Political Correctness in Historical Writing

During my researches for historical writings, one thing I’ve become very aware of is the tendency of modern writers towards what I’d call a euphemistic and politically correct view of other cultures.

When I was writing Deadly Winter, about the life of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, there was an evident desire on the part of many writers to portray him as a culturally ignorant white invader among wise natives. The fact that he was lied to, stolen from and attacked were all played down, excused or ignored. The bias came out in little ways, such as a modern writer relating that a chief of the Copper Indians in Northern Canada had what he described as a ‘servant’, whereas I knew from reading Franklin’s own account (as I’m sure the writer did) it was actually his slave. Very often when Franklin’s men tried to trade with natives, they had things brazenly stolen from them. This kind of thing is always put down to ‘cultural differences’ by modern writers, which is a nonsense. People in all cultures in all times understand what trading means: I’ll give you something if you give me something in return. And they also understand what stealing is – which of course is why it is done with stealth, often followed by flight and concealment

I was reminded of this recently while doing research for an article on Captain Cook. An article on an official New Zealand website describes how he tried to land and was attacked by Maori. It went on to say: The incidents appear, like Tasman’s bloody experience at Murderers Bay (Golden Bay) in 1642, to have been in part the result of Māori efforts to deal with strange newcomers in a traditional way.

Here is a more factual account of Abel Tasman’s first ever encounter with the Maori: “a boat was passing between them [his two ships] when canoes from the shore attacked it without any hesitation, killing four of the crew.” ‘Deal with strange newcomers in a traditional way’? Hmm…

Cook described his experiences of trading with Maori:  They caught at whatever was offered them but would part with nothing but a few feathers; their arms indeed they offered to exchange for ours which they made several attempts to snatch from us… After some time Mr Green in turning himself exposed his hangar [sword], one of them immediately snatched it, set up a cry of exultation and waving it around his head retreated…

It seems to me that the apologists are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand they want to portray all cultures as at least being equal, and often that native cultures are superior to the ignorant European one. On the other hand they expect European explorers to act like wise, magnanimous adults dealing with children: show forbearance when lied to and robbed, realise and accept that they don’t understand we see it as wrong (even though they patently did). That is actually just as patronising an attitude as the ones they are so ready to criticise.


About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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2 Responses to Political Correctness in Historical Writing

  1. chloefb says:

    Hear hear! You should read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. I had to read it for my degree and it’s fascinating. I think you’d really like it. It’s basically a book answering the question, “Why did white Europeans (and their descendants across the world) end up with the powerful weapons, the diseases that wipe out any other population they come into contact with and the best advances in technology?” It’s a very readable style – not patronising but anybody could understand it.

    • Phew, I thought you would tell me off for ranting! But thanks for the recommendation and I’ll definitely look out for it. Spookily enough I had just made a note of a review of Jared Diamond’s new book about what we CAN learn from traditional societies (and I don’t think he means sticking our tongues out at visitors and then slaughtering them).

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