Turning a Blind Eye to History

The Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805, when the British Navy defeated the French Fleet in the service of the Emperor Napoleon, may not quite be over.

The victory was delivered by Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson who commanded the British Fleet.  The great wooden warships on both sides engaged in terrible close quarter battle, 22 French ships were destroyed whilst the British Navy lost none.  This decisive blow destroyed any hopes Napoleon had for a sea invasion of Britain.

Young_NelsonNelson enlisted in the British Navy as a 14-year-old deck hand.  As he was being rowed down river to Portsmouth Naval base, he had sight of the first war ship he’d ever seen.  It was HMS Victory, moored up and moth balled.  Little did he suspect that within just over a decade, it would be under his command.

Nelson was a sea faring natural gaining promotion easily.  He was loved by his crews; regardless of their origins or status he treated them as well as any Skipper in the Navy.   He served across most of the expanding British Empire, protecting its sugar and cotton interests in the Caribbean against the Dutch, French and Portuguese, keeping British trade routes across the world open; often engaging in fierce skirmishes.

Ironically, as he grew in naval stature, Nelson was becoming less of a man himself.  At a battle against the French near Tenerife he lost an arm, at the battle of The Nile, he lost an eye.  In his final battle, off the Spanish Cape of Trafalgar he lost his life.  Admiral Nelson was fatally shot by a French sharpshooter as he stood on the deck of HMS Victory, directing the fighting.

In one early sea engagement Nelson was informed by a subordinate that his Admiral had signalled for him to fall-back.  This was at a crucial moment in the fighting.  Taking the telescope and lifting it to the patch over his missing eye, Nelson remarked “I see no such order”. He pressed onwards and won the engagement.

So, the next time you turn a Blind Eye to something, you are disobeying the Admiral.

At Trafalgar, he sailed HMS Victory into the heart of the French fleet and with 104 guns battlespread over 4 decks, Nelson unleashed a broadside canon attack  with one and a quarter tons of lead balls, which travelling at 70mph, smashed through the 4 inch thick wooden walls of the French ships; releasing a thousand shards of deadly splintered wood into the heart of the enemy crew.  After the captain, the ships’ surgeon was the most important person on these vessels.

But the ship’s surgeon couldn’t save Nelson from his gunshot wound.  He died on the deck of the Victory in the arms of his crew.  Never to witness his triumph over Napoleon’s Navy.

Londres_Trafalgar-Square-min-minNelson was given a state funeral and celebrated with the largest monument in British History at London’s Trafalgar Square.   Not only did he thwart Napoleon’s Naval ambitions, he also set Britain on a century and a half of Naval supremacy – enabling the unstoppable expansion of the British Empire.

Now – here’s why the Battle of Trafalgar might not yet be done with.

A Guardian newspaper journalist, Afua Hirsch, European born of black heritage, wrote a piece suggesting that maybe it was time to remove this statue to Nelson.

As a growing National hero Nelson had a great deal of political influence.  One of his contemporaries was parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who relentlessly pursued the abolition of Britain’s role in the worldwide Slave Trade.  Nelson fought hard to thwart Wilberforce’s ambitions.

In a letter to Parliament Nelson referred to the “damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”  He had an unflinching faith in the British Empire170px-Admiral_Horatio_Nelson,_Nelson's_Column,_Trafalgar_Square,_London as a Christian civilising force and regarded Slavery as an economic necessity ; Cotton and Sugar being an integral part of the Empire’s wealth, relying on Slavery for the production of these commodities.  The Abolitionists, in his view, posed a threat to the stability of the Empire that he would die to defend – which he eventually did.

Afua Hirsch asks if Nelson should continue to be revered when he had promoted views that were so cruel and inhuman and repugnant to us in this age whilst the echoes of slavery are with us today with racial discrimination.   She writes her piece as the “Black Lives Matter” movement was gaining momentum. There are growing voices across the West objecting to effigies of men, who in the past had decimated the lives of so many Africans in the pursuit of Profit and Imperialism.

One such man is Cecil Rhodes, a British a Colonial diamond magnate, a big player in the exploitation of South Africa’s resources and its indigenous population.   He was Prime Minister of the Cape and founded Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today), an Imperialist with a grand Christian vision for the Empire, which generated great wealth for the homeland, and himself.   Unfortunately, he cared nothing for the peoples of Africa.  They weren’t really part of the plan.  They were just another resource, like the diamonds, gold and copper. He was the architect of Apartheid.

Yet whilst he pillaged the resources and people of Africa, he was also an energetic philanthropist pouring much of his considerable wealth into education back home in Europe.   He established the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University, which today, is still turning out Rhodes Scholars across a range of disciplines.    It is regarded as one of the pinnacles of Western Education.  Yet even this lofty enterprise was, until recently, marred by the barring of Black Students and Women.

As an idealist, he felt that if Britain, America and Germany could educate the philosophers of the future – World Peace would surely follow.  But that’s not what rhodesstudents – white or of colour, see when they pass under his statue at Oxford.  There have been unsuccessful sporadic protests demanding his removal.  In an ideal world Rhode’s statue would barely elicit a glance, but it symbolises the continued and ignored inequalities people of colour suffer at Oxford.

In America similar campaigns have spread across the states of the old confederacy where statues to Civil War Southern Generals have been the target of recent protests.   These monuments celebrate famous Confederate figures most notably General Robert E Lee, commander of the Southern Army in the American civil war, that was fought over the establishment of the Union and against the rights of Slave ownership.

The civil war was hugely damaging to the American soul with contemporary politics still reflecting that deep divide.  Quite naturally, the Heroes of that conflict were revered inlee Statues, on both sides.  Much like Nelson, Lincoln was honoured with the largest memorial in the Country.  Every southern town square was adorned with statues of Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson.

Slavery was abolished, but the south retained segregation of the blacks.

In the 1960s money was raised to erect more statues of Robert E Lee (who once stated that the “Negro would never be on the same level as a white man”) in towns across the South.    These statues were not a nostalgic gesture but a backlash against the final push by the civil rights movement to desegregate the South.  They were built to intimidate the Southern Blacks and stood as a statement of white supremacy.

blacklivesForty years later, these largely forgotten edifices became significant in the time of “Black Lives Matter”  Yet again White supremacists would hold rallies beneath them that were met by Civil Rights and black groups protesting the killing of black men by Police forces across America.  At one rally a woman was killed and others injured after a supremacist drove through the opposing crowd.  President Trump refused to condemn the murder remarking that “There was bad on both sides

However, last year a Virginia State Judge ruled that some statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson must remain standing in Charlottesville. He was referring to monuments erected shortly after the end of the Civil War; not those later incantations, many of which have, after a steady campaign, now been removed.

Judge Richard Moore ruled that Virginia state law prohibits removing war memorials and that moving the statues would break that law.  Moore issued a permanent injunction preventing the statues from being removed.

Lawyers for those campaigning for the statues’ removal declared it was wrong to celebrate Generals who had fought to preserve slavery. But Judge Moore argued that the statues themselves did not have such a meaning.

“People give the statues messages,” Moore said to the attorneys. “They speak of history; one we might not like.”    The history we may not like is that “Slavery is America’s Original Sin

This year a monument to Lady Nancy Astor was unveiled on the seafront in the British Naval port of Plymouth.  She was the first woman to take her seat as an MP in the British Parliament in 1919; representing Plymouth & Sutton.

Nancy Astor’s 26 years in Parliament was remarkable not so much for her few achievements (although she brought the legal age of drinking from 14 to 18) but for her ability to alienate her fellow MPs and increasingly the British Public by her controversial views about Nazism, Catholics and Jews.

Her obnoxious views on Jewish people were widely shared in the early 1930s by much of the unthinking British population. She once said that “surely there is something wrong skynews-nancy-astor-parliament_4850268with the Jews that they bring so much scorn upon themselves”.  Sharing the view that there was a “Jewish Problem” in Europe..  One Labour MP referred to her as the “Honourable Member for Berlin”.   By 1945 her parliamentary career was over.

It was Nancy Astor’s breaking of the glass ceiling she is being remembered for in current times.  We’ve turned a blind eye to the darker side of her life.  Much like Mahatma Gandhi, revered across the world as a man of peaceful resistance against the Empire.  Yet as a young lawyer in South Africa, he fought not for racial equality against the white regime but complaining that the Indians there were being treated the same of Africans.  Indian rights, not Human rights.

If she were here today, I doubt Nancy Astor would be an anti-Semite, any more than Nelson would hanker after the days of Slavery?  Gandhi would probably be resisting all oppression.  We excuse these people by saying: They were just a product of their time.  But were they?  Wilberforce and the abolitionists were a product of their time too,

The trouble with the product of their time mantra is that it will excuse today’s oppressors in future history books, when the whole world, at this time, knows better.  It behoves us not to turn a blind eye in this, our time.

When I think of Trafalgar Square it is not of Nelson but as a national “soap box” at the very heart of the old British Empire, where so many campaigns have been fought, leading to some of the freedoms we enjoy today.  It was to this square that the Jarrow Marchers came, the workers in the 1930 General Strike, the miners in the 1980’s and of course the suffragettes.  It was here the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) would assemble and where Rock Against Racism was launched.   Anti-Fascist, pro-choice and Gender recognition rallies are now joined by UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.

There stands Nancy Astor on Plymouth Hoe, looking out across Plymouth Sound, from where Drake watched the Spanish Armada approach, and where the Great Citadel Fort still stands; built as a last stone bastion against a Napoleonic invasion had Nelson’s naval campaign failed.

About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
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