There are lots of modern myths about the past which it’s very easy for us as modern people to buy into. I was thinking about this today because I’ve recently acquired a number of reprints of 18th Century journals, and I keep coming across sentiments which are startlingly at odds with what popular thought believes about 18th Century people.

We’re accustomed to the idea that the past was a different place from the present – that people thought in ways which are at odds with our modern understanding – but I think that our tendency is to make that a value judgement. The people of the past were old fashioned and wrong. They believed things which no progressive modern person would ever believe. They were, in short, not as good as us.

One of the joys of reading original sources, however, is the way that they challenge this assumption. Yes, the past was different from the present, but it was often different in ways we don’t really suspect, and in ways that challenge our casual assumption of modern superiority.

For example, the idea that women in the past were somehow less critical of men; they were passive wallflowers without a thought of their own, in comparison with modern, kickass heroines.

By contrast I just found this opinion in the correspondence of Mary Delany (published as ‘Letters from Georgian Ireland’ edited by Angelique Day)

Dublin 17 January 1731/2

Would it were so, that I went ravaging and slaying all odious men, and that would go near to clear the world of that sort of animal; you know I never had a good opinion of them, and every day my dislike strengthens; some few I will except, but very few, they have so despicable an opinion of women, and treat them by their words and actions so ungenerously and inhumanly. By my manner of inveighing, anybody less acquainted with me than yourself would imagine I had very lately received some very ill usage. No! ’tis my general observation on conversing with them: the minutest indiscretion in a woman (though occasioned by themselves), never fails of being enlarged into a notorious crime; but men are to sin on without limitation or blame; a hard case!

It’s a complaint I hear daily echoed around my Livejournal communities, and so startlingly familiar that I laughed out loud. Who would have thought it – we’ve been complaining about the double standard for over two hundred years. Of course, in the next line she breaks that familiarity by continuing – not the restraint we are under, for that I extremely approve of, but the unreasonable licence tolerated in the men. How amiable, how noble a creature is man when adorned with virtue! But how detestable when loaded with vice!

These days we would rather argue for the right of women to behave with the licence she detests in her men, rather than the duty of men to behave with the self restraint she hopes for in women, but still it’s apparent that our foremothers were not quite as uncritical as they are sometimes supposed to be.

Another myth that doesn’t quite stand up to the evidence of the original sources is the idea that the 18th Century explorers went out with a doctrine of Imperialism and certainty of superiority, intent on dispossessing the peoples they found of their culture and lands.

With hindsight developed from watching the ghastly results of that first contact, we work backwards and assign the original explorers motives and world-views that are quite inaccurate. In doing so – in our haste to make it plain that as modern people we abhor imperialism in any form – we misrepresent the attitudes of the time.

This is Captain Cook exhibiting his feeling of cultural superiority in Tahiti

We refused to except of the Dog as being an animal we had no use for, at which she seem’d a little surprised and told us that it was very good eating and we very soon had an opportunity to find that it was so, for Mr.Banks having bought a basket of fruit in which happened to be the thigh of a Dog ready dress’d, of this several of us taisted and found that it was meat not to be dispised and therefore took Obarea’s dog and had him immidiatly dress’d by some of the Natives in the following manner. (Cook describes cooking in a hole in the ground.) after he had laid here about 4 hours the Oven (for so I must call it) was open’d and the Dog taken out whole and well done, and it was the opinion of every one who taisted of it that they Never eat sweeter meat, we therefore resolved in the future not to despise Dogs flesh.

Cook on the superiority of Christianity to Tahitian religion:

Various were the opinions concerning the Provisions &c laid out about the dead; upon the whole it should seem that these people not only beleive in a Supream being but on a futurue state also, and that this must be meant either as an offering to some Deitie, or for the use of the dead in the other world, but this last is not very probable as there appear’d to be no Priest craft in the thing, for what ever provisions were put there, it appear’d very plain to us that there it remaind untill it consum’d away of it self. It is most likely that we shall see more of this before we leave the Island, but if it is a Religious ceremoney we may not be able to understand it, for the Misteries of most Religions are very dark and not easily understud even by those who profess them.

My emphasis added. Do these sound to you like the opinions of a man certain that he was the spearhead of civilization? I’m not for a moment denying that his arrival in many of the places he visited was the start of a disastrous and appalling period of exploitation and oppression. Nor that the Imperialism and cultural superiority followed, but the myth tends to be that the first explorers arrived with ill intent. When you read the man’s actual thoughts it’s much harder to keep hold of that.

Cook is not what you expect. And he’s not what you expect in a different way from what you might expect, because although many of his entries read with an almost Star Trek ‘strange new worlds’ delight in discovering new things which I for one find easy to empathize with, in many other places he is as archaic and strange as you can imagine. Here’s his entry in the log for a tragedy early in the voyage:

In the morning hove up the Anchor in the Boat and carried it out to the Southward, in heaving the Anchor out of the Boat Mr Weir Masters mate was carried over board by the Buoy-rope and to the bottom with the anchor. Hove up the anchor by the Ship as soon as possible and found his body intangled in the Buoy-rope. Moor’d the ship with the two Bowers in 22 fathom water, the Loo Rock W and the Brazen head E Saild his Majestys ship Rose. The Boats imploy’d carrying the casks ashore for Wine and the caulkers caulking the Ships sides.

As modern people we would expect at least a conventional expression of emotion here, but there is none.

To sum up; the past is strange, but it’s strange in ways that we don’t expect. If it’s possible at all to find original sources there is no substitute for them in correcting the assumptions we take for granted as modern people. In many respects, once we start to hear the genuine voices of people from the past it becomes much clearer that we aren’t superior to them; that we, like them, are subject to our own culture’s prejudices. Original sources – there’s nothing like them for broadening the mind and the sympathies. (And in Cook’s case, also the spelling. I’m going to have such trouble not writing clowdy and intangled in future!)