In the Robinson Self-Teaching Home School Curriculum , we teach history almost exclusively by means of autobiographies written by famous people who made history. This helps assure accuracy and captures the student's interest as he re-experiences the thoughts and efforts made by those who have shaped our world. For many of the great periods of human history, however, appropriate autobiographies do not exist. Also, the famous figures themselves often do not write about the ordinary ways of life of their times - since their readers already knew those things and were interested primarily in their special contributions.
Writing during the great period of the British Empire about a century ago, G. A. Henty was a very careful student of history - and a personal participant in some of the important events of his time. He studied not only the great happenings themselves, but also the ways of life of the different sorts of people caught up in those events.
In a Henty book, a young person is swept up in some great event and becomes a significant participant. By participating in the event through the eyes of the young hero, the reader learns about people and customs in all strata of the societies involved.
Moreover, when this skilled writer of adventure stories and outstanding historical scholar links his hero's adventures to the most exciting times in human history, the resulting tale strongly holds the reader's attention.
In A Knight of the White Cross, G.A. Henty writes about the Knights of St. John and their successful defense of Rhodes during the first siege by the Turks at the end of the 15th century.
After the fall of Jerusalem to the Moslems, the Knights of St. John established themselves at Acre, then at Crete, and then at Rhodes. Finally, dislodged from Rhodes by the second Turkish siege, they fortified themselves at Malta, which they held against all attacks.
These very few extraordinary men, sworn to chastity and poverty, served as guardians of the Mediterranean Sea against piracy and stood as a primary defense of Christian Europe against the Moslem world.
While Europe was inching forward toward the era in which it would nurture the freedom, science, and technology that has built our modern world, this handful of men in metal suits, wielding great two-handed swords and battle axes, stood guard against her enemies and bought time for that sociological and technological development.
Henty paints vivid images of the life and times of the peoples of that era and subjects his hero to numerous exciting adventures, but the most riveting image of the book occurs during the battle itself.
The Turks had effected a breach in the wall of the fortress at Rhodes, and thousands of Turkish soldiers were pouring upward over the pile of rubble in front of that breach. In the breach stood a handful of Knights with a small number of their kinsmen in reserve.
At first the loud noise of battle and the shouts of the combatants filled the air, but, as the struggle for the breach continued - hour after brutal hour - the combatants became too tired to shout and the struggle continued in almost complete silence except for the sound of the blows of the swords and axes.
Gradually, the breach itself grew higher until, near the end of the battle, the Knights and Moslems were fighting in a mound of corpses that totaled nearly a thousand dead. The line of steel in the breach held - and, the next day, it held again. Elsewhere on the battlefield, the Moslems were also driven back. The Turkish force of between 70,000 and 100,000 men withdrew - beaten in hand-to-hand combat by a force 50-fold smaller than their number.
The fortress itself, of course, played its part. The walls and terrain constrained the battle to relatively short front lines, so the Turks could bring only a small part of their army to bear on the Knights at anyone time. The Knights themselves were so well disciplined, trained, and conditioned that they could fight for many hours in combat against a continually renewed Moslem front line.
We scientists have our own heroes. They are mostly quiet, delicate men - men of the mind who developed the structures of mathematics, science, and engineering on which we stand. It is important to remember, however, that the civilization within which they and we have been able to do our work was purchased with the courage, honor, and lives of many valiant soldiers - both of ancient and modern times.
Without our technological heroes, this civilization would be more primitive, but there would still be life and freedom for the human spirit. Without the sacrifices of those soldiers, there would be nothing.
by Art Robinson from Access to Energy, November, 2002 (Vol. 30, no. 4).