Dissing History

George III’s visit to Lord Howe’s flagship following the Glorious 1st of June, 1794, by Henry Perronet Briggs. National Maritime Museum. Photograph: Jennifer Newbold


I was not sure whether I was going to post this.  But I decided that if I’m going to open my mouth, I might as well be thorough about it.  It’s just my opinion, and you don’t have to agree with me. In the Grand Scheme of Things, it probably changes nothing, ever. But we’re allowed our right to have an opinion, although not a right to deprive anyone else of theirs…

As an historian, I have a question to ask. What is with this current trend towards denigrating our ancestors?

I recently attended a memorial service for a friend and colleague, a highly respected eighteenth-century living-history educator. One of the points that was mentioned in his remembrances—more than once—was that Paul spoke for those people from history who could no longer speak for themselves.


I expect that some people would be inclined to say here, ‘Why should anyone need to speak for them? They had their voices when they were alive. It’s time to hear from other voices.’

I wholly support hearing from other voices. But I find it disturbing that we seem to want additionally to silence the voices of the men and women whose accomplishments helped us arrive where we are today.

We accuse our ancestors of exploiting people and resources for their own benefit. But has that changed over the past two centuries? Let’s look at this word ‘exploit’.

The verb ‘exploit’ means ‘to make full use of and derive benefit from a resource.’ We still talk about exploiting untapped markets, audiences, demographics, or technologies. Exploit doesn’t mean enslave, subjugate, or steal from, but that just seems to be our nature.

In a just world, figures from history should be able to speak for themselves. Their deeds, their motivations, their successes and failures, their hopes, and the things that made them despair should live on after their death. This is their legacy. But in the modern world, we now frequently try to ‘spin’ those things to support our own ambitions or perspectives, whether or not that perspective is actually true to the person to which it’s being attributed. I think we all do this to a degree, relatively innocently, but recently we have begun deliberately exploiting historical figures for our own benefit, in the same way that we distort the motivations, words, and actions of modern public figures.

Chevalier D’Eon, National Portrait Gallery, London

Thanks to the inclusivity movement, cultural institutions have been charged with presenting exhibits reflecting more of the experiences of underrepresented populations. Now, at the National Portrait Gallery, you can see art depicting one of the only documented openly transgendered people of the eighteenth century. The Chevalier D’Éon was a fascinating person, and to my knowledge this is the first time they have been featured in a museum display. Sadly, this innovation was somewhat shadowed for me by the insistence of the NPG on identifying every portrait of a subject who owned slaves, or whose family had benefited from the slave trade, as having done so.

I acknowledge that members of families engaged in the slave trade undoubtedly had advantages and opportunities that others may not have had, certainly not the people who had been enslaved. But surely that isn’t the only reason that they achieved something exceptional?

At the National Maritime Museum, in an exhibit designed to appeal to children, an indigenous ‘sea deity’ berates Horatio Nelson about ignoring the plight of sea migrants, a modern issue that has limited relevance to Nelson’s Royal Navy. This might have been more enlightening if the museum had given Nelson something intelligent to say in rebuttal, but whomever wrote the script seemed to think it was imperative that the sea deity win the exchange, and their representation of Nelson merely stammers something fatuous about naval victories.

Score one off the old White guy with the funny-looking hat.

Why is it that in order to elevate the stories of underrepresented people, the curators feel the need to tear down the reputations of figures from history? What are we teaching our children, if what might be a useful dialog is instead an exercise in one-upmanship? Is it necessary to put someone down, or put them ‘in their place’ to engage in debate?

This would presume that we know better than our ancestors did. I think that’s a dangerous presumption to make. Particularly if we are dismissing the lessons that their experience can teach us.

When we make accusations against an historical figure, we must be careful to discern whether the charge is just. That requires looking at both sides of the argument, putting the argument in context—we too often make judgments based on our modern perspectives and sensibilities, not those of the subject’s era—and most importantly, discerning what the subject said about the matter and what his contemporaries said about him. Too often we deprive the subject of his voice… in favour of whatever motivation is driving us.

Slavery is a blight on humanity, and it always has been, as far back as the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Romans. Conquered people were often kept or sold as slaves. It wasn’t right then, and it isn’t right today, and it wasn’t right in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Rather than pointing out that some innocuous gentleman who built a textile industry in… Cumberland… benefitted from the institution of slavery, perhaps we should look more closely at the continued existence of slavery in modern populations. Our current culture seems to make far more noise about historical slavery than about modern people trafficking. We can’t unmake the slaves of the past, but we should be able to prevent any more vulnerable people from becoming slaves, with all the repercussions of having been enslaved. Slavery is an historical fact. It should not have a future.

Additionally, empire was a stage that nations went through. The sixteenth through nineteenth centuries were a race between European nations to see who could snap up the most territory and impose their culture most extensively around the world. Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Portugal, and the Netherlands all engaged in empire-building. And the U.S. followed suit in the nineteenth century with ‘Manifest Destiny’, which was just imperialism under another name. The primary motivation was economic, and it remains so today. We still displace and subjugate indigenous people when expedient; we despoil wildernesses and rainforests for our oil pipelines, cobalt, avocados, and coffee, and the profit that these things promise.

My point is that we haven’t changed much. Shaking a finger at people from the past, which is safe because they can’t defend themselves, is also hypocritical and doesn’t do anything to address the issues of the present.

Like my late friend Paul, I hope I will always speak for our forebears who can no longer speak for themselves.


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