The Terror and the legacy of Empire

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– The Terror _ Season 1, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Aidan Monaghan/AMC

AMC’s The Terror is a show about hubris. But it also tackles the dark undercurrents which have undercut narratives of European exploration for centuries.

There’s something so romantic about the age of exploration. It has all the danger of the wild west with a side of noble ideals, as intrepid explorers journey into the unknown to expand human knowledge, chart the blank edges of the map, and raise the poor people of those benighted lands into the light of civilization — or maybe just take their stuff.

It’s a popular (and inaccurate) spin to put on the idea of European exploration, even to this very day. America dedicates an entire holiday to Christopher Columbus, despite criticisms that he opened the door for the genocide of millions. Only last year, a Canadian textbook was recalled amid public outcry over the fact that it claimed the Native Americans “agreed to” move on for western settlers.

And in England, polling data has suggested that three times as many people are proud of Britain’s legacy of empire rather than ashamed of it, and the same number believed that countries Britain has colonized and occupied are now better off than they would have been otherwise.

It’s that legacy of empire that AMC’s The Terror engages with, as a show set in a time when British imperialism was in full swing. In early episodes, we hear the lines Sir John Franklin is feeding the men during their search for the Northwest Passage. This incredibly dangerous expedition is “the adventure of a lifetime”, one to be undertaken for God, Queen, and Country. That romanticized patriotism echoes modern attitudes on the history of exploration — and even on colonialism.

And sure, it is rather swashbuckling to imagine a band of adventurers testing themselves against dangers unknown for the greater good of mankind. But there has always been another level beneath the pursuit of human knowledge. Expeditions cost money, and it is often a desire for riches that spurred that spirit of exploration in the first place. And no matter the good intentions of some, history has shown that the presence of indigenous people has never been a deterrent to taking those resources by force.