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Fifth Column

Goldsmiths University wants to topple the men who saved England

Thanks to Francis Drake and other heroes, England in 1588 was saved from the fate of Portugal eight years earlier. A Spanish fleet sent to the River Tagus was a key part of the successful invasion that brought Philip II of Spain to the throne of Portugal. Increasingly onerous, Spanish rule lasted until 1640 and it took a revolution and a 28 year War of Independence to free Portugal, a conflict in which the English provided important assistance.

In 1588, England was faced with a similar threat, one made worse by Portugal’s navy now being at the disposal of Philip. Crucially for English history, and thus for that of the world, the Spanish Armada was beaten.

So Drake is an obvious figure for Goldsmiths University to consider statue toppling from one of its buildings, alongside such apparently clearcut villains as Horatio Nelson and Robert Blake, two other naval heroes.

Circa 1585, Francis Drake (1540-1596). English admiral, first English sailor to reach the Pacific Ocean 1572, circumnavigated the globe 1577-80, preyed successfully on Spanish shipping, under Howard commanded in the defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588, died in the West (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Drake of course is problematic by modern standards. He was part of the attempt led by John Hawkins to break into Portugal’s trade with West Africa, and the profitable slave trade between there and the Spanish New World, an attempt ended by Spanish naval attack in 1568. The English, in fact, had scant advantage from this trade. Indeed, in the reign of Elizabeth I, the English commitment to the slave trade was far less than it was to be from the mid-seventeenth century.

Under Elizabeth, most English voyages to West Africa were for pepper, hides, wax and ivory, and in search of gold rather than slaves. No English fort was built in West Africa in  this period. There was no English equivalent on the coast to the Moroccan march across the Sahara, followed by victory over the Songhay empire at Tondibi in 1591, and a Moroccan presence around Timbuktu that greatly strengthened the long-established trans-Saharan slave trade.

Perhaps we should integrate Afghan refugees by encouraging them to hate the Britain of the past

But we can extenuate Drake all we like. Point out that the slave trade was well-developed within Africa already, and that African rulers who seized and sold slaves do not attract the criticism focused on Western Europeans who bought them, while large-scale Arab purchasing is largely forgotten.

It makes no difference. There is an almost compulsive hatred of this country and its history, one that totally lacks understanding and context. These are of course the minority of student and academic rent-a-mobbers who seem to have nothing better to do with their time, but the real fault is that of university administrators and their equivalents in museums and other institutions who prefer to stoke and appease the furore rather than dealing with the harder, incremental, tasks of improving teaching standards, fostering useful research, and enhancing student employability. Much easier of course to say that a university is racist, to declare that every month ought to be black history month, and to push universities toward Orwellian (and expensive) diversity training.

If Churchill, Drake, Nelson and Blake could be sent to such training they would not be able to plead that they saved the country and fought for its freedom and interests, because that would count for nought in the current climate. At best they would be “explained” in plaques that are tendentious and ridden by a set of values of the present, moreover the values of a minority. How long would such a plaque have to be to explain properly a complex figure such as Drake, as well as his context? And who is to do the explaining and whose sensitivities need massaging?

Moreover, what would be left with if the statues that are worth keeping up are only those of figures who can be defended in full from accusations of doing bad things in the past and causing offence in the present? Presumably all who made statements in favour of religion, or against it, would have to go, as well as the supporters of any particular creed. Everyone prior to the early twentieth century is out because women were not treated like men. And so on.

Drake was long a lodestar of English manliness, a reproach to weakness toward Spain in the eighteenth century

This is not some reduction to absurdity but the logic of the shredding of the past to meet the demands of the present. It is doubly ironic given the present emphasis on trying to integrate Afghan refugees. Are they to be encouraged, indeed taught, to hate the Britain of the past in some bizarre way to fit them in with a Britain of the future?

Drake had flaws. The major ones were not his involvement in the slave trade, which was actually only a minor part of his career, but, instead, some of his failures after the Armada, notably in not forcing the forts guarding the entrance to Lisbon in 1589, and in his unsuccessful Caribbean expedition in 1595-6.

But, alongside this came great triumphs: the formidable seamanship of his circumnavigation of the world, his successful attack on the Spanish naval base at Cadiz in 1587, an attack that disrupted the Armada preparations, and his major role in the defeat of the latter.

Drake was long a lodestar of English manliness, a reproach to weakness toward Spain in the eighteenth century, the subject of one of George Alfred Henty’s successful adventure stories, Under Drake’s Flag (1883), and the basis of “Drake’s Drum,” the most popular work in Admirals All and Other Verses (1897), Henry Newbolt’s highly patriotic and very successful collection of verse, a promise of timeless success, subsequently set to music by Charles Stanford in Songs of the Sea.

The challenge today is how best to explain the achievements of our past and the values of the freedoms that were established and defended. The diatribes of hatred descending on past figures achieve nothing in this respect, and deserve neither attention nor approval.

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