No more heroes anymore? Behind every pioneer there is a human story to share
 

Behind every pioneer story – from ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ to Winston Churchill – different interpretations of history have always been told.

At any point in time, the narrative around a historic event can change as society changes, sometimes re-shaping how we view our heroes and the lasting impression they left on the world.

Dr Harry Bennett, the University’s Associate Professor in History, explores how Plymouth's BA (Hons) History course opens a window into the past, while honouring people’s stories through the power of place and memories.

Whether taking a walk through our city's naval history with his dog Buster, remembering Plymouth-born explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic adventure, or elaborating on one of his favourite extracurricular passions in sporting history, Harry’s commitment to bringing people's stories to life bubbles with an infectious passion.

  • The University's longest-serving historian
  • All-round friendly guy
  • Keeper of Buster, 'the history dog'

 

Dr Harry Bennett

Give me the Romans. Long ships. Vikings with swords and helmets

Give me the 19th century. Inventions. Developments in medicine, changing people's lives. The fight for the right to vote. The 20th century. Two world wars. Globalisation and massive change. You name it, I’m interested in it.

I've always had a passion for all types of history, because it is about who we are. History is about where we are. It's about the city, our environment. It’s everything that can help condition the future.

I've taught history at Plymouth since 1992 and I am now the longest established member of the subject team.

Give me a piece of history and I’m going to look at that and go, ‘wow that’s amazing’. Put me down anywhere on the planet and there’s going to be fascinating history hard not to get enthused about.

History to me is a guiding force to where we are now and where we are going in the future – let alone the intrinsic interest in the past.

Growing up, my father was a Second World War veteran and there were still large numbers of First World War veterans around. We talked to them about their experiences and got a real sense of who these guys were. About what war was like and how the experience changed them and their view of the world.

Having this personal connection to this history was a tremendous privilege. And now that I am more than halfway to being a hundred years old, my life encapsulates a fair bit of history in its own right. I've gained a real sense of who I am, where I am and where things are going.

<p>Black and white retro image Battle of Britain WW2 airplanes<br>Black and white retro image of Lancaster bombers from Battle of Britain in World War Two<br></p>
<p>War weary WWII soldier during a retrospective moment<br></p>
<p>Brodie helmet on a beach<br></p>
 

Plymouth’s history is the history of the world

Plymouth is known as the ocean city. From Plymouth we can get to almost anywhere in the world. Oceans are highways that do not contain people, yet can unite us. Oceans are a place of work, a place of scientific discovery. A set of ecosystems.

Looking at Plymouth's local history is fascinating, but when we look at the city's history more widely, we see how it intersects with so many different places around the world.

From the Spanish Armada in the 1500s, to sailing in the Mayflower in 1620. From Sir Francis Drake beginning to explore the 'New World' in the 1500s, to the scientific expeditions that set sail in the 18th and 19th century to explore and understand the modern world. Plymouth’s history really is the history of the world. 

Plymouth doesn’t just sit here in a tight little ball, it intersects with so many histories. The history of Japan and China. The Pacific. Antarctica.

Inspired by our city's diverse past, we teach an incredible range of topics. From 1500 to the present day, we study history across the globe, looking at developments in societies, science and technology, gender, and politics, to name just a few.

At Plymouth, we’re a team. A family that creates a supportive atmosphere for our students, who we see as the next generation. Sooner or later, I will need replacing and our aim is for our students to do just that.

We take you literally to the coalface of history, to the point where you are the next generation. By the end of your three years of study, you will be dealing with subjects where you are the expert. You are going to be telling me things I don't know and that is exactly what we want to see.

<p>Statue to Sir Francis Drake on Plymouth Hoe, Devon England UK.<br></p>
<p>Vintage engraving from 1875 showing English ships under the command of Sir Francis Drake attacking Spanish treasure ship.<br></p>
<p>View of the Hoe and tinside</p>
 

Two sides of 'Scott of the Antarctic'

When we study history, we have to recognise there is always a human story behind the text book. If we look at any number of pioneers, we will find there were often downsides to their achievements. 

Marie Curie died because of a result of what she was doing in terms of scientific experimentation. And Plymouth-born explorer, Robert Falcon Scott is effectively in this same bracket. As historians we have to accept that different versions of events can be true.

‘Scott of the Antarctic’ is one of Plymouth’s most famous sons. Born in 1868, Scott was a British Royal Navy officer and explorer who led two expeditions to the Antarctic: the Discovery expedition of 1901–1904 and the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910–1913. The beautiful Scott memorial now stands at Mount Wise to commemorate Scott’s untimely death in 1912. 

What Scott did was really encapsulate a pioneering sensibility. He was one of a minority who were going to the farthest reaches of the planet, trying to get to grips with unexplored territories and understand it from scientific and military points of view. 

Scott considered it to be his patriotic duty to push the boundaries of science and understanding, devoting himself to the polar exploration and unfortunately dying in the process.


No more heroes?

Many view Scott as a hero and a true pioneer. While some have since viewed him as a man who was ill-organised and displayed faulty judgement – Scott and his companions perished 150 miles from their base camp and 11 miles from the next depot. Effectively with historical revisionism, we have to accept both sides of this story are true.

But to be a pioneer it usually involves some form of risk, which inherently can bring tragedy into the hero story. Antarctica is still one of the few areas of the world where human beings haven't permanently settled. Scott was a real pioneer in being one of the first to try and live and understand that environment. Simply the sheer human endeavour of trying to explore this icy continent which people hadn't really done before, is fascinating.

If we look at another Antarctic explorer in Ernest Shackleton, ultimately what he did, and what the history books state, was to bring everybody back in the midst of adversity, unlike Scott. But it's unfair to compare two individuals in quite this way. We have to recognise the achievements and the instincts of both. Scott certainly has his place in history, so does Shackleton.

To quote The Stranglers' lyric ‘no more heroes anymore’, the problem is when we approach any history we have to accept there is a popular history, there is myth-making, and then there are the realities which lie somewhere in-between.

We can choose any individual, whether it's Scott or Winston Churchill, and find plus points and negatives. While at the time we might seek to remember only the good things, within history as a professional discipline, it’s warts and all. 

If we only focus on their good points, we are only telling half the story. When we focus on the negatives as well, achievements become so much greater. The fact you can be a pioneer and still have personal problems, you can still have things that don't go right and be a hero, shows a real honesty.

<p>Postcard commemorating explorer Robert Falcon Scott.<br></p>
<p>Map of Antarctica</p>
<p>

Postcard commemorating explorer Robert Falcon Scott.<br></p>
 

Honouring their story

One of the most precious things about human beings is the memories we all hold. The things we've seen. The things we've heard. It's about the emotions we have felt.

If we look at something like the Scott Memorial at Mount Wise Park in Devonport, the beauty of it encapsulates Scott's story. The memorial is 37 feet high, with figures representing 'courage', supported by 'devotion' and crowned by 'immortality'.

The memorial gives us a very keen sense of the people that lost Scott, the people to whom Scott was a factor in their lives – his wife, his son and the people who knew him as a professional military officer. When we visit a memorial like this, we can begin to feel the love and the pride that links the creation of it to the events it commemorates.

All the conversations I have with people who were eyewitnesses to events which happened a long time ago – from survivors of the Plymouth Blitz, to those who survived the Portland Square air raid shelter disaster, now a key part of the University campus – can make the world a better place. A problem with history is we lose it all the time. History passes away.


Retelling their story

I can remember being a 14-year-old kid, talking to a veteran about my great uncle who was killed in the First World War. They were in the same regiment and this chap, then in his 70s, had tears streaming down his face as he talked about the war and the mates he lost who had decades of their lives robbed from them. 

I can see, I can hear, I can still feel the emotion in that frail man, stood wearing a flat cap and long coat. That little old man troubled by the faces of his friends he went to school with, but who never came back from the war. 

If I can get people to feel through me that pain, you understand the First World War in much more detail than through almost any other kind of academic experience.

If I can do that, then perhaps I’m getting people to think in certain ways which can be beneficial to the future of humanity.

<p>The Scott Memorial at Mount Wise Park, Devonport. <br></p>
<p>Lights of rememberance.<br></p>
Veteran Medals
 

Making history come alive

Part of my job is to keep history alive, so that people's stories get told. When I went to the Holocaust Memorial Day on campus, there were various exhibits from Yad Vashem, which is Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Among the pieces was something about a young woman called Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger. 

Selma was a poet who was incarcerated in a slave labour camp in Mikhaylovka in the former Soviet Union, when she was still in her teens. I saw this piece of history and was able to show the event organiser a photograph of the grave of the man who oversaw the work project in which Selma became a Jewish slave labourer in 1942, before passing away through infectious disease at 18. I have tracked down the grave of this man who was never brought to justice. He died in 1974 and was buried in Burgdorf, near Hanover.

An image of Selma was created by Arnold Daghani, one of the other slave labourers from the same camp – one of only two survivors, when he escaped with his wife. Daghani was an artist who spent most of the post-war period haunted by the memories of that time. Every morning he would create a new piece of art inspired by the memories of war playing out in his nightmares from the evening before.

I am able to say I have stood over Selma’s grave, in a forest clearing in the Ukraine. I have talked to the old men who were boys at the time and witnessed the Jews arriving, what the Nazis did, and indeed in some cases, the executions which those Nazis carried out. 

Selma is just not a name in a book, on a piece of paper. Standing over her grave, it makes a past which may seem very distant much more immediately realisable.

I want to live.
I want to laugh and give comfort,
fight battles, love and hate,
hold heaven in my hand,
be free to breathe and shout:
I don't want to die. No!
No.

— Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, 'A poem' (July 7, 1941)

<p>Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger<br></p>
<p>A forest clearing which contains the mass graves holding the body of Selma&nbsp;Meerbaum-Eisinger 

 and the other Jewish slaves of the Mikhailowka camp.<br></p>
<p>Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger by&nbsp;Arnold Daghani.<br></p>
 

History doesn't repeat, but it can echo

Although I spend a lot of time looking back at the past, in the future I would like to see a more peaceful, sustainable world.

The way in which we review the success of something can be tricky, because history can often be in a state of flux. At any moment a certain incident can occur which affects the way a story can be recorded.

I teach a module on America, the United Nations (UN) and international relations, all the way from 1945 to whatever President Trump or other world leader decides to do next. There is no boundary in history. 

When analysing a subject like the United Nations, if some world leader one day makes a particularly catastrophic decision, then our whole understanding behind the history of the UN gets reformulated. It was set-up to prevent a third world war, but if a terrible event occurs, one single decision can be the making or the breaking of the UN.

To offer a contrast, if we are able to move towards a more sustainable world in which issues including climate change and human rights are improved, that our respect for each other, the environment and the planet is united, then we are able to look back upon the history of the UN since 1945 in a very positive light. Some of the things we touch upon are all the time being negotiated with the present. 

It just shows how we think about the past, how we think about the present, and how we think about the future, are so intimately interconnected.


Never give up

My personal message to the world is actually an echo of a slogan by the wrestler John Cena: 'never give up'. Never give up believing in those around you. Never give up trying to make the world a better place. Never give up, like Robert Falcon Scott, in trying to push the boundaries, to understand, to help others. To really drive knowledge and make the world a better place

Borrowing the mantra of the United States Marine Corps, we 'improvise, adapt, overcome'. If it works for them, it works for me. That’s what we do. We find a way to solve a problem.

This is exactly the same mentality that every pioneer throughout history has endeavoured to try to live by.

It is our jobs as historians to celebrate, to commiserate, to unpack and decode these stories, so that they live on through future generations. This is the essence of what we do here at Plymouth.

 

Experience it. Learn it. Make it. History at Plymouth

So, what comes next? It’s often said the best way to see the future is to understand the past. History at Plymouth helps you do just that, while gaining the professional skills needed throughout your career. 

Explore five centuries of human history, encounter political intrigue, cultural transformation, war, sex and revolution across the globe. Graduate with the problem-solving and analytical abilities that will give you the edge in the world of work.

Study history at Plymouth

Whatever happened to
All of the heroes?
All the Shakespearoes?
They watched their Rome burn
Whatever happened to the heroes?

— The Stranglers, 'No More Heroes' (1977)