A hero, hook included

By Other Views | Washington Post
Published July 25, 2007

The word "swashbuckling" is so often affixed to the name of Christopher Newport that one might think his parents inscribed it on his 16th-century birth records in England. Sailor, privateer and adventurer, he gained fame as captain of the Susan Constant, the largest of three ships that, in 1607, carried the founding settlers to Jamestown, North America's first permanent English settlement. The brave captain was larger than life, and now he has a statue to prove it: a towering, four-ton bronze likeness erected last month at the university that bears his name in Newport News, Va. Alas, the statue is a likeness only up to a point, for it features Capt. Newport not with the prosthetic hook he wore for much of his adult life, but with his two arms intact.

Airbrushing history's heroes is an ancient pursuit, but one might have thought to accord Capt. Newport, of all people, the honor of a more true-to-life portrayal, hook included. After all, he spent years as a fighting man, and it was as a fighting man that he lost his arm, in battle against the Spanish.

The sculptor, Jon Hair, sniffed, "We don't show our heroes maimed." And so there stands Capt. Newport, a sanitized monument not only to the spirit of discovery and exploration but also to the liberties too easily taken with the past and the dead.