The History section of ‘The Bubble’ recently ran a writing competition, asking entrants to describe, in 300–400 words, why an underappreciated figure from history should be given greater attention than they are afforded by society at present.
The competition was won by Harry Cross, who chose Thomas Sankara as his underappreciated historical hero, while Antonia Goddard and Hannah Griffiths were joint runners-up for their pieces on Flora MacDonald and Oscar Wilde respectively. All three entries can be read below.
Harry Cross on Thomas Sankara:
It is almost a banality in popular and academic writing on Africa to say that perceptions of the continent are defined by stereotypes of it as poverty-stricken, war-ravaged and powerless. Yet the single historical figure that most resolutely bucks this trend, Thomas Sankara, is both absent from many generalist studies of the continent and is the subject of few monographs or articles.
Thomas Sankara was president of Upper Volte from 1984 to 1987. It was he who changed the French colonial name of his country to ‘Burkina Faso’, meaning ‘the country of upright men’. This symbolic change was matched by transformations in Burkinabe society; one of Africa’s poorest countries became nutritionally self-sufficient, saw public corruption almost eradicated and campaigns promoting the political participation of women. A notable innovation was “Women’s Day”, during which men took charge of housework while women organised rallies and meetings against domestic violence. Sankara even went so far as to question the terms and legitimacy of the debt owed by African states to Western creditors, responsible for perpetuating the continent’s subservience to the ‘First World’.
Sankara earned the nickname of ‘The African “Che”’. As with the Cuban Revolution, Sankara’s presidency redefined the horizons of political possibility for an entire continent. The young revolutionary has become the model for a generation of African radicals. Although a Marxist state, Burkina Faso never became a Soviet satellite, nor did it experience political repression.
However, challenging his country’s subservience to its former colonial master, France, proved to be Sankara’s downfall. The French government is widely believed to have backed his overthrow and murder by Captain Blaise Compaoré, who went on to reverse Sankara’s reforms. Compaoré’s 27-year presidency of Burkina Faso recently came to an end when he was ousted by popular protests. Many of those participating invoked the memory of Thomas Sankara.
The absence of Burkina Faso’s Marxist president from many written histories is partly due to a scarcity of sources on such a brief period. But perhaps there are ideological reasons as well why the example of a successful post-colonial state and a functioning Marxist regime is so little understood and appreciated. As revolutionary stirrings are afoot once again in Africa, it is worth taking such models seriously.
Antonia Goddard on Flora MacDonald:
Flora MacDonald, my eighteenth century heroine, did nothing to put her name definitively in the history books. She was not male, nor was she wealthy, and she did not own vast swathes of land. Yet this underrated woman was the saviour of many lives, across two continents, on both land and sea.
In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie made a bid for the throne that resulted in his almost total destruction. Chased across Scotland by thousands of British soldiers in the largest manhunt in human history, only one person was brave enough to take him in: Flora MacDonald, a young woman scarcely out of her teens. Furthermore, she wasn’t even a passionate supporter of the Prince. An eternal pacifist, Flora refused to allow Charles to even carry his pistols, and still managed to escort him to safety in France. When British soldiers shot at their boat, she continued to protect the Prince and his supporters, even at substantial risk to her own life. Refusing to lie down with the other men, or even to fire a gun to save herself, bullets missed her by inches as she worked to save the lives of those she was determined to protect. Her bravery continued during the American Revolution, when her husband was imprisoned by American Patriots who destroyed their home and everything she owned. However, she rallied his troops and personally arranged for his safe return.
Our world is filled with ‘super-heroines’ now – women who are ‘as awesome as the men’, we are assured, women who fight or wear trousers or somehow step out of the femininity which is their weakness. By acting like men, these heroines become strong. Flora MacDonald is a heroine because she never once ceased to stick her to her ideals, her principles, and her femininity. And, as ever, she remained good, kind, just and loyal to the last; a powerful woman who deserves her own chapter in history, not a footnote.
Hannah Griffiths on Oscar Wilde:
Oscar Wilde’s writing has already earned its place on the UK English curriculum; his sexuality and criminal sentence are widely known, yet he is rarely thought of in terms of anything other than his writing and his then-illicit sexual relationships. In fact, in Wilde’s own words, “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.” His plays are admired for their wit, but are generally thought to be shallow and superficial. Oscar Wilde was, however, an advocate for social reform. The Importance of Being Earnest, his most famous play, is quietly subversive, portraying strong female characters who seem to control the men in the play. Wilde also mocks the institutions of marriage, religion and education in his plays.
Oscar Wilde’s criticism of society was clever, and was portrayed not just in his writing. His flamboyant attire was symbolic of his disregard for Victorian ideals of masculinity. He challenged gender roles by editing a magazine entitled ‘The Woman’s World’, and quietly challenged views on same-sex relationships, by wearing a green carnation, allegedly a symbol of homosexuality, and by writing a homoerotic subtext into several of his works, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Wilde, while appreciated (albeit often superficially) as a writer, was underappreciated as a historical figure. He was very much a victim of his time; his struggles in court and in prison occurred because of his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a ‘crime’ that is not recognised today in this country. Wilde’s advances in the field of aestheticism, his social commentary on Victorian issues and values, and his suffering as a result of his sexuality are aspects of his life that seem to have been overlooked in favour of his witty epigrams, sensational trial and writing that is all too often confined to the classroom.