University of Portsmouth's History Blog

An alternative top ten ‘most interesting historical figures’.

Dr Steven Gray, lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy, has written the following blog based on a survey he conducted into the ‘most interesting historical figures’. Steven felt compelled to conduct the poll after History Extra released its own top ten of ‘interesting historical figures’ for 2017 that was very limited in terms of social diversity. Steven’s research explores a variety of aspects of the navy, including the importance of coal in fuelling the fleet, sailor life, and the role of pets on board ship.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the History Extra top ten ‘most interesting historical figures’ threw up few surprises. Compiled from reader suggestions, the top ten is then voted upon to produce the ‘most interesting historical figure’ of 2017 (although what exactly that means is open to interpretation).

The top ten was as follows:

  • Queen Victoria
  • William Shakespeare
  • Elizabeth I
  • Alfred the Great
  • Winston Churchill
  • Eleanor of Aquitane
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Anne Boleyn
  • Richard III
  • Henry VIII

Whilst it should, of course, be celebrated that 4/10 are women, the list is still rather predictable. Just one is not a leader of some sort. All are white. 8/10 are English, and all are from western Europe. As TV historian Greg Jenner pointed out, I wonder how different this would have been from a list compiled in the 1950s?

Now, this is not to pour scorn upon History Extra, after all, it is a public poll. But it is all too easy to suggest that this is a situation that no one has control over. ‘People are interested in wars and the monarchy’ should not, and will not, hold water. Let us start with the poll itself. Yes, it was a vote based on readers’ suggestions, but does this absolve the magazine of any responsibility? Or the media more widely?

Surely, we should not shrug our shoulders, and say ‘that is what people want’, like the interests of the public are some sort of permanent state of affairs. This was the excuse used recently to defend the overwhelmingly white and male Chalke Valley History Festival, and it will not wash any longer. It was pointed out that this reflects the history shown on TV, which to an extent is true (notwithstanding the excellent Black and British season on the BBC). But these are not some minor parts of the media – this is one of the biggest history magazines in Britain, and ‘the largest festival dedicated entirely to History in the UK’. So, if they want to see a change, they can at least start to facilitate it.

They do have their work cut out, with current politicians, notably Michael Gove, looking to make the school curriculum more white and more ‘British’ (but generally ‘English’). Endless series about the Tudors and the Nazis are screened. However, where other types of history are offered, they have been successful – David Olusoga has rightly been afforded prime time in the media, for example. From my own experience, many students who arrive at university say they are interested in Kings and Queens and the war, but leave with new interests in social and cultural history, gender history, or the history of other cultures and traditions. It is too lazy to say ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it, this is what brings the bucks in’. And those who carry national influence should be pushing for change.

After seeing these results, I commissioned my own top 100, with the stipulation that suggestions were not white, male, English, political or military leaders, although they could be some of these things. The response was wonderful. Shamefully, I had to look some up, which perhaps suggests that we all have much to learn. But what emerged was the full kaleidoscope of history. Cultural figures, political activists, globally important non-white figures, religious figures, women, LGBTQ people, and far, far more.

The most popular was Nelson Mandela, who needs no introduction, and neither do Cleopatra, Leonardo da Vinci, or Genghis Khan. Perhaps less famous (but no less important) are Mary Seacole, the traditional doctress (more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/seacole_mary.shtml), and the civil rights activists Rosa Parks (more here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/oct/25/guardianobituaries.usa), and Malcom X (more here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/apr/07/malcolm-x-man-behind-myth). Also in the top ten were figures from ‘non-western’ history, many who were key actors in shaping global history. These include Mansa Musa, ‘the obscure 14th century African king who was … named the richest person in all history’ (more here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/meet-mansa-musa-i-of-mali-the-richest-human-being-in-all-history-8213453.html), Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, and the man who wrested control of Jerusalem from the crusaders (more here: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/the-crusades-an-arab-perspective/2016/12/unification-saladin-fall-jerusalem-161219060659446.html), Bennelong, a member of the Eora, who acted as mediator and interpreter to the First Fleet (more here: http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/woollarawarre_bennelong) , and Chanakya, Indian teacher, philosopher, economist, jurist and royal advisor who is traditionally identified as the author of the ancient Indian political treatise, the Arthashastra (more here: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chanakya-indias-truly-radical-machiavelli-12146).

So, if a crude poll can bring up so many fascinating figures outside of the mainstream history, isn’t it about time that these figures were covered more often in national magazines, TV programmes, and the school curriculum?

The rest of the list is as follows (do look them up!):

  • St. Kassiani/Kassia (Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer)
  • Gavrilo Princip (assisinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand)
  • Buddha (founder of Buddhism)
  • Hild of Whitby (founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby, an important figure in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and recognised for the wisdom that drew kings to her for advice).
  • Gustav Badin (originally a slave, but later a Swedish diarist, lawyer, emissary and farmer)
  • W.E.B. Du Bois (American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor)
  • Pope Innocent III (one of the most powerful and influential popes)
  • Alan Turing (English computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher and theoretical biologist, chemically castrated for being a homosexual, who later committed suicide).
  • Simon Bolivar (known as El Libertador, was a Venezuelan military and political leader who played a leading role in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.)
  • Fanny Lou Hamer (a leader in the Civil Rights Movement).
  • Toussaint L’Ouverture (the best-known leader of the Haitian Revolution)
  • Empress Theodora (one of the most influential and powerful of the Byzantine empresses.)
  • Marie Stopes (British author, palaeobotanist and campaigner for eugenics and women’s rights.)
  • Akhenaten (Egyptian Pharoah)
  • Caterina Sforza (an Italian noblewoman who distinguished herself by her bold and impetuous actions taken to safeguard her possessions from possible usurpers and to defend her dominions from attack)
  • Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria (one of the most powerful German princes of his time)
  • Caroline Herschel (astronomer)
  • Karl Marx (philosopher, economist, political theorist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist.)
  • Mary (Queen of Scots, Queen consort of France, executed under the orders of Elizabeth I)
  • Katherine Parr (the most-married English queen, with four husbands.)
  • Aud the Deep Minded (9th-century settler during the age of Settlement of Iceland.)
  • Xenophon (ancient Greek philosopher, historian, soldier and mercenary, and a student of Socrates)
  • Queen Christina of Sweden (noted for her interest in religion, philosophy, mathematics and alchemy.)
  • St Helena (Roman empress and the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great)
  • Leonidas (warrior king of the Greek city-state of Sparta, who led the allied Greek forces to a last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC)).
  • Josephine Butler (English feminist and social reformer).
  • Jean-Jacques Dessalines (leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti under the 1805 constitution.)
  • Aphra Behn (British playwright, poet, translator and fiction writer from the Restoration era).
  • Anne Bonny (Irish pirate operating in the Caribbean).
  • Getrude Bell (English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist).
  • Mao (Chinese communist revolutionary, poet, political theorist and founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which he governed as the Chairman of the Communist Party of China).
  • Helen Crawfurd (Scottish suffragette, Rent Strike organiser, Communist activist, and politician.)
  • Dante (poet).
  • Phyllis Schlafly (American constitutional lawyer and conservative activist).
  • Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (prominent suffragette in the United Kingdom).
  • Elizabeth of Bohemia (philosopher and correspondent of Descartes.)
  • Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (“the Magnanimous”, the second and last ruler of the Empire of Brazil, reigning for over 58 years).
  • Noor Inayat Khan (SOE agent).
  • Cixi, dowager-empress of China (effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years.)
  • The Prophet Mohammed (founder of Islam).
  • Kicking Horse (member of Indian Congress).
  • Hildegard of Bingen (German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath).
  • Khalid Ibn Al Walid (as a companion of Muhammad. He is noted for his military tactics and prowess.)
  • Queen Isabella I of Castile (marriage became the basis for the political unification of Spain).
  • Queen Matilda (the claimant to the English throne during the civil war known as the Anarchy.)
  • Perla Siedle Gibson ( South African soprano and artist who became internationally celebrated during the Second World War as the Lady in White, when she sang troopships in and out of Durban harbour.)
  • Émile Zola (novelist, playwright, journalist, and the best-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism).
  • Julius Nyerere (Tanzanian anti-colonial activist, politician, and political theorist. He governed Tanganyika as its Prime Minister).
  • Ernest Shackleton (polar explorer).
  • Caroline of Ansbach (consort of George II known for her political influence.)
  • Millicent Fawcett (English feminist, intellectual, political and union leader, and writer.)
  • Théroigne de Méricourt (singer, orator and organiser in the French Revolution).
  • Mad Jack Churchill (British Army officer who fought throughout the Second World War armed with a longbow, bagpipes, and a basket-hilted Scottish broadsword).
  • Martin Luther King (Civil rights leader).
  • Julie D’Aubigny (17th-century swordswoman and opera singer).
  • Wu Zetian (Chinese sovereign who ruled unofficially as empress consort and empress dowager and later, officially as empress regnant).
  • Nancy Wake (SOE agent).
  • Mahatma Gandhi (leader of the Indian independence movement against British rule.)
  • Nostradamus (physician and reputed seer who published collections of prophecies).
  • Albert Luthuli (South African teacher, activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and politician).
  • Shaka (one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom).
  • Joan of Arc (heroine of France for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War and canonised as a Roman Catholic saint).
  • Maximilian Robespierre (lawyer and politician, one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror).
  • Harriet Tubman (American abolitionist, humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War).
  • Joan of Kent (mother of King Richard II of England).
  • Rose Bertin (French milliner and dressmaker to Queen Marie Antoinette. She was the first celebrated French fashion designer and is widely credited with having brought fashion and haute couture to the forefront of popular culture).
  • Aratus of Sicyon (statesman of the ancient Greek city-state of Sicyon and a leader of the Achaean League).
  • Sally Hemings (enslaved woman of mixed race owned by President Thomas Jefferson. Most historians believe Jefferson was the father of her six children).
  • Admiral Yamamoto (commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet during the Second World War).
  • Cornelia Sorabji (the first female advocate from India).
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights).
  • Thomas Aquinas (immensely influential philosopher, theologian, and jurist in the tradition of scholasticism).
  • Martin Luther (German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation).
  • Lao-tzu (ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, the founder of philosophical Taoism, and a deity in religious Taoism).

4 Responses to An alternative top ten ‘most interesting historical figures’.

  1. Patricia Sullivan July 8, 2017 at 3:43 am #

    Fascinating list! Akhenaten was listed twice, but no Tutankamun, his son!

    • Robert James July 17, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      Thank you for pointing that out. I’ll delete the duplication.

  2. nobby July 14, 2017 at 11:53 am #

    Subotai and Jebe for me will always be the two most interesting people in history. Great list though.

    • Robert James July 17, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

      Yes, both Subotai and Jebe led fascinating lives. Thank you for your comments.

Leave a Reply