Who are your heroes? This a very common question to ask, both in schools and in university applications. Sometimes the question even comes up in job interviews.

However, if studying History has taught me anything, it’s that heroes don’t exist.

After all, all heroes are human.

The first historical character that I became obsessed with was Isabella I of Castile. She was the first queen of Spain and ruled in her own right. She insisted upon choosing her future husband herself and funded Christopher Columbus’ expedition which led to the Spanish conquest of the Americas. I admired the power that she held and the fact that she became a fundamental piece in the history of my country despite being a woman. Nonetheless, I can’t separate this reality from the fact that she was the person that introduced the Inquisition in Spain, as well as the one that expelled the entire Jewish and Muslim population from the country, provoking an enormous diaspora.

They say you lose your hero when you meet them but sometimes just a bit of digging is enough. I thought Isabella’s case would be a one-off, but I kept finding problematic aspects in almost every historical figure I studied.

For example, most of the American Founding Fathers owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson alone owned 2000 of them to work in his plantation. So did Seneca, and, to be honest, almost every famous Roman or Greek person is likely to have as well.

Winston Churchill caused the death of three million Indians due to starvation by deliberately diverting food from India to feed English people during World War II.  He blamed it on them for ‘breeding like rabbits’. He stated that he hated Indians and said that “they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

I found problematic aspects in almost all famous historical figures.

Let’s not forget all the figures that had very controversial private lives.

Gandhi, the famous exponent of peaceful resistance and leader of India’s independence movement was known for cheating on his wife and sharing a tent with naked young girls to ‘test his restraint’. How about the fact that Elvis met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu when she was 14? According to a biographer, Elvis ‘was fascinated with the idea of real young teenage girls’. And, of course, who can forget the accusations against Michael Jackson in the recent documentary Leaving Neverland (I know I’ll never be able to listen to his music the same way).

Even writers I loved when I was younger have posed incredibly hurtful and problematic views. I adored Roald Dahl’s work (Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…). Nonetheless, his stories are much less appealing since reading about his 1983 interview, where he said that Hitler ‘didn’t just pick on [the Jews] for no reason,’ adding that ‘there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity’. Orson Scott Card, famous for writing Ender’s Game is known for funding homophobic organizations and has even argued that sodomy laws should still be in effect. It broke my heart to read J.K. Rowling’s recent problematic tweets about transgender people.

The memories that these books left in me will always be there. In the same way, the actions of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Isabel of Castile, or Winston Churchill changed the world forever, and our society will not be what it is without them.

Instead of admiring people, we should admire specific traits or achievements.

However, their impressive actions can’t erase their problematic ones. Good deeds don’t erase mistakes, particularly if they were never recognized as such. Of course, especially with older figures, we need to recognize the different customs and social views of the time. Nonetheless, the fact that at the time slavery was acceptable, doesn’t mean that we should forget that they owned slaves.

Studying History has taught me that heroes are human and that it is wrong to idolize people. None of us are perfect so why should historical figures be?

Instead of admiring people, we should admire their particular choices or actions. For example, I can admire J.K. Rowling’s dedication to writing when she was a broke single mum and still strongly disagree with her views on transgender people. I admire Isabella’s determination to be a ruling queen and not let her husband take over her Crown but I also despite the policies that she designed against ethnic and religious minorities.

I can aspire to achieve their courage and determination without aspiring to be exactly like them. Our heroes need to fall if we want them to truly serve as motivation for our actions.

  • Beatriz Valero de Urquía

    Beatriz Valero de Urquia is a historian, writer and journalist. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, listening to musicals and writing her first novel.