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Friday 28 July 2017

"Turn: Washington's Spies" Mangles History

You know, I love Turn.

Great, fun series. Intense drama and tension, and generally a good historical reproduction.  It doesn't even fall into blind jingoism.  Some of the rebels are shown as being less than perfect, even Washington himself. And some of the loyalists are deeply honorable, as indeed was the late John Andre. Even Benedict Arnold, traitor that he was, is treated with a tiny bit of sympathy.

But then there's this guy:

John Graves Simcoe.  The guy that for some reason, Turn's writers decided to turn into a cross between Joffrey, Khan, and that "friend-o guy" from No Country.

It's a really fucking weird choice, because in real history the real Simcoe was absolutely nothing like this.  In fact, he is still revered as one of Canada's founding fathers, and a champion of human rights.

The real John Graves Simcoe, far from being a sociopathic killing machine with no concern for honor, justice, mercy or common decency, was in fact a highly decorated soldier who showed the highest standards of honor.  At the battle of Brandywine, a disaster for the revolutionary forces, Simcoe (in spite of having just been wounded himself) ordered his men NOT to fire on the fleeing rebels, even though they had a clear shot at General Washington.

That's right, this guy:

Actually saved George Washington's life out of a sense of honor.

So what did he do to follow up? He did what not a single US founding father (as great as they were) had the balls to do: he outlawed slavery.

You see, after the war, the remaining colonies loyal to the crown were reorganized (taking in a large number of refugee loyalists from the United States), and formed into the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada.  And Simcoe was made the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. So he founded the city of Toronto:

(that's why there's a Simcoe Street in Toronto)

(and this lovely park!)

(and the Simcoe Wavedeck. Would the psycho from the TV show have gotten a wavedeck named after him?)

And after that, one of the very first things he did in Toronto was to pass the first anti-slavery legislation in the whole British Empire.
He did it FORTY YEARS before slavery was abolished throughout the Empire, and SEVENTY YEARS before the emancipation proclamation.

That's right, the good people at AMC decided that in their period drama about rich slave-owning landholders revolting to avoid paying taxes, their evil psycho villain would be the modern English-speaking world's earliest successful abolitionist.

What was going through their heads?
"Ok, we want to be historically accurate but we need a really good villain!"
"Benedict Arnold?"
"NO. Too obvious."
"What about the humanitarian war hero who freed the slaves seven decades before we got around to it?"

And before you think I'm exaggerating and that maybe Simcoe was just imposing a law someone else asked him to, here's his own words on the subject (and if you're a Turn fan, I dare you to read it in Turn-Psycho-Simcoe's soft-spoken sing-songey-lunatic voice):  "The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates between natives of Africa, America, or Europe"!

Of course, it wasn't all good: he also invented the Valentine Day's Card. I kid you  not. So he must have been at least a little evil.


Currently Smoking: Moretti Rhodesian + Gawith's Commonwealth


  1. I love this show. Interesting post about Simcoe. Was totally ignorant.

    1. Well there you are! The more you know, and all that...

  2. "saved George Washington's life out of a sense of honor."

    Exaggerate much? Giant leap from not shooting at someone and saving his life.

  3. Thanks! So glad you wrote this - I researched a number of characters in the first season and found the real Simcoe (and Robert Rogers) the most interesting and misrepresented characters of the show. He was also considered one of the best British small unit leaders of the war. Cheers!