The Monkey Trials

April 6, 2019

Two countries, not so dissimilar in language and culture have both going through what you could describe as political upheaval recently, and it led me to think about a lesser known link in what has become to known as “the monkey trials”, both somewhat embarrassing moments in history of each country that until the current political climate one would have hoped to be consigned to history, but one can however see aspects of coming out today.


Lets go with the, on the face of it, more embarrassing account, The Hartlepool monkey. According to folklore, during the Napoleonic wars, a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. The only survivor being a monkey, dressed in a French uniform. The locals, obviously heading down to the beach looking to help any survivors found said monkey, and strung it up by the neck. Now, this being England and not some tin pot little country they of course held an impromptu trial for the monkey first. But as the monkey was unable to answer any questions, it being a French monkey, they took it for a French Spy and sentenced it to death.


There is a monument to the monkey on Hartlepool headland to this very day. 


Now, lets cross the pond to the United States of America.


A far more documented and manipulated moment in time was the Scopes Monkey Trials. In 1925 a substitute teacher was fined $100 for teaching human evolution in a state school in Tennessee. The case was seen as a standing point on whether “modern science” should be taught in school. The defendant couldn’t even remember if he had taught evolution in school, but said if he had he wouldn’t mind being charged, the textbook he used however did describe and endorse the theory of evolution, but he wasn’t supposed to teach those pages, oh and the substitute teacher being charged even coached the students that were there to accuse him of teaching evolution. One of the reporters on the case was also helping fund the defense and the Prosecutor was aided by an Attorney who supported the anti-evolution bill on religious grounds and went on to become a Senator. 


 The anti-evolutionary legislation was not changed until 1965.


So, in England’s modern political climate does it seem so far fetched that a monkey was hanged because they thought he was a Frenchman, or in America’s political climate does it seem so far fetched that the teaching of human evolution would lead to a fine for a substitute teacher*. It’s hard to tell which one is more embarrassing. 


We seem to have come so far, yet have got nowhere.


*The fine was overturned on a technicality; the monkey didn’t get to appeal.


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