J D Davies

Samuel Pepys versus The Incredible Hulk

Don’t make me angry; you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

Or, alternatively, it is a truth universally acknowledged that those who get outraged by things on Twitter are in need of a life.

Having said that, occasionally one sees something on Twitter which is so staggeringly crass that the metaphorical shirt-ripping (but, of course, never trouser-ripping) green transformation takes place, and any pretence at possessing a life has to be laid aside. Thus it was with something that emerged at the weekend from the normally uncontentious – indeed, generally very useful and informative – Twitter feed of the National Maritime Museum, referring to Samuel Pepys. I quote: ‘How did a a tailor’s son turn a corrupt & inefficient Navy into a powerful fighting force?

Now, to be fair to the person who runs the NMM Twitter feed, this is a direct quote from a page on the museum’s achingly politically correct new website, which itself links to the current exhibition on Pepys and his times – reviewed previously, and generally positively, in this blog. So I’m certainly not shooting the messenger here. But whoever came up with the original message needs to be gently taken down to the shop at the entrance to the exhibition, and shown what’s on the top shelf of the very first case that one sees. It’s quite a big book with a nice colourful cover. It’s called Pepys’s Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89, and it’s by a shy, retiring historian and author whose name currently escapes me. It also contains several hundred pages, based on said author’s thirty years of research and many previous writings on the subject (including an earlier academic book), and on the writings of others who have come independently to exactly the same conclusion, that – as my remarkably un-green reply to the tweet in question put it – ‘He didn’t, and it wasn’t corrupt and inefficient to begin with’.

I certainly don’t intend to prove those points here. For one thing, it would take far too long. I’ve already written a couple of books to prove it (a shiny new paperback edition of Pepys’s Navy will be out this summer) and am currently working on a third, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Navy, due out from Seaforth Publishing in the summer of 2017, which will produce even more evidence to the same effect. Besides, even these days, criticising Samuel Pepys to any degree whatsoever is a bit like shooting Bambi’s mother: there are still plenty of people out there who were brought up on Sir Arthur Bryant, or the various books and websites that essentially maintain the same tired old line, and I’m not going to convert them with one blog post. Come to that, I’m probably not going to convert them with three books, umpteen articles, and goodness knows what else, but one has to try…

No, my point is this. The notion that Pepys ‘saved the navy’, to paraphrase Bryant, is based on books that were published between 40 and 120 years ago, drawing on a narrow range of sources, and shaped by schools of historical interpretation that have long fallen by the wayside. To describe the navy of his time as ‘corrupt and inefficient’ is simply wrong, but it is also attempting to measure an earlier age by modern standards, always a very dangerous thing to do (albeit a very common one, as the various attempts to get apologies for all sorts of actual or alleged historical wrongdoings demonstrate). These days, I’d argue, organisations, media outlets, and so forth, that have a very wide reach – like the BBC, newspapers, national museums, and, yes, schools too – surely have a responsibility to present stories about history that either reflect the best possible consensus of modern scholarship, or, at the very least, don’t recycle dated and discredited myths and theories to new audiences. I recently blogged here about the prevalence and attractiveness of myth in what we might call ‘popular history’, and nowadays, of course, it’s easier than ever to keep such myths alive, to give them a wider audience than ever before, and, indeed, to create entirely new ones, thanks to the seductive openness and seeming credibility of the internet, not to mention the gullibility of some of those who access it. Indeed, one of the most popular sites on the entire Net, Wikipedia, has a deliberate policy of not allowing articles to be based on original, primary research – and while one can see why rigorous failsafes would need to be in place to prevent abuse, the alternative, and thus the current policy, as Wikipedia’s own page explaining it makes explicitly clear, is that articles can only refer to published works, the implication being even if they are known to be wrong, and to other unimpeachably reliable sources such as – wait for it… – ‘mainstream newspapers’.

That’s right, ‘mainstream newspapers’. Like, presumably, the Daily Mail and The Sun.

Sorry, got to go, my shirt seems to be starting to stretch a bit…