Of course we can judge ‘historical figures’
The nine-year-olds taken as sex slaves by Christopher Columbus were not like ‘this is a great guy’. While they were being raped or beaten and thrown overboard, they certainly knew that these men were bad.
The people being starved to death in Bengal were not like, ‘Winston Churchill, that man deserves a statue. And our food’. While colonizers took away their resources, they certainly knew that these men were cruel.
When people say, “we can’t judge historical figures by the standard of our time’ what they mean is ‘the monsters did not think themselves monstrous”. What they mean is ‘colonized lives don’t matter’. Because these human beings, living at the very same time, certainly knew that these were monsters. I don’t mean in an abstract political-issues-of-the-day sense, I mean in a very real sense of ‘They’re killing me and selling my children’.
These ‘historical figures’ were significantly outnumbered by their dead. They were a tiny minority of their own population. Yet we treat them as if they are the only people in history.
It’s as if we write about serial killers, but only from the perspective of serial killers. It’s as if Godzilla were not a problem because, by the standards of sea monsters, he was just hungry.
It’s easy to forget how greatly outnumbered these assholes were, in their own time. In 1860, around 400,000 Americans enslaved 4 million human beings. A few thousand Europeans colonized millions of people across the world. They laundered this theft by simply rendering the victims subhuman, an injustice we continue to this day.
We talk about historical figures and historical standards as if these millions of people simply did not exist. As if their bodies and standard of remaining in them simply did not matter. They were crushed out of the present and written out of history. Even today, we only consider the perspectives of their oppressors, their abusers, their killers. Never them. But their lives matter.
So when we talk about ‘historical standards’, we must talk about them. The innumerable dead. The uncountable oppressed. Count them each, as a human historical figure with a dignity and story of their own.
You want a statue to Winston Churchill? Fine. Build 3 million statues of the people he starved next to him, each with a face, each with a name, each with a heart.
We were human beings
Think of this simply as a human. How would you have experienced that time? Perhaps you knew that slavery was just happening, the colonialism was just here, but it would have felt awful all the same. We all have bodies and we are capable of experiencing this on a very personal, painful level.
If you had your child ripped away from you and sold, would you shrug and say ‘by historical standards, my baby is just property’? No. The heart of a mother cries out throughout time, and it never heals.
If you were in the Uva Province of Sri Lanka, watching British soldiers murder all the men, slaughter the livestock, and destroy the irrigation systems, would you calmly tell your children “Given our historical milieu, we can’t judge these men”. No. You would be angry. We still are.
These perspectives matter. All of the lives that were silenced by the whip or the noose before, they are silenced by armchair historians today. People talk about a whites only history where only white feelings mattered, and because white people didn’t feel bad, it simply wasn’t bad.
This simply isn’t true. It was bad. The people living it knew.
They were monsters
It’s not just the direct victims of enslavement and colonialism. The ones who felt the injustice through the hand around their neck, the hunger in their bellies, or the breaking of their hearts. Even within their home countries, there were people of consciences who spoke out against the sheer brutality of this age.
Enslaving people or looting was not some common cultural practice, it was corporate, it was organized, and it was directed by a few, especially evil people. Much of the world was colonized by a private companies, answerable only to a board of directors and a royal family.
There was substantial opposition to these injustices. People objected as abolitionists, they resisted as freedom fighters — all of these voices are written out of history as well.
Instead we simply say, by the standard of the monsters, they were not monstrous. By the standard of the thieves, the stuff was theirs. By the standard of the rapists, these were not even human beings. These are people who raped women, raped children, impregnated them, and then sold their own children. Their own flesh and blood. These are the historical standards we talk about. A minority of monsters.
So please don’t talk to me by the ‘standard of the times’. Don’t talk to me about ‘we can’t rewrite history’. We MUST rewrite history, because we’ve left millions upon millions of people out. We have serial killers on pedestals and thousands of bodies under the sea.
These people were not only taken out of humanity, they have been taken out of time. But those lives mattered. Those are the standards we should judge history by. By the standards of the people that lived it. Not by the standards of those that killed.