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How the National Maritime Museum is trying to decolonise Lord Nelson

David Abulafia Getty
History Reclaimed
Written by History Reclaimed

David Abulafia pours scorn on the attempt by the National Maritime Museum to undermine the achievements and reputation of Britain’s greatest maritime commander.

History Reclaimed is grateful to The Spectator for permission to republish this article

I spent Christmas in Turin, with its superb and often neglected museums that are a particular delight because they are uncontaminated by preaching about the evils of European colonialism. It is not that I have no moral perspective on how the creators of empire across four millennia have acted towards their subjects. But the use of objects in museums to tell a distorted picture in the interests of supposed Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, infused with Critical Race Theory, is a betrayal of what museums are supposed to do.

Museums are not political tools, as the Museums Association, with its rants against racism and colonialism, seems to think. Racism is indeed a great evil. But it is essential to look at the past through the eyes of those who lived then, realising that they operated according to different ideas about the world which, unsettling as that might be, legitimated behaviour we would deplore if it were exercised today.

A madness has been infecting our leading museums in recent months. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge put together a ‘Black Atlantic’ exhibition that brought together items connected one way or another with the slave trade. Ignoring all other explanations, the captions maintained that the reason a famous prize was offered by the Royal Society to whoever could work out how to measure longitude was that the crews of slave ships needed greater accuracy when navigating their way across the Atlantic. Now the Royal Academy of Arts is launching its own display about colonialism, imperialism and slavery.

The National Maritime Museum has been gravitating in the same direction for the last few years. This is sad because it is one of the most popular museums in London, and attracts large numbers of foreign tourists, who must be bewildered by the persistent attempts to politicise the way we look at Britain’s past. Lord Nelson and his contemporaries have been particular targets of initiatives that aim to demote them from their pedestals.

A new sculpture has been installed to set the record straight. A ‘Sea Deity’ has been cast in bronze, designed by Eve Shepherd with the help of local children and the charity Action for Refugees Lewisham. The artist has moulded a beautiful face in a traditional, almost neo-classical, way, but we are expected to see the Deity as non-binary – hence the gender-neutral term Deity. The children who helped the artist design her work of art were, like the boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, more inclined to tell the truth: when they saw the finished work, they named the lovely deity Olympia, having decided that she is female.

The aim is to involve what the Maritime Museum loves to call its ‘stakeholders’, a term that potentially embraces pretty well the whole of humanity but seems to focus on the people who live in and around Greenwich. It is an ethnically mixed area and the ‘Sea Deity’ is also supposed to be of uncertain ethnicity. Shepherd says: ‘Look around the National Maritime Museum, in fact, just thinking about it, any national museum within the UK, and there will be an overabundance of busts and painted portraits depicting white, upper-class men. That is why I accepted this groundbreaking challenge thrown down in the once dusty museum halls of colonial power.’

When you press a button, the Deity enters into a debate with a bust of Lord Nelson, with his ‘fancy medals and uniform’, to whom a whole gallery is dedicated in the museum. The fact is that Nelson was not of aristocratic origins but was the son of a Norfolk country parson from my Cambridge college – rather respectable middle-class than upper-class by the standards of the time. Admiral Troubridge was the son of a baker. If anything, the Royal Navy of its day was a meritocracy where one had to prove one’s worth, which was surely a major reason for its remarkable success against its less socially mobile rivals.

The Deity’s complaint seems to be that historians of maritime power forget about those who toiled in the rigging, eating salt pork and dry ship’s biscuit crawling with weevils, while the officers wined and dined in state in the stern quarters. Shepherd believes that ‘this group has been so silenced and underrepresented by history’ that her sculpture needed to capture the identity of all those in the maritime sphere who did not exercise power. This is odd, because British naval historians have been looking at the life of the common sailor for at least a century. From my schooldays, I possess an old and worthy Pelican history of the Royal Navy by a late professor at Greenwich Naval College, Michael Lewis, who did precisely that. Somehow, though, Shepherd incorporates into her definition of the silent and oppressed today’s refugees arriving by boat on Britain’s shores.

Quite what this has to do with Horatio Nelson is a mystery. If it is a reference to migrants crossing the Channel, it is only fair to point out that inflatable rafts were not an option in around 1800. So this is yet another attempt to infuse a museum display with contemporary political concerns that do much more to distort the past than to explain it.
The National Maritime Museum already lays so much emphasis on the undoubted evils of the Atlantic slave trade that there has been no room in the Atlantic gallery for a proper explanation of how England acquired control of Jamaica and Barbados, nor of how indentured labour gave way to the use of slave labour.

Children are invited to record their reaction to what they see. Some will be the descendants of those slaves. They are entitled to mourn the misery of their ancestors, but they do need to know that the study of history is not about emotionally taking sides. They will be far better prepared for the challenges of modern life if they are not deluded by the cult of eternal victimhood that is being preached by the proponents of bogus demands for ‘equity’.

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