I have recently devoted some time to delving into a bit of family history that I have not previously investigated. That has coincided with the 'Black Lives Matter' protests in the US, UK and elsewhere, and the subsequent calls for a reassessment of roles played by historical figures. As statues have been toppled or covered with graffiti, so we have been reminded that some key figures in history had elements in their careers that are little-known today or which were never perhaps fully examined in the past, but which are now viewed as reprehensible.
Thus Winston Churchill, rightly celebrated as Britain’s inspiring leader in the Second World War, had views on Empire that are deeply at variance with today’s political norms. One example was his support, in a War Office Minute of 12th May 1919 cited by historian Sir Martin Gilbert, for the use of poison gas in Mesopotamia (Iraq), when he wrote: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas… I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” In the event, it was never used.
George Washington, one of the highly-respected Founding Fathers of the US, was a slave-owner, as was his wife, although he gave orders that they should be freed upon his death.
In any modern-day assessment of the contributions both Churchill and Washington made to their countries, it is reasonable, I would suggest, to conclude that the positive outweighs the negative, although there is scope for a better understanding of the negative parts.
The reverse is most definitely true of King Leopold of Belgium who, literally, owned the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908, presiding over an administration that was one of the greatest scandals of the colonial era. During that period, it is estimated, at least 5 million people, half of the population, died. Belgium’s King Philippe last week expressed his “deepest regrets” to the Democratic Republic of Congo for that stain upon Belgian, and Congolese, history.
In delving into my own family’s history, I have sought to look for both the positive and negative.
One of my ancestors, my mother’s grandfather, Daniel Bolt, was deeply engaged in the building of Britain’s overseas empire. For over 30 years, he captained sailing ships that travelled between England and Australia, carrying emigrants seeking to build new lives in the Antipodes.
These magnificent clipper ships carried hundreds of passengers. Not all, though, arrived safely. Conditions on the ships, particularly in steerage – below decks – could be horrendous and passengers often died en route.
One clipper under Captain Bolt’s command, the Earl Russell, left the English port of Plymouth in April 1864, arriving at Moreton Bay in Queensland in early August.
A medical inspection carried out after the ship’s arrival found that “a considerable amount of sickness prevailed among the passengers during the passage”. Four children and two others, probably crewmen, died on the voyage, which was a relatively low number. The death toll on many other ships plying the route was much higher, with disease running rampant through the crowded passenger quarters. On another vessel that arrived at Moreton Bay the next year, there were 32 deaths, four adults and 28 children.
Daniel Bolt appears to have been regarded as one of the better captains, both for his seamanship and for his care for his passengers. He was “well and favourably known in Queensland over a long course of years”, according to one document I have unearthed. Indeed, in around 1870, he was appointed by the Queensland Government office in London as Inspector of Immigrant Ships, charged with ensuring not only that conditions on the ships were satisfactory, but also that a qualified surgeon was on board for each voyage.
I have further research yet to undertake – on evidence presented by him to a Queensland Government committee in 1876 on conditions on emigrant ships, for example, as well as a journal he kept on two later voyages.
That further research might show, of course, he had a well-concealed reputation for onboard brutality. Should that emerge, it would allow me to make a more balanced assessment of his career, both its positive and negative aspects. In the event of such negative elements emerging, however, should I feel that I or my children should personally feel some sense of responsibility for such misdeeds?
That, in my view, would be neither appropriate nor necessary.
It is right that light should be shed on historical figures, whether within one’s own family, or at the level of countries and nations.
In today’s woke environment, there would appear to be a belief that historical figures should be singled out for condemnation unless every single aspect of their record is deemed to be acceptable, indeed praiseworthy, by modern-day standards. Certainly, some such figures have clearly been “whitewashed” and would benefit from more scrutiny. The reputations of some others may now be “blackened” because insufficient attention has been paid to generally positive aspects of their careers.
Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that history is full of greys and is rarely simply a matter of black and white.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture