interaction will seem wrong. As the great novelist L P Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

Kit Fenwick is a historian and freelance writer.

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