Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Drake, Raleigh and the irony of ‘inclusivity’ drives

Sir Francis Drake (Credit: Getty images)

The past has been cancelled at Exeter School in Devon. The names of Elizabethan naval heroes Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake are being erased from their school buildings. For so long central to Britain’s national story, the pair have now been tried and found wanting. Forget their brave exploits: the head teacher Louise Simpson has decreed that neither Raleigh nor Drake ‘represent the values and inclusive nature’ of the school. Deemed inappropriate for today’s children, their names must be scrubbed out, their legacy forgotten.

A by-now familiar irony of ‘inclusivity drives’, such as the one being undertaken by Exeter School, is that they almost always involve exclusion. Drake and Raleigh, Simpson explains, have ‘less than positive connotations’ in modern times. In other words, Elizabethan sea dogs do not stand up to woke scrutiny. They are tainted by association with a less than perfect past and must be expelled.

Removing Raleigh and Drake’s names from buildings tells us far more about today than it does about the past

The children of Exeter School will be spared exciting tales of British victory over the Spanish Armada and the circumnavigation of the globe for fear they might accidentally imbibe some of those ‘less than positive connotations’. This is a grim view of the past. Raleigh’s ventures contributed to the colonisation of North America and Drake helped captain trading vessels carrying slaves across the Atlantic but neither was primarily involved in the slave trade. These dark allusions to slavery and imperialism brand Drake and Raleigh with the very modern stamp of ‘racist’. At a stroke, their remarkable achievements and contributions to British naval history have been deleted. Exeter’s head teacher hardly thinks highly not just of the past but of her own pupils if she deems them too stupid to comprehend the nuance of historical context.

This is not the first time that Drake in particular has been targeted by the history-erasers. A petition was launched in 2020 calling for the removal of a statue of Drake in Plymouth. Signatories incorrectly claimed he was a ‘pioneer’ of the slave trade. And just last year the Sir Francis Drake primary school in south London was renamed Twin Oaks following a vote by parents and teachers. Tellingly, the BBC’s online coverage of the school renaming had to be amended. The broadcaster’s initial report ‘suggested Sir Francis Drake was predominantly known for his links to the slave trade’.

One argument against plaques, statues and buildings named after historical figures is that they do not simply inform but valorize. They help transform men into heroes by literally putting them on a pedestal. But what is wrong with children having heroes? Mythologising of the two began while Drake and Raleigh were still alive. Over the centuries, they have come to represent idealised British values. Whatever the truth about either man, their names came to stand for bravery, daring, courage and determination. Beyond even this, they became powerful national symbols of British identity, recalling an age of heroism and – yes – British military might. It is precisely these values, and the idea of a positive sense of British identity, that are now considered ‘less than positive’.

Bravery, a spirit of adventure, a desire to travel further and faster than any Englishman has ever done before. These ideas have the power to excite, inspire and also, crucially, to unite.

They have been ditched for an identikit set of woke platitudes: justice, equity, diversity, inclusion. These are not values to aspire towards but meaningless soundbites. In place of historical figures, Exeter School will name buildings after local woodlands, castles and topographical features. Woodland is certainly beautiful but it hardly represents the pinnacle of human achievement. It is to be admired, not emulated.

In terms of history, the same rejection of nuance in favour of mythologizing is taking place today as in the past. But instead of idealising Drake and Raleigh as representatives of the best of British, they have been transformed into monsters who symbolise all that is shameful about Britain’s past. The hope of the revisionists and the erasers is not so much that erstwhile heroes will be forgotten, but that they will be remembered only for their sins. Rather than offering a new generation inspiration, they serve as a lesson in the dangers of national pride and hubris.

The charges against Drake and Raleigh are historically illiterate. Removing their names from buildings tells us far more about today than it does about the past. It tells us we are a country uneasy with our national history and determined to dislocate future generations from all positive associations not just with the past but with national identity. This is a mistake. Few things are more inclusive than the nation. Citizenship has no regard for race, sex or religion.

If head teachers want to promote inclusivity, then making pupils aware of their nation’s story is a good place to start. Children raised in ignorance of their past, with scant knowledge of only national sins, are not ‘included’ but left rootless and alienated from their country.


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