“They Were Of Their Time”: Why To Think Twice Before Saying It…

Winston Churchill parliament statue covered amid protests, racism ...

“Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial”- Boris Johnson on Winston Churchill.

With historical interpretation playing a key role in the debates around statues and more widely the Black Lives Matter movement, we felt it was important to comment on a phrase which has persistently popped up.

Phrases like, “they were of their time”, or “unacceptable to us today” are often deployed to help argue that the figure in dispute should not be judged by our modern standards. On the surface this seems reasonable. Another term we could use for this is anachronistic (to take something from one period and wrongly place it in another). So, when we take our modern ideas of morality and putting them onto characters, like Churchill, who lived in times with vastly different moralities and that is wrong. Again, we object to nothing of this sentiment. Indeed, the editors of this blog feel it is important in any discussions around characters of the past that we maintain an awareness of the context they lived in. Our environments play a key role in shaping our views, this was no different in the past. This must be remembered that when discussing the attitudes and actions of any historical figure, it doesn’t mean we may not see their actions as abhorrent now, but their context must be considered.

On this, it would be strange to judge Robert the Bruce a racist (as he rather comically was, by vandals almost certainly not involved in the BLM movement), yes he may well have harboured what views we consider racist today, but the intellectual framework on which modern racism was built simply didn’t exist in 14th Century Scotland.

Additionally, it does not make sense to judge the language of the past by our own modern standards. Although certain words may seem shocking, if they were in common vernacular and were meant with no offence then it is not fair to judge the speaker for use of them (we must also remember that some terms were created as racist slurs which were designed to dehumanise and chastise those they were aimed at).

However, this is where attention to context is key. Arguments around many of currently debated figures and particularly that of Churchill are not acknowledging that their opinions were unacceptable to many when they lived, not just to us now.

John Gladstone: A Case Study.

Sir John Gladstone, 1st Baronet - Wikipedia

In the immediate aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1833, plantation owners (whose plantations were formerly worked by enslaved Africans)  decried a labour shortage. There was ample employable labour in the shape of formerly self-liberated Africans (a more empowering and accurate term than freed slaves), however many refused to work for their former masters and for the terrible wages which were offered. So, to solve the crisis the plantation owners negotiated a means of bringing cheap labour from India to the colonies. The idea was that the individual would sell their labour for several years. In return they would be paid with bed and board. At the time famines (not helped by the British ruling class) had ravaged areas of India and many individuals were so desperate they sold themselves to be shipped across the sea. Once sold they had almost no rights and could be imprisoned or physically punished for desertion or even missing work through illness. Many indentured labourers lived in the same conditions the self-liberated Africans had and ate the same meals. Conditions were horrific and to the plantation owners it may have seemed that they finally had a solution to their “labour shortage”.

However, those who had been instrumental in Abolition were worried. Prominent politician  Lord John Russell commented,  “I should be unwilling to adopt any measure to favour the transfer of labourers from British India to Guiana which may lead to a dreadful loss of life on the one hand, or on the other, to a new system of slavery”.[1]

As a result of these concerns the practice of indentured labour was banned between 1838 and 1842. It was clear that many of this time saw it as wrong, including those in power.

However, John Gladstone, Scottish plantation owner and former owner of enslaved Africans and father of the future prime minister William, lobbied the government and united the plantation owners around the subject. He argued that all the wealth of the plantations would be lost without the labour. With many close allies in power he was able to have the ban reversed and indentured labour continued as a practice until 1922. The concerns around the condition and treatment of those indentured did not go away.

Here we have an excellent example of where it would be misleading and lazy to simply brand Gladstone as “of his time”. Everyone is always of their time, they cannot be of anything else, yet this doesn’t mean that Gladstone’s attitudes towards indentured labourers were the only attitudes of the time. Many prominent figures thought what he advocated for was wrong, the words “new system of slavery” would not have been meant lightly. These figures such as John Russel were also of their time. What we see here is that no context is as straightforward to have a single set of opinions that therefore justify all actions.

How does this case study affect us today?

Boris Johnson furious 'violent protestors' mean hero Churchill ...

We hope Gladstone’s example highlights the difficulty of suggesting that someone was of their time. Everyone is always of their context and those contexts are always nuanced. The argument of their time would justify so much today. There are prominent British and American politicians who have made racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic statements. There are racists, sexists, homophobes, and transphobes in Britain today. They are of their time, but this does not make their attitudes and actions acceptable to us today. The men implicated in the MeToo movement are of their time. But as a society we agreed that their actions were unacceptable and illegal. We do not simply excuse an action or attitude because some other people at the same time are doing it. We must view the past with this nuance too.

It is possible to suggest that from someone’s historical environment we can better understand why they thought and acted the way they did. We may use this to soften our judgement of them today. However, this can only be done with a firm understanding of the mixture of attitudes which would have surrounded them. So, to return to Churchill, to say he was of his time is a lazy defence of actions that many considered to be horrific at the time. The Quit India movement had gained much sympathy in Britain and the idea to transfer power to an Independent India was already on the table before Churchill came into power. His attitudes were deeply conservative for his time. Speaking on his response to the British made Bengali Famine which took the lives of between 1.2 and 3 million Indians, he famously seemed to blame them for “breeding like rabbits”. Yes, it was war time, yes food shortages were rife throughout the Empire. But this was a man who was bent on not giving the empire up. He sabotaged talks between Britain and Indian leaders which may have led to a more peaceful partition. He also has a long list of racist, sexist, homophobic, and even anti-Semitic statements.

   We celebrate him for the role he played in defeating Hitler and fascism, and that is reasonable. However, to suggest that he alone ended tyranny and acted solely to save lives is simply untrue. He perpetuated the tyranny of the British over their subjects and cost the lives of millions with his actions. What about saving the lives of millions of white British people and Europeans makes the deaths of millions of Indians acceptable?

 Churchill did not just “express opinions” which we dislike today, his actions were considered unacceptable at the time by many. To compound how little of his time Churchill was, he was voted out of office almost immediately after the war. Just two years later India would gain independence and in the following decades the rest of the colonies would follow. To say that Churchill was of his time is a circular argument, of course he was, but when judged by his own context he does not come out smelling of roses. For us to use this defence today is a poor means of excusing which lead to what were considered atrocities by his peers.

We reiterate that it we fully appreciate that until very recently, the environment people lived in made them more likely to hold views and make decisions that we take to be wrong today. However, before stating “they were of their time” it is crucial to investigate and appreciate the views and attitudes which may have countered their own. As the John Gladstone case study shows, just because several powerful people felt one way about indentured labour, it doesn’t mean everyone did. Such attitudes and actions were considered by many to be wrong at the time they were expressed, and they are still considered to be wrong by many of us today.

It is lazy to impose our own morality for judgement of past figures, however it is equally lazy to simply excuse their actions which we wish to gloss over by saying

“Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial”.

Such an expression fails to consider the varied views on Churchill in his own time, many of which were contradictory and infinitely more liberal than his own (even amongst his Tory peers). The statement also fails to consider that it was not just his opinions which make Churchill unpopular among many today. His actions cost many lives and perpetuated his own form of tyranny. Churchill is not alone as a debated figure; he is simply central to current conversations, so we have highlighted him. There are many whom we must have similar conversations around. We hope that this article has helped people think about the expression “of their time” and raised awareness of the complexity of arguing around historical figures.

Further reading:

Indentured Labour from India in the Age of Empire Author(s): Sunanda Sen Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 44, No. 1/2 (January–February 2016), pp. 35-74 Published by: Social Scientist Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24890231 Accessed: 07-06-2020 09:24 UTC






[1] Sunanda Sen, Indentured Labour From India In The Age of Empire,

2 thoughts on ““They Were Of Their Time”: Why To Think Twice Before Saying It…

  1. I’m really enjoying these articles – well-written, nuanced and enlightening. I think your analysis in this one hit the nail almost squarely on the head, and it’s definitely one I’ll look to apply when weighing up these questions.

    I wonder if you think, in a Scottish/British context, that there’s anything approaching what could be called a cut-off point, prior to which past individuals or power structures should be exempt from our present-day judgement due to the fact that their actions and views could be considered “acceptable” for their historical time period?

    On the other hand, you could apply a universal human rights perspective and argue that all historical human rights violations, slavery for example, should be condemned equally. After all, those who suffered under these atrocities felt the same pain regardless of what the generally accepted views were at the time the atrocities occurred. But if you pursued this line of thought to its natural conclusion you would end up at a point where the wonders of the ancient world could no longer be admired due to their construction through slave labour. I’m sure that most people, myself included, would see this as a fairly extreme and unreasonable standpoint.

    I wonder then if the key in evaluating historical misdeeds lies in their links with modern-day inequalities and injustices. I’m not sure if you can argue that the ancient Egyptians contributed to the unjust world we live in today; the same, however, definitely can’t be said for the British empire.

    Anyway, hope you’re both keeping well. Keep up the good work!


    1. Lovely to hear from you Danny,

      Personally I am inclined to agree with the link around the link between the past and the modern (as a rough rule of thumb). It is impossible to just draw an exact line and say it was fine then and wrong in another time. So the easiest rule of thumb is certainly to see if past atrocities have clear impact on our present. The treatment of the Spartan’s to the Helots in the 5th century BC for instance is horrific, but has no baring on any populations existence today. But the treatment of Enslaved Africans in 1753 is obviously deeply relevant to current conversations. For a Scottish example, no one is upset about the eradication of Pictish culture in the early middle ages, but obviously the highland clearances still hold deep political resonance.

      I think must also be careful not to generalise concepts such as slavery in a universal sense, to do so prevents us from recognising the uniquely horrific nature of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, especially as it does have direct links to us today. In the same way that to generalise the notion of Empire prevents us from understanding the uniquely sophisticated methods of oppression exercised by the British, Spanish or French, as opposed to say the ancient Persian Empire, which was a profoundly different organism. It is tricky and there is no easy answer.

      With regards to something like ancient wonders built on enslaved labour, I think a useful thing to do is to always place that labour as a prominent part of the narrative. For instance if we were talking about the pyramids, rather than simply saying they were built by any one Pharo to say they were built by enslaved labour, designed and planned by architects and were commissioned by Pharaoh (select Pharaoh of your choosing). Such re-phrasing gives agency and empowerment to communities which have been written out of historical narratives and allows us to see a more accurate representation of the past. This mindset doesn’t solve the “can we celebrate these things that are built on atrocities ” questions outright, but I think is helpful in shifting us away from concepts of great men make history and places more emphasis on the people who actually made the things others are celebrated for.

      These are just my rough thoughts on it, but thanks so much for all the kind words and lovely to hear from you.



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