History doesn’t always have to be written by the victors

On 5th March 1770 outside the customs house on King’s Street, Boston, Private Hugh White was talking to some off-duty comrades when a passing Bostonian made a crack about the British soldier’s commanding officer – prompting Pvt White to clock the civilian across the side of the head. The off-duty soldiers made themselves scarce, leaving the private to deal with the fast-growing ring of angry Bostonians that soon surrounded him. White backed up against the custom house door – gun raised out of fear of what might happen next. The growing crowd heckled him, daring him to shoot.

Up the street, Captain Preston, commander of the custom house garrison, watched events unfold. The Captain was hoping that the situation would resolve itself naturally but soon the church bells started tolling and more men, many armed with clubs, started showing up and Preston knew it was high-time that he went to get his man. He led a corporal and six privates through the crowd, now numbering 300-400 strong, towards Private White but rather than just pulling the soldier out from the situation he ordered his men to form a semi-circle around him while facing the crowd, guns unfortunately loaded.

A tense 15-minute stand-off ensued that involved the crowd throwing insults and snowballs at the British soldiers. One of those snowballs, inevitably hit the face of the private at the end of the line. He fell to the ground, probably more from slipping on the ice than from the impact of the projectile, but soon jumped back to his feet he fired his gun.

While reports conflict on how long the pause followed the first shot, soon the jumpy soldiers were firing into the crowd. 11 men were hit; five ultimately dying, the rest injured. While a full regiment’s worth of soldiers were on hand to secure the peace, the crowd continued to grow and was only dispersed once a full inquiry into the incident was promised. The next morning, Captain Preston and his men were arrested.

In the months that followed a fierce debate arose in the press as both radicals and conservatives fought to control the story. Were these ‘innocent boys ruthlessly gunned down by the cruel lobster-backs’ (as the British soldiers were commonly known) or were they ‘brave soldiers defending their comrade and themselves against vile hooligans who had been spoiling for a fight’? It was in these months that silversmith Paul Revere produced his famous plate of the incident, showing a line of stone-faced, disciplined troops firing into an unsuspecting crowd. His piece, titled ‘The Bloody Massacre’, did much to influence public opinion across the British Colonies in North America and began to portray the British soldiers as nothing more than part of an occupying army and in time, became cemented in the creation myth of the United States of America.

While the Boston Massacre (as it has come to be known for perpetuity) was a tragic event, it was by no means a massacre in the defined sense. What is more important was how the incident was used to create and drive a narrative of events that were accepted as fact rather than opinion, and which allowed those who wanted to shape the story of the past for their own benefits to do so unchallenged.

This point is even more important today, and we must be careful not to accept the narratives others use without protest or our arguments (and future debate) will be shaped by those narratives. We need to start challenging phrases like ‘Liberal Elites’, ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Remoaners’, ‘Will of the People’ and ‘Enemies of the State’ or they will begin to shape the narrative of current events and shape every future debate. Let’s not let them become cemented in the creation myth of Brexit Britain. History does not have to be written by the victors.

* Alex Hegenbarth is the Lib Dem PPC for the Tewkesbury constituency

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Good job they didn’t have Trident – that really would have been more than a massacre…..

    Though more recently the last practice fire started to head off towards the US by mistake.

    “History does not have to be written by the victors”…….. it usually is though.

  • Sure it was by mistake David 🙂

  • Gordon Lishman 6th Mar '17 - 10:09am

    I suggest that we appropriate “take back control”. Although we mean real control, arising from real engagement with difficult choices, not just occasional populist plebiscites.

  • I am sure President Trump would have tweeted that it is all Obamas fault

  • Steve Trevethan 7th Mar '17 - 9:57am

    Most interesting!
    Paul Revere was a brilliant PR practitioner.
    PR and news/fake news management are essential tools for starting and maintaining most if not all wars, armed conflicts and relevant profits and share prices.
    There is at least a prima facie case that the “Bosnian” war was avoidable and engineered to weaken the power and independence of Europe. The PR firm Ruder Finn “did a masterful job at manipulating the propaganda war in Washington and the West.”
    There is a similar case to be made about the “West’s” attacks on selected parts of Arabia which cause so many wretched and ruined refugees to come to Europe. This “weaponisation” of suffering also appears to weaken Europe’s independence and power and to strengthen the US empire.
    These significantly likely alternative interpretations of history and “news” are not evident in the many communications we receive from the Mainstream Media, the Government and the major political political parties.
    Are we allowing ourselves to be manipulated?

  • Simon Banks 8th Mar '17 - 8:53am

    There is no kind of case that the Bosnian war was “engineered”. The US in particular was extremely reluctant to resort to military action to stop massacres. It may be Karadzic and pals had encouragement from Russia, or even indirectly from extremist Muslim groups, but they really needed no encouragement.

    Yes, History is written by the victors – initially. But the whole point of History is to reassess the dominant narrative. German historians reassess the postwar Allied dismissal of IWW German atrocity stories. Irish historians question their national narrative about Cromwell or Easter 1916. And no matter how far back, it happens: read Mary Beard’s “SPQR” for her reassessment of the Catiline conspiracy in ancient Rome, or of Cicero, or of reportedly good or bad Roman emperors (if one was assassinated, he was almost always thereafter depicted as exceptionally bad – that’s until assassination became the norm).

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