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© 2019 by Zack White and the NapoleonicWars.net team.

#MeToo - A Historical Issue

April 3, 2018

It has been disturbing in recent months to witness the outpouring of instances of sexual assault which women (and of course men in some cases) have suffered from in silence in recent times. It shatters our belief that we live in more civilised times.


As my recent research is showing, this is nothing new.


In a previous post (The Curious Case of Badajoz Part 1), I mentioned the outbreak of plunder and rape which following the capture of the Spanish town by the British in 1812. In my research, I have tried to set the moral issue to one side. No-one can suggest that the events which the citizens of Badajoz suffered were anything less than morally reprehensible. However, whilst historians have tried to explain why the aftermath unfolded in the way that it did, I have looked at something different: what was actually done about it. The answer is chilling: absolutely nothing.


This discovery led me to ask more questions about the way in which sexual crimes were dealt with by the British army. Immediately though, I ran into a problem – a total lack of evidence. In the entirety of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), there was just 1 case of a solider being tried for rape. There were, in fact, more cases of people being tried for sodomy, which was illegal until the later 1900s, although at just 2 cases, there evidence is scarce here too.


This has made me question the whole issue of reporting sexual assault. It should go without saying that in an age before the discovery of DNA, proving that a sexual assault had taken place was extremely difficult. The issue was made even worse for victims in Spain and Portugal by the language barrier, and the fact that the army was often on the move. As a result, if the victim was able to find the exceptional courage needed to come forward and report the attack, they would have had to do so in a fairly short space of time before the army moved to another part of the country.


However, none of this is enough to explain the total lack of evidence, so I turned to other conflicts and the civilian courts to try and find the answer. In the process, it became clear that #MeToo taps into a much bigger issue across history: sexual assault has never, before the late 1900s, been taken seriously. The first conflict (that I can find) in which rape accusations were consistently tried in significant numbers was the American Civil War. The Confederate Army reworked the army’s legal system in such a way that they were able to take on these cases in significant numbers. (For more information on this see Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones, edited by Elizabeth Heinemann). In other wars, however, the same issue emerges: rape was a crime in theory, but proving it was almost impossible


When I was reading the intense, disturbing, but intellectually revealing book A History of Rape by Georges Vigarello, however, I started the find the answer. Vigarello firstly deals with the proof element – although doctors might be able to confirm that sex had taken place (especially if an STI was passed on, which was seen as conclusive proof in child abuse cases), and doctors may also be able to determine that violence had been used (bruises and other damage), it was difficult to show that the victim ‘had not wanted the act to take place’. To modern ears this may sound absurd, but actually comes back to the same issue that we see in courts today. The issue was made worse however, by nineteenth century attitudes to women, which considered them to be morally corrupt. 


As a result, bruises might be taken as proof that a woman had been ‘ill-treated’, and a man might therefore be convicted of this, but rape was rarely conclusively proven. The use of such a vague term ‘ill-treating’ is very revealing. It shows a reluctance by society to acknowledge rape as a crime, it belittles the experience of the victim, and in the process abscures what did or did not happen. ‘Ill-treating’ could be used to describe anything from hitting someone to sexual assault, and in the process probably allowed people to deceive themselves that rape was less prominent in society than it actually was.


Once you understand all of this, the situation in the army becomes much clearer. There are far more cases of civilians being ‘ill-treated’, but, just like in the civilian system, it is clear that this was a term which could describe a whole range of things. The end result for women across the centuries has been the same though. Their experiences have been quietly swept under the carpet.


#MeToo reveals a problem that is far from new.


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