It was during my time in primary school, back in the 1950s, that I first learnt about Sir Francis Drake. He was presented, of course, as a â€˜Britishâ€™ hero (despite the fact that â€˜Britainâ€™ didnâ€™t exist as a political entity in his day: â€˜Englishâ€™ – incorporating Wales – would have been a more appropriate description), calmly finishing his game of bowls before heading off to defeat the Armada. I suspect that that rather one-sided view of the man and his role in history remains the perception of most people in the UK, underlining the way in which history often depends on a selective interpretation of events.
He isnâ€™t seen that way in other countries of course. From a Spanish perspective â€˜ (the despicable pirate) is a more commonly used description. Itâ€™s an accurate one as well; he spent many years attacking and plundering Spanish and Portuguese ports and ships, splitting the treasure thus captured with the then Queen of England, even though the countries were not at war at the time. He was what is technically called a â€˜privateerâ€™; a pirate acting under licence from a state, in this case the crown of England. And the stories we hear about him defeating the Armada rarely touch on the causes of it being sent towards these islands in the first place â€“ one of which was the aim of putting a stop to the privateering of Drake and his ilk. The man who British history tells us saved â€˜Englandâ€™ from the Armada was, from a more objective perspective, one of the causes of it being sent here in the first place. He had also been a slave-trader, a fact generally glossed over when considering his role in history.
The point here is that â€˜historyâ€™ isnâ€™t simply an objective list of dates and events; events are selected and interpreted in a context and from a perspective, and the same events can be interpreted in wildly different ways. The same is true for words and language as well.
In the context of Brexit, many of its Anglo-British nationalist supporters talk regularly about the need for the UK to foster a â€˜ But the words â€˜buccaneerâ€™, â€˜corsairâ€™, â€˜privateerâ€™, and â€˜pirateâ€™ are all near synonyms, and when one country talks about becoming â€˜buccaneersâ€™ we should not be at all surprised if others hear the word â€˜piratesâ€™ and suspect that what is being suggested is that the UK should revert to its traditional historical role of breaking all the rules, using underhand methods, and simply helping itself to the property of others. The term â€˜perfidious Albionâ€™ didnâ€™t come into use without considerable justification. Sometimes I suspect that that is actually what the extreme Brexiteers want (especially when they start talking about by which others operate in order to gain advantage) albeit employing a little less violence than did Drake. We really shouldnâ€™t be surprised, though, if others are not exactly greeting the prospect with enthusiasm, let alone rushing to assist the UK in realising this particular ambition.â€™ in the way it faces up to the rest of the world from the position of glorious isolation in which they wish to place us.