Yesterday, I considered Afua Hirsch's call for Admiral Horatio Nelson's column to be removed from London's Trafalgar Square.
Today, the world's foremost expert on Napoleonic-era British naval strategy and history, Professor Andrew Lambert of King's College London, offered his thoughts to the Washington Examiner. Lambert explains why Nelson and his command should be revered, not reviled.
Professor Lambert writes:
At first glance Afua Hirsch's opinion piece in the Guardian seemed to be a spoof, but if there is a joke I couldn't find it.
The lazy assumption that Nelson should be cast into oblivion misses the essence of history, the means by which we understand how we arrived at the present. History is not about the past, but about how we explain the contemporary world, and plot a course forward. Taking down statues and removing reality serves no-one. When Nelson spoke in support of the slave trade it was legal, and was widely believed to generate critical skilled manpower for the Royal Navy on which British national security depended.
Nelson, unlike Wilberforce, saved his country from defeat and destruction, his success in that task made him the national hero, and that is why he stands where he does. Had he failed, Napoleon would be in his place. In stark contrast to the creative thinking that shapes the case against Nelson, no man who reached the deck of a British warship remained a slave, and there were many African and Caribbean sailors in Nelson's Navy. They were paid and treated exactly the same as all other men, rated by skill, and paid by rate. There is no tokenism in the presence of black sailors on the Plinth, or the Mural in the House of Lords. Furthermore Nelson was not a "white supremacist", this agenda of hatred and fear emerged in those parts of the United States where the white population felt threatened by larger populations of former slaves, it only emerged after the American Civil War, fifty years after Nelson's death. To accuse him of sharing this ideology is crass in the extreme.
Nelson was the last man to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. He hated the French, who were the enemy, and commanded the most multi-ethnic fighting force on earth. Unlike those Confederate Generals who lost the war, and saw their ideology destroyed in their defeat, Nelson died saving his country, the country that evolved into the one Britons live in today.
Moreover, it may have passed Ms. Hirsch's notice that the Royal Navy destroyed the Atlantic slave trade. Or perhaps such inconvenient information would complicate the delightful simplicity that can be created from profound ignorance? Wilberforce may have secured the passage of the legislation through Parliament, but it was left to the Royal Navy to carry it into effect, which it did at great cost to its officers and men, a significant proportion of whom were of African heritage, in a fifty year-long campaign that has no monument.
The enemies of history are those who destroy inconvenient realities, the better to disguise their own agendas. Statues are easy targets, the French Revolutionaries deliberately destroyed public memory to facilitate ideological reprogramming. The most successful statue smashing revisionists of the modern era are not well-intentioned American liberals but the Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS destroys the inconvenient reality that their views are not shared by all. We are better than that, and intelligent enough to know that the views and actions of men and women who lived two hundred years ago cannot be judged by contemporary standards, only by those of the age in which they lived. The past is a foreign country, in which they do things differently - we will never learn from that experience if we expunge it from the record.
By contrast, Trafalgar Square was built to commemorate the heroism and sacrifice of the Royal Navy that kept Britain secure through the Napoleonic wars, and helped bring peace and stability to a war ravaged Europe. Perhaps Hirsch would have Nelson's mortal remains thrown out of St. Paul's Cathedral, and his flagship, HMS Victory*, reduced to firewood? If we get rid of the past we will have an even harder job than we do at present explaining to people of African, Caribbean, South Asian and other ancestries how they ended up in this small, cold island just beyond Europe. This is Nelson's square, and we are all in Nelson's debt. Had Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars, slavery would have persisted far longer than it did.
Even if we removed every dead white man complicit in slavery or otherwise from public display, that would not remove the Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery from history, only replace one form of intolerance with another, a tyranny that fears the past and thinks it can change what happened two hundred years ago. The real tragedy is that Britain's history is so little understood that such remarks receive editorial approval. This is not the United States, Trafalgar Square is not in Virginia, nor was Nelson alive in 1865. While dead white men are less popular than they once were, we need to be very careful that we judge them according to the standards of their day, not ours, and in our haste to apologize for the sins of our forefathers we do not destroy the things that make us who we are.
Nelson gave his life for his country, along with many more men and a few women, of all races and creeds, in the Royal Navy. He embodied their sacrifice; while the country he helped to secure was the one that abolished the slave trade, a great victory for progress and humanity. Taking him down would rip the heart out British identity, and begin a bonfire of our history that would not end until everything that is different, unique and important had been consumed, leaving nothing but universal platitudes. Changing the past is far more dangerous than understanding it, although it can be rather more time consuming.
* - To this day, HMS Victory remains the flagship of the Royal Navy.