Officers and Men

Throughout much of history, there has been a divide between officers and enlisted men up to modern day. However, this was especially prevalent in societies with a much more defined class divide than we have today. It’s traditionally known that officers used to be thought of as a more well bred, more “refined” class and the enlisted men as the uncouth and uneducated rabble.  This was the prevalent view during the Napoleonic era. Of course, many officers did not behave as “officers and gentlemen”, and there was a minority of enlisted men who were educated, and also, many could have a “gentlemanly” character but not be born a gentlemen. Mostly though, the stereotype of enlisted men as a more rowdy uneducated rabble was true, as many who enlisted were from the poorer sections of England and some who couldn’t find employment elsewhere or were ordered to serve for crimes. Officers were often from the upper classes with very few being raised from the ranks, like Sharpe was, in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. This broad overview is what many get when researching into the relationship between officers and their men. However, one source described more in detail, some of the more subtle nuances between officers and men.

It’s a fast and easy conclusion that due to the wide divide between officers and men socially as well as in authority, officers looked upon their men with a condescending and snobby manner. Many cite Wellington saying that the common soldier was the “scum of the earth”. True, some officers did abuse their power and treat their men as inferior


“Hmm… Common rabble…”

beings, but one source, Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteenth Century British Army by James A. Shaw argues that most officers viewed their men in a sort of paternalistic, yet kinder view of the men they led. By today’s standards, this view too is somewhat unacceptable for a modern army, as society emphasizes more egalitarianism in class divides, however, for the time period, that view was not cruel, but more caring and fatherly. Other examples noted included comparing the relationship to an aristocratic landlord and his tenants, or how a lower being can succeed under the guidance of it’s master. The relationship was quite unequal, but more one of firm guidance and caring.

“The inbred distrust of the laboring masses by the gentry was inevitably duplicated in the relationship between officers and men. Reenacting the feudalistic framework of conduct between the lord and the serf, the officer’s attitude toward his retainers was basically paternalistic, not cruel. If one’s servants were controlled effectively, wonders could be performed by the constant conditioning of discipline…Thus, the officers’ view of the enlisted man was a blend of wary suspicion, mild interest, and strict control. Their sentiments about the troops were similar to the feelings that they entertained for their horses and dogs. The enlisted man was regarded by his officers as a mechanical device, capable of valiant service under the stern guidance of his master.” (Richard Blanco, “Reform and Wellington’s Post-Waterloo Army,” 128-129)

This view is no longer in favor, and many today would find the comparison to pets and animals highly offensive and classist,  but one must remember it was a different time period with different values. For that time period, that view is much more enlightened and humane than the usual perception of a tyrant abusing his power.

The common soldiers too had the view mostly, that the officers were more well bred for the job. This is where the “gentlemanly mystique” comes in. The view that the officers unlike the men, were born for the role and handled it the best. They were the ones to look up to, yet they were on a pedestal out of reach for the common man to actually become. The “gentlemanly mystique” was mainly guided by character and virtues, but ones that the upper classes possessed. It was argued that the common soldiers were more “rough and tough” and were very hardy, but the officers were truly the brave ones, according to this view. The common soldier, although could do daring feats in battle, had less to lose basically, than the rich, privileged officer who risked throwing it all away lest they die and endured harsh conditions by choice giving up their cushy life on their estates for duty. The common soldier already had little in life. While I think that common soldiers were brave too, as many had to leave their families and did have things that mattered to them to lose in the call of duty, I do find that argument compelling as I’ve never thought of it that way before. The officers are not “braver” due to their station in life alone, but because they had a lot more to lose and a stake in society that the common soldier did not. Many common soldiers were in awe of the officers. This quote sums up this point nicely.

“The characteristic of a gentleman most closely tied to military leadership was the attribute of “magic.” Wilkinson defines magic as “that mysterious aura of different-ness which distinguishes certain leaders and makes them respected for what they are rather than what they do [italics added].” [32] If Wilkinson is correct, then those of lower social status must have bought in to the notion that gentlemen were somehow fundamentally different – better- than themselves, more suited and able to command men. It was faith in this gentlemanly mystique, backed by a harsh disciplinary code, which ensured prompt, unthinking obedience from the common soldier and, combined with the inherent tenacity and bravery of the men in the ranks, contributed to the steadiness of the British line.”


The officer on his pedestal

I think overall this view had many valid points. The officer’s attitude towards their men as paternalistic fits logically in a time period where the aristocracy would govern the lower classes in civilian life and the good ones would view them as faithful servants who could thrive under their guidance. I find it interesting too, that many of the common soldiers acknowledged the need for strict discipline and firm leadership to keep the men in line.  While I am sure though many did have contempt for the officer who thought himself so above them, and was more privileged, other wiser men knew the need for order and discipline. One rifleman, Benjamin Harris put it like this:

22472172_695821543948445_1836868298_o“Indeed, it requires one who has authority on his face, as well as at his back, to make [soldiers] respect and obey him. They see too often, in the instance of sergeant-majors, that command does not suit ignorant and coarse-minded men; and that tyranny is too much used even in the brief authority which they have. A soldier, I am convinced, is driven often to insubordination by being worried by these little-minded men for the veriest trifles, about which the gentleman never thinks of tormenting him. … for our men to be tormented about trifles…is often very injurious to a whole corp.” ( Rifleman Harris P. 67)

Other soldiers described their ideal officers as ones who were firm in command, but also took the effort to truly get to know their men and care for them. I think the relevance of that today is that they did not mention that they worshiped the officer’s authority, but his character and leadership qualities. Authority alone is not enough to gain respect from one’s subordinates, one must also be a strong leader and role model. This is relevant throughout all time periods :)

Here’s the source that describes this in much more detail : Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteenth Century British Army

Posted in Early Modern History, Military | Leave a comment

Helping Make History More Interesting: William Hogarth

Few have heard of William Hogarth, an engraver in 18th century England. He was known for his very detailed pictures of subjects ranging from the usual portraits to most significantly, his satirical drawings and cartoon strips providing commentary on social issues of his day, many of which are timeless and easily relatable to today. He was born in London in 1697 to a lower middle class family. He was apprenticed in engraving where he learned his art work in the many engravings he did. His father was once imprisoned for his debts, so it is theorized that is where Hogarth was exposed to the harsher realities he would later draw. Uniquely too, was that Hogarth intended his works to be mass produced, so the lower classes could also appreciate his works, especially his moral stories. These are some of my favorite of his works:

  1. A Harlot’s Progress


Image result for a harlot's progress

This is what could be considered like a comic strip today. It is composed of six scenes chronologically telling the story of a young girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and ends up in jail and eventually succumbing to STDs at the age of only 23. I like the analysis given about it, as in each picture, there are symbolic details that foreshadow what will happen next as well as explaining the scene more. An example would be the first image of her being lured into prostitution, such as the indifferent clergyman and the toppling pans his horse is tipping foreshadowing her imminent “fall” into disgrace, as well as a dead goose signifying her death. Personally, my favorite image is the jail scene. I like the man in the stocks! Love the caption above him, “Better to work than stand thus”.  I find this work significant as it rings true today as well. Girls are still lured into the sex trade with a promise of a better life, but often end up just like the girl in this story; imprisoned or suffering from poverty and venereal disease. The story’s moral message rings true today, cautioning young women not to fall into that trap and become exploited as the next victim. It also shows the tragedy of those who befall such a sad fate, and the injustice of those who would trap those girls into that life that still is just as significant today as it was then. I am inspired to make a modern retelling of that sad tale.

 2. The Four Stages of Cruelty 

Image result for the four stages of cruelty

Hogarth was known to love animals, and was horrified at the many cruel things people would to to them, such as tormenting dogs and cats, torturing birds, and beating horses. He drew this story to illustrate how cruelty to animals often leads to cruelty towards one’s fellow man and how cruelty in the end is punished. The story depicts “stages” of cruelty, the first being the torturing of animals, then progressing to beating a horse so badly it cannot stand and breaks a leg, to murdering a woman in cold blood. The perpetrator is ultimately hanged then dissected, his cruelty now being turned on him, as a “taste of his own medicine” so to speak. I think this piece is also relevant to today, as many studies show that cruelty to animals is a serious sign of psychopathy and leads to cruelty towards humans too. Also, disappointingly, people still treat animals this way, thinking it’s funny and not caring about the poor creature’s suffering. I can relate to Hogarth’s outrage and wish to stop such injustice. I think he was ahead of his time in is concern for animals, and I find it interesting too, that he wrote himself, it was supposed to be understood by “men of the lowest rank” so to educate them in the errors of their ways. One can see his hurt in his work, as it lacks the more humorous elements of other works. I think he felt it was a somber message to get out there though, one that still must be said today as young people continue to torment innocent creatures.

3. The March of the Guards to Finchley

Image result for the march to finchley

This painting is much lighter in nature than the deep moralizing works listed above, but guardsit does contain it’s share of commentary on indisciplined soldiers! Hogarth wanted to present it to the king who took great offense at his soldiers being mocked! I guess the truth hurts :) I like the exquisite detail of all the soldier’s misbehavior and chaos they attracted, especially with the women ;) Some funny details include a drunk soldier to the far right too drunk to stand, yet refuses water given by a woman in favor of more gin, and two women fighting over a grenadier in the center of the picture! My most favorite detail though: a man in the far left urinating against the tavern “pained by his venereal infection”.



4. The Five Orders of Periwigs

On a much lighter note, many of his works were intended to be quite humorous and satirical! One of my very favorites is called “The Five Orders of Periwigs”. This one makes fun of the ridiculous wigs of the era! I also love that it is an intellectual satire, as it also mocks the 5 orders of classical architecture as well! I also can’t help but laugh at the minute detail he put into “measuring” those wigs also making fun of architectural drawings! By being so analytical with the wigs, he takes making fun of them beyond just saying they’re ridiculous, but doing so at an intellectual level by being overly analytical. It can be a bit heavy to digest for the modern viewer to get the humor at first, but I couldn’t help but look up to and laugh at the burning satire it truly is! Ouch :) …

5. (Bonus) Satire on False Perspective

Just for funsies:)  This picture was used for art students by Hogarth as a study on perspective and what NOT to do! The challenge: Can you spot the errors in artistic perspective in this drawing? Wikipedia spotted 22! :)


I think William Hogarth is quite an interesting artist, and person! His social commentaries ring true today, and his humor is still funny through the ages! I like the poem his friend wrote for his grave:

“Farewell great Painter of Mankind
Who reach’d the noblest point of Art
Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind
And through the Eye correct the Heart.
If Genius fire thee, Reader, stay,
If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear:
If neither move thee, turn away,
For Hogarth’s honour’d dust lies here.” 
Posted in Art and History, Early Modern History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Humor, Opinion Piece | 1 Comment

“Why the Silence?…”

(This is a public service announcement brought to you by History is Interesting :)

Unless you’re outside the US, or are off the grid, you’ve probably heard a constant bombardment of news revolving around subjects such as President Trump, racial tensions, international turmoil, refugee crises, etc… No matter what side you’re on, you’ve also probably observed that many organizations and groups, from schools, media outlets, professional associations, and personal blogs and social media to name a few, have taken a public stance on many of these issues. Many from all sides say something along the lines of, “we cannot stay silent”, or “silence is complacency” or whatever else. Some who did not publish a public stance feel that such heated and polarized topics are either inappropriate to address for their group, or may alienate people, such as potential customers or employers. However, some may wonder why a history blog would not want to comment on such an exciting and tumultuous time in our own history. While I do not shy away from taking sides when backed up with a strong argument and strong evidence, and feel that intellectual freedom should allow people to openly debate issues relevant to them not in fear of “offending” others, I chose not to comment on today’s issues for three reasons:

One, I feel it is actually inappropriate for me to have a stance on these current issues through this blog. While this will certainly be a chapter in our future history books, it’s not history yet! Yes, this is a tumultuous time for the US and much of the nation is polarized on these issues, however, that does not make it history. Sure, you can argue that “history” can span a time of millennia ago, to this past morning. There are singular days so important they are history in themselves, but the key premise I’m getting at here, is history, whatever the time span, is in the past. These events going on now, are going on now. This means to me as a historian, that I can’t have the impartiality that a scholar of history should have when analyzing and critiquing what went on. I’m currently immersed in the situation, not as a detached observer, but as a participant. Now, this does not mean I am being politically active at all, I am not, but I am “participating” by simply being a member of this society and absorbing the attitudes of everyone around me as well as being bombarded by many conflicting accounts of what’s going on. This makes it impossible to get the impartiality I want to address the situation.

This works for all history as well. Primary sources are indeed valuable assets to the historian who wants to get a better picture of what was going on at the time, and bias can be welcomed, as it shows how people of the time perceived what was going on. However, one must always take such accounts with a grain of salt when one wants to research what actually transpired because of their inherent bias. One may get a better picture of what happened in the Civil War by reading something researched by a historian in an academic paper, than in a contemporary northern or southern newspaper, for example. Yes, they do contribute to the bigger picture for sure, but have an inherent bias. If I take a stance now, analyzing what is happening in my current world, I’m creating a primary source, not a scholarly analysis for history. Future historians would like to know what the average American thought of the Trump administration, but my aim is to be the observer, not the studied! Maybe 20 years from now, we could step back from this era and look with a more impartial and level headed eye, but from the looks of it now, that’s not happening any time soon ;)

This is not to say that we can’t make connections from our past to the present, of course we can! History often does repeat itself in patterns and we can compare to an extent, that is, the present with the past, but that’s not what those other sources are doing when they take a stance nowadays. The past does affect the present, and we should all be aware of how it does impact us today, but taking a stance as others are doing does not help that goal either.

Secondly, I am not one for just jumping on the bandwagon just because everyone else is. I actually find many of the organizations that release public statements on either side are being inappropriate by doing so as their aim in general is not directly involved with such issues they’re taking sides on. Schools, for example should be impartial and let students form their own opinions. News organizations should report impartially too. Other organizations just have little or nothing to do with these issues in general. I understand that personal bloggers and social media are more free to have opinions like that, since it’s personal, and everyone does have an opinion! But this is not a personal blog. I have opinions, which I overtly label “opinion pieces” so to not be taken as unalterable fact, but this blog is not about every personal whim I have! I also feel that many of the others listed above take a stance simply because everyone else is without thinking it through. They feel if they don’t, it’s some competition they’re losing out on. It’s not. I don’t like that group think mindset, of everyone else is doing this, so I have to as well. If I feel it’s appropriate to take a stance, then fine, I’m on board, but not without thinking long and hard about how it makes me look. That decision must be mine and mine alone. This is why if you know me, I have never done all those social media memes and Facebook profile pic frames related to different issues.

Lastly, I want people reading this to draw their own conclusions. It’s not for my history blog to take a stance on what is not history yet. This is not a contemporary political blog, or a humanitarian blog, or a social activism blog, but a history blog and should stick to history. I always advocate for critical thinking in all areas of life, past and present, and my views don’t need to be yours. All I ask is you have thought your stance through and have strong arguments and solid evidence to back it up and I can respect that even if we don’t agree. I’m not out to alienate people over unfounded petty squabbles. I want everyone to feel welcome to read my blog and engage with it. There are views where I do take sides, that may sound offensive or threatening, and I’m not afraid to stand firm on them and stand by my reasoning. However, this is not a blog exclusively for one group of people. There are two sides (or more!) to a debate. So my stance will be this one:

Think for yourself!!! 


Posted in Helping Make History More Interesting, Humor, Modern History, Opinion Piece | 1 Comment

Sharpe Series Passes Muster :)

Recently, I discovered this TV series made in the early 90’s about this Napoleonic war era officer named Richard Sharpe. It is based off a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell about an officer who was raised from the ranks of common soldiers, a rare practice at the time as most officers were gentlemen. Sharpe was born in one of the slums of Related imageEngland to a prostitute who died when he was only 3 years old. His father was unknown. He spent his childhood in the workhouse doing things like picking oakum and trained as a chimney sweep. Fearing an early demise from that, he ran away and was taken under the care of another prostitute/bartender and taught how to steal. As a young man, he joined the army to avoid going to prison for killing a man over a local girl. He was promoted to sergeant and then to lieutenant for saving Lord Wellington from three French dragoons. The first episode deals with his first experiences of being an officer. The men don’t like him since he’s not a “proper officer” nor do the snooty other officers from the upper classes. Eventually, he wins the respect of his men who become fiercely loyal to him and of most other officers, save a few.

Sharpe is best known for his valor in combat and his “down to earth” attitude towards his men since he knows what it was like to be in their shoes. He also has more practical combat experience and insights than most of the other officers, who are more 20945466_674582356072364_868283406_obureaucrats than soldiers. I like that about him since he’s assertive and can be firm, but also has a softer side for his men and genuinely cares for their well being. I think he exemplifies what a good leader and authority figure should be like, disciplined and assertive, able to “take the reins”, but also humble and willing to listen to his subordinates and focuses on them and the task at hand, rather than cushioning his own ego and authority.

I find most of the episodes pretty well-written, with several amusing scenes and funny side stories in each episode! I think the character development of most of the characters 20960985_674582696072330_1764369651_ois well rounded with people like Sharpe and Harper being multidimensional. Most of the plots are engaging too, although I have episodes I like more than others, as usual. I particularly like “Sharpe’s Regiment”, where he has to disguise himself as a private soldier again to see why his regiment is being disbanded. It turns out corrupt officers were illegally selling men to other regiments out of greed. Some of the antics in there were funny, as well as an eye opening insight into the abusive training methods used to train the common soldiers. The drill sergeants would handle the men very roughly and scream “Filth!” at them as well as other abuses. The officer, Col. Girdwood was the worst, and was a complete tyrant! It was great to see Sharpe come back as an officer and put Girdwood in his place!

Another favorite episode was “Sharpe’s Eagle” where he had to train this unskilled South Essex Regiment. He retrained them in how to shoot a rifle in my favorite scene! It 20991570_674590679404865_669666745_oshowed how Sharpe was more in tune with his men and actually was willing to teach the men what they didn’t know rather than always resorting to punishment. The other officers thought very low of the men and one said “He is a brute beast in a red coat, he needs the lash!” when another officer objected to a soldier being flogged for collapsing from heat exhaustion on parade. That same man was able to fire 4 shots a minute even after his flogging.  Sharpe had to teach them to fire 3 shots a minute or they all would be flogged! Sharpe is against flogging since he faced the brutality of it as a common soldier.

Individual scenes form other episodes are also favorites of mine, such as sick parade being inspected and a man openly itching his crotch on parade due to the “pox” in 20945465_674582419405691_1322266735_o“Sharpe’s Siege” and Sharpe and his men getting in trouble for playing football together by a superior officer! Another is when Sharpe first meets his men who are all dead asleep and shouting “Get up you lazy bastards!” or meets Fredrickson, an officer of the 60th Rifles in “Sharpe’s Enemy” who has a rough face from prior trauma. I also like the conflict between Sharpe and Lieutenant Ayres, the Provost, in “Sharpe’s Gold” who hangs one of his men for killing a chicken, and is forced to go on a mission with him. Overall, I like Sharpe as a great historical fiction series. I like the authentic period costumes and the battle field tactics and soldier’s everyday lives. I think it’s a great way to get interested in the Napoleonic era!


(More screenshots I took of some of my favorite scenes!)


Posted in Early Modern History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Military, Opinion Piece, Reviews | Leave a comment

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Brings History to Life!

The premise of this movie is that these two kids, Bill and Ted, who are teenage rebels, need to pass their history class in order for Ted not to be sent to military school. Both are not studious and would rather rock n’ roll than study! To pass their history class, they need to present an oral report on how historical figures would think of their town, San Dimas, California. They ask, unsuccessfully, random people in the convenience store historical questions. The days is saved, however, when their future friend Rufus comes with the time machine. Their first stop in time is in 1805 where they meet and kidnap Napoleon Bonaparte himself! Amusingly, the film keeps the language barriers intact :) Related imageThey also go to the old west and meet Billy The Kid, but not before a shootout! Along their way, they also visit Socrates (who speaks Ancient Greek) teaching a class, dodge the inquisition and meet Joan of Arc, and for extra credit, also take Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, and Abraham Lincoln! They tried to take two daughters of king Henry VI, but were unsuccessful and nearly get beheaded! Once back in the modern world, Bill introduces them as “friends” to his mother and she has all of them do household chores before they go out to the mall to experience San Dimas for their assignment.

The historical figures’ cultural clashes come to fruition when in the mall, and create absolute havoc! Among their antics, Genghis Khan goes into a sports store and smashes everything, Beethoven plays on an electric keyboard, Joan of Arc usurps an aerobicsImage result for bill and ted's excellent adventure class, and the others create their own mischief ending in a wild chase by mall security! Napoleon goes out bowling with modern friends, but is ditched and has to be found. Quote humorously he is found at a water park named “Waterloo”. Meanwhile, the police arrested the other historical figures, so Bill and Ted hatch a plan to get them free in time for the presentation. Once freed, they do an excellent presentation and pass! They return the historical figures back, but in a plot twist, they kept two of King Henry VI’s daughters, who initially was thought to have been left behind, who joined their rock band!

Overall, I thought the premise of the movie was very clever and would help get kids into history more! I liked that the movie was lighthearted with some funny action. There weren’t many deep messages or dark themes, but it was still good as it was a comedy movie. Mot importantly, I like how they handled the culture clash between each Related imagehistorical figure’s time period and culture and their peculiarities were unique to them as individuals from different cultures and time periods. I especially loved that they kept the language barriers of the historical figures like Napoleon and Socrates as it made it that much more authentic. It is often overlooked for convenience to the modern viewer, but it takes away a lot of the realism of portraying an out of place historical person! I commend the research and training to portray each of the correct languages! I also like the costumes as they were historical clothing as well as the scenes in the past which were also rendered quite  authentically. My only criticism was how oblivious the rest of the world was to how much those historical people stuck out! I mean really, especially with Napoleon bowling and at the restaurant, no one seemed to notice his odd clothing or the fact he speaks only French! Also, the scene introducing them to Bill’s mom, it’s like she’s never heard of any of them and was completely oblivious that they all stuck out like a sore thumb with their clothes and bogus names (which weren’t too far off from their real ones) and at the police station booking them! All I could think of was “Hello! These are REAL historical figures right in front of you! Really? You didn’t notice?” The premise was hilarious and one of my very favorite things to imagine when I think of my own historical fiction; the culture clash between past and present. I love that more movies are taking on the subject and this one did it splendidly!

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Full Movie!

Posted in Ancient History, Early Modern History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Humor, Middle Ages, Military, Modern History, Renaissance, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Sad Story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman

In the early 1800’s the Dutch occupied South Africa. As future history showed, the Dutch have not treated the indigenous population kindly then and up into the late 20th century. In general, the attitude at that time was very imperialist, and Europeans in general took a condescending and dim view of anyone who wasn’t westernized. This led to some pretty stark ethical breeches by today’s standards and one particular case stands out among the rest:

Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was a native African person in Dutch South Africa belonging to the Khoikhoi people, also known as the “Hottentots”, a name given to them by the Dutch for what they thought their language sounded like. She was exhibited in freak shows as a “savage” for her incredibly large butt! (“Saartjie” is the Dutch diminutive of Sarah, a pet name for her). She was nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus” and exhibited in England and France as well as in South Africa. In South Africa, she lived in Cape Town and worked for a man called Hendrik Cesars. She was a wet nurse for his family and then exhibited by him. In England, controversy ensued as even in the early 1800’s, many were shocked at the dehumanizing spectacle she was put through.

Cesars would keep her in a cage and attach a leash to a collar she wore. He would parade her around like a wild animal with a whip and she was instructed to act like an aggressive animal too. She wore tight fitting translucent clothing to reveal her large butt and “savage” features. At the end of the show, he’d even let the audience touch her butt for extra pay! Many thought the show quite dehumanizing! England abolished slavery not long before she was shown in 1810 (slavery was abolished in 1807), so many did feel it bordered on being slavery. The African Association who were abolitionists took the most offense to the shows she was in and brought it to the English courts! However, the courts decided to drop the case when she testified to participating in the shows of her own free will, which was most likely coerced out of her by Cesars.  In France though, she had an even rougher time, and was essentially a slave there even more than in England. In France scientists studied her to look for evidence of European superiority by judging her large butt and elongated labia as evidence of inferiority to Europeans!

Sarah Baartman died at the young age of 26 in 1815 possibly due to a disease such as syphilis or pneumonia. Some theorize alcoholism as well, but no one did an autopsy to confirm anything despite doing a dissection. Her sexual organs, skeleton and brain were put on exhibit in France until the 1970’s, but her remains were eventually repatriated to South Africa in 2002 after they pressured France. Her legacy today represents the exploitation that when on by Europeans of native peoples who they thought were inferior. There was an interesting movie made about her story in 2010 called ” Vénus Noire” on YouTube that I found quite fascinating!

The film really captures the dehumanizing treatment she endured and the exploitation. She was clearly unhappy and did not like to be paraded around and poked and prodded.  Hendrik Cesars clearly manipulated her by guilt tripping her into performing. I am all for taking things in historical context and not letting our modern values cloud how we see history, but it was hard to watch how he treated her in the performances. I thought he was quite rough with her, and it would have been better if he was more gentle during the shows. He was also very abusive toward her off stage as well. If she were a wild animal, I wouldn’t blame her one bit for being agitated and want to lash out! Cesars shouldn’t even handle a real wild animal, in my opinion! I was surprised though how progressive England was on the matter though, in real life and in the movie. It was nice to see some people try to speak up for her, even though it was to no avail. As for the racially biased scientists in France, we now know they were wrong, but at the time one should keep in mind that was the general view of the day, that physical features could be indicators in intellect and civilized behavior. It was true they helped exploit her, and dehumanize her, but I consider them more a product of their time period than deliberately abusive like Cesars. Overall, her life was tragic and cut too short. She was unhappy and abused by Cesars, and that’s why I’m so saddened by her story, more than the attitudes of the time period.

No one, including me, wants to ever see that side of history repeated in the Western world again, but in some ways, we swung too far the other way. Many anthropologists now have to walk on eggshells to study indigenous peoples due to the gross injustices that were once carried out back then. True, we never want to repeat those injustices again, but now we cannot seem to study indigenous peoples more frankly in fear of being “politically incorrect” and coming to conclusions deemed “insensitive”. I do not find that it was wrong for scientists to want to study her, or her people, but nowadays, we should do it with humility off any pedestal of superiority. The most progressive thing in my opinion for anthropologists to do is to study the culture and behaviors of the people without the judgement and bias of the past scholars. I understand though, too, that the scientists back in Sarah’s time followed the beliefs and conventions of their day, as we do ours. I give them the scholarly courtesy of not adding our own cultural bias in judging their actions, even though they wouldn’t have! Who knows what we are getting wrong? I think Sarah Baartman serves as an example of how NOT to study another people!

More detailed information: Sarah Baartman

Posted in Archaeology and Anthropology, Early Modern History, Opinion Piece, Reviews | 1 Comment

Signs That You Aren’t Actually “Studying” History

This is the first time I have made a post in this exact format, but I hope you enjoy it and become more aware of how to spot unscholarly bias and agendas in sources and your own research into history. I got the idea to create a list from this science blog “Respectful Insolence” which debunks pseudoscience in medicine! Some of the points listed in the original post are quite humorously worded! (Respectful Insolence Original Blog Post ) I hope I do almost as well. I tried my best to mix the silly and the serious :)

You Aren’t Studying History If…

  1. You use a historical event in the distant past that is in no way related to a contemporary situation to push your own political/nationalistic agenda
  2. You in addition to the above, use your own cherry picked conclusions to oppress and persecute people, or conversely, idolize and glorify a group of people
  3. You comb through history and cherry pick events to suit your own propaganda purposes
  4. This would include spinning a romanticized narrative about a country, group of people, religion, political party, etc…
  5. You claim some ancient peoples are your descendants with no historical evidence of any genetic or especially cultural connection to you in order to claim rights to certain places
  6. This also includes whole civilizations!
  7. You spin a historical event and romanticize it to further your social justice campaign without actually researching if the event in question is even relevant to today’s problems
  8. You use past events of discrimination as an excuse to further your special interest group’s agendas that have no relation to the problems faced by your group in the present day
  9. You blatantly lie and create a hoax!
  10. You create fake artifacts to fool museums for profit, which is also an example of #9
  11. You would downplay the prominence of a historical figure who is quote “privileged” in race, gender, sexuality, religion etc… yet play up the contributions of one who is in a minority group who in historical reality, did not have as big a contribution as the more “privileged” one. This includes substituting a woman for a man even if the man did play a bigger role in history as one example, or a person of a minority race, sexuality, religion etc… who did not genuinely match the contributions of a more “privileged” person in history.
  12. You cherry pick which historical tragedies such as wars, genocides, acts of violence, etc… are more important and overlook others because they do not affect your own special interest group applying a double standard without historical basis for one event being more far reaching than the other.
  13. You cherry pick said events because they do or don’t involve your politics
  14. You overlook the bad in historical people to glorify them and your cause or conversely, overlook the good in them to vilify them for your cause
  15. You censor history that you find undesirable and inconvenient to your agenda
  16. You only teach one side of the story but not let others know how the other side felt and why to influence the next generation of scholars to go with your agenda
  17. You “discover” (i.e. plant)  artifacts to use as “evidence” of your fabricated version of history
  18. You discard actual scholarly research in favor of some sensational pop culture explanation ignoring the true significance and complexity of your discovery
  19. You research genuine history, but ascribe value judgments based on your own contemporary cultural values  instead of looking at it through their circumstances and cultural matrix. (We can always make some personal conclusions in our personal opinions based on facts, but it is our personal opinions, not our historical analysis.)
  20. This also includes criticizing how they handled their problems based on the outcome we now know happened through studying history, but they could have not known until after the fact! (After all, even we can’t see our own future, we can only guess in the end and do our best to create the outcome we want…)
  21. You create simplistic stereotypes, good or bad, of historical groups of people to create a romantic image or vilify them because it makes you feel good about yourself or them. (This is similar to # 14 and 15, but applies to more than one individual person).
  22. You think “Ancient Aliens” created every great historical structure :)
  23. You believe every fringe conspiracy theory hook line and sinker! (Including #22 :)
  24. You disregard the great accomplishments of a historical figure due to views you find offensive and outdated to you personally but had no influence on what they achieved for the good of humanity
  25. You use events in the distant past as an excuse for a war and/or an eternal grudge!
  26. You claim “victim hood” because of a historical event that happened generations before you were even born!
  27. In addition, you demand reparations for wrongdoings decades, or even centuries in the past after the conflict has been long concluded and resolved, kind of an “ex post facto”…
  28. Lastly, you do any of the above and claim to study history in a scholarly manner while fully knowing you’re not ;)

Here’s one final challenge: I did my best to keep it general and not allude too much to any specific example, but make general rules. The challenge is, can YOU find one or more real-world examples of each??? Also on one last note, everyone has some bias, even me :) No one will ever be the “perfect scholar” as no one is perfect! The best we can do as historians is to humbly admit when we do have bias, and seek to be more self aware of it. Which brings me to the extra credit part of the challenge: Which rules have you broke yourself?…

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Posted in Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting, Humor, Opinion Piece, Satire | Leave a comment