The HMS Birkenhead was one of the first iron bark steamboats built for the Royal Navy of Great Britain; He sailed from Portsmouth in January 1852 for Cape Town, South Africa, with approximately 638 people on board, most of them soldiers. On the night of February 26, 140 kilometers from its destination, the Birkenhead collided with a rock that did not appear on the maps; a huge gash opened into the water and immediately drowned nearly a hundred sailors in their cabins as the ship sank. The ship was hit by the waves again against the rock and split in two. Lieutenant Colonel Seton, in nightwear and saber in hand, ordered the surviving troops to line up on deck as, horrified, they realized that only two of the eight lifeboats were usable. The troops stood in lines, in stoic silence, while women, children and civilians were the first to board the lifeboats. Only 193 people survived; the chivalry of the soldiers gave rise to the well-known protocol of “women and children first” when abandoning a ship that was wrecked. A poem by Rudyard Kipling immortalized the story describing the levels of courage and sacrifice that man is capable of exhibiting in desperate circumstances.
I heard the story of the Birkenhead in a talk by Neil Oliver (Smith Lecture, 2021), entitled The Attack on Our History and Culture, in which he discusses the dangers associated with disinfecting the past, historical revisionism and the tendency to judge legends, stories and heroes of yesteryear with the moral codes in fashion today. I did more research on the history of the Birkenhead and found that the soldiers it was carrying would join the 8th Xhosa War, a conflict between the British Empire and the Xhosa tribes, in the Cape Colony, which took place from 1850 to 1853.
In view of the postmodernist lens with which the conquest of African territories by European empires, as well as the colonization of Mesoamerica by the Spanish, is currently being analyzed, the question arises about how to interpret the history of the Birkenhead. The question is whether the soldiers who embraced death by standing firm on the deck of the ship to save the most vulnerable are still heroes despite being en route to fight in a cruel war of colonization. Yes, they are still heroes and are part of a story that deserves to be told and passed down from one generation to the next.
All cultures have heroes in their mythologies and stories, be it Gilgamesh, Hercules, David, Boewulf or the twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué of the Popol Vuh. Not all heroes in history have necessarily been good, although they have been extraordinary, as Scott LaBarge (2000) points out; the hero broadens the perception of what a human being is capable of achieving. Today it is much more difficult to separate the heroic from the moral, but perhaps there is value in not abandoning your original association with possibility, courage, honor, and the noblest qualities of being. We need heroes because they help define the limits of our aspirations; Ideals are defined by the heroes that are chosen and, to a large extent, people and their social environment are defined by their ideals.
It is too easy to succumb to relativistic cynicism that the hero of some is the villain of others, and it all depends on which side tells the story. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of distinguishing between success and heroism; we need both, without confusing them.