Photo by Jeppestown
If I were to describe to you a scene in which a democratically elected head of state and his brother were set upon by a mob, tortured, mutilated and murdered, which country do you think these events might have happened in? I suspect that your answer would not be Holland. But that is precisely what happened when a crowd of supporters of William of Orange – future king of England – attacked Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis in The Hague in 1672. Members of the mob2 even ate the Witt brothers’ livers in a cannibalistic frenzy.
Over the years I have come across isolated examples of extreme behaviour that have shocked and contradicted my worldview. It is relatively easy to explain away Crusaders roasting and eating Muslim babies because that happened an awful long time ago. The fact that the English settlers propagated the practice of scalping across North America is also surprising for anyone brought up on westerns. But still, several centuries separate us from such primitive barbarism.
One of the most sickening of the many shocking aspects of the AIDS crisis in Africa is the “virgin cleansing myth”. Popular superstition suggests that one way of curing AIDS is to have sex with a virgin. The consequence of this outlandish notion is that thousands of children have been raped. At one point almost a third of the population of South Africa reportedly believed in ‘the virgin cure’, though progress has been made in dispelling the nefarious myth. It’s a hideous idea but I’d always seen the virgin cleansing myth reported in the media as propagated by traditional healers; as a local cultural problem it would seem difficult to solve from outside the culture.
Then, to my horror I discovered, after a minimal amount of research that the virgin cleansing myth is not native to Africa but in fact emerged in 16th-century Europe. Worse still, it gained prominence in Victorian England where sex with a virgin was believed to cure STDs; in the second half of the 19th Century Britain suffered an epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea. Far from being a ‘primitive’ local belief, this atrocious idea was exported to southern Africa by the British Empire. I wonder why they never mention these things in history class at school or on the BBC.
 to set upon sb. (set-set-set) – physically attack sb.
 mob – violent tumult, angry multitude
 to happen – occur
 crowd – multitude, tumult
 supporter – follower
 liver – hepatic organ
 frenzy – hysteria
 to come across (come-came-come) – encounter
 behaviour – conduct
 to explain away – find excuses for
 to roast – cook over a fire
 settler – colonist
 scalping – cutting the hair and skin off the top of an enemy’s head
 to bring up (bring-brought-brought) – rear, raise
 western – cowboy movie
 sickening – repulsive
 outlandish – ludicrous, bizarre
 to rape – sexually assault
 to dispel – eliminate
 nefarious – evil, criminal
 hideous – (in this case) awful, repulsive
 traditional healer – witch doctor, sb. who supposedly cures illnesses using non–Western medicine
 amount – quantity
 research – investigation
 to gain prominence – become important
 STDs – sexually transmitted diseases
 far from being – it was the opposite of
 to wonder – ask oneself