Some more historical myths debunked

Nov 6, 2012 by

Myth … a traditional or legendary story

A lot of what we “know” to be historically true can sometimes turn out to be a coloured view perpetuated through an unspoken or unconscious sense of national pride or even an idea of how it ‘should’ve been’. Every nation has its favourite tales from the past, but how accurate are they? We look at a few here.


The First American President

The Myth

:

George Washington was the first President of the US.

The Reality

:

Everyone “knows” that Washington was the first President the US. However, this isn’t strictly the case. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress (or the ‘United States in Congress Assembled’) chose Peyton Randolph as the first President. Under Randolph, one of their first moves was to create the Continental Army (in defence against Britain), appointing General Washington as its commander. Randolph was succeeded in 1781 by John Hancock, who presided over independence from Great Britain. After Washington defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown, Hancock sent him a note of congratulations. Washington’s reply was addressed to “The President of the United States”. Eight years later, as a revered war hero, Washington himself became America’s first popularly elected President – but strictly speaking, the FIFTEENTH President!


Belief that the Earth was Flat

The Myth

:

Medieval people believed tha the Earth was flat and Columbus et out to prove it was round

The Reality

:

It was American author Washington Irving, some 500 years after Columbus sailed to America, who first portrayed the Italian explorer as launching on his voyage to prove that the Earth was round, defying the common, flat-earther belief of the time. In fact, most educated Europeans in Columbus’s day knew that the world was round. Simple observation by sailors of how the top-masts of an approaching ship appear first and then the hull later told them that the earth wasn’t flat at all! Since the fourth century BC, almost nobody has believed that the Earth is flat. Even if that wasn’t the case, Columbus would never have set out to prove that the Earth was round… simply because he didn’t believe it himself! Columbus actually set sail to prove something else: that Asia was much closer than anyone thought, which is why when he arrived in the Americas he thought the indigenous people were ‘Indians’ (as in the inhabitants of the Indies) . It should also be noted that he never set foot on mainland America. The closest he came was the Bahamas.


Signalling the end of a Roman Gladitorial fight.

The Myth

:

The signal to kill a gladiator was thumbs down.

The Reality

:

The editor of a game, whether senator, emperor, or other politico, made the final decisions about the fates of the gladiators in the arena.

The belief that that when the person in charge of a gladiatorial event wanted one of the gladiators to be finished off, he turned his thumb down and that when he wanted the gladiator to live, he pointed his thumb up, is wrong !

In reality ‘thumb up’ meant kill him! If the thumb was concealed in a fist it meant let him live. There was no ‘thumb down’ signal.


The Alamo

The Myth

:

The Alamo was about defending liberty and freedom.

The Reality

:

The roughly 250 Americans who died at the Alamo weren’t defending liberty— they were protecting slavery.

Texas was still part of Mexico after its War of Independence from Spain. But the land attracted so many American settlers, that they soon outnumbered the Mexicans. Incredibly, that was just fine with the Mexican government. In fact, many Texans wanted Texas to become a Mexican state.

But trouble started brewing in 1829, when slavery was banned throughout Mexico. This angered settlers who moved to Texas specifically to establish Southern-style, slave-powered plantations. Texas was briefly given an exemption, but in 1835, General Santa Anna revoked it.

Enter the Alamo. Overconfident after a few easy victories against smaller Mexican forces, the Texans divided their army and left just a few hundred men in San Antonio. Santa Anna surprised the town in February 1836, causing 250 rebels to take refuge in the Alamo under the informal leadership of Davy Crockett and James Bowie.

There was no way the rebels could break the siege— it was 1,500 Mexican troops to their 250— but there was no point in surrender either: Santa Anna had announced that he would take no prisoners. In the end the defenders were all killed.

Against all odds, Santa Anna’s cavalry was later defeated in just 18 minutes by a smaller force of Texans in a desperate surprise attack. They captured Santa Anna as he tried to flee through a nearby swamp. The humiliated dictator ended up trading Texas for his freedom and the Texans succeeded in upholding slavery. For the next nine years, the Republic of Texas existed as a nation unto itself, before joining the United States in 1845— needless to say, as a slave state.


Henry VIII’s Flagship : The Mary Rose

The Myth

:

The Mary Rose sank on her maiden voyage.

The Reality

:

The Mary Rose was King Henry VIII’s favourite warship and he named the ship after his sister. The ship was built in Portsmouth and construction started in 1509, the year Henry VIII came to the throne, and completed in 1511.

She did not sink until 1545, by which time she was quite an old warship. So no, she didn’t sink on her maiden voyage.