History as a Banana Republic Accessory

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), May 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

History as a Banana Republic Accessory


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


With schoolchildren being taught virtual history, we are in danger of forgetting the sins of our forefathers.

History has become all things to all people. In Zimbabwe, the injustices of colonial history have become an excuse for murder and mayhem. In Chechnya, the persistent vilification of an entire people rationalises their removal from present history. Yet, in London, in the David Irving trial, there is a collective jubilation over a vindication of history.

The news abounds with the uses and abuses of history. Not all falsifiers of history are exposed and denounced. Not all manipulation of history is now actionable: if the principles vindicated in the Irving trial were applied across the board, international politics would come to a grinding halt.

The Holocaust notwithstanding, history as a profession does not have a distinguished record in preserving and acknowledging, or building its judgements upon, the testimony of suffering. We accept, in the case of the Holocaust, the overriding human duty to pay attention to the witness of victims. Ultimately, it was the testimony of witnesses that called Irving to

account. But the suffering of the Australian Aborigines and native Americans, for example, elicits no such historical imperative. Both peoples were subject to systematic pre-modern genocide, but are still seeking their day in court to substantiate their historic right to what was rightfully theirs.

It is conventional, professional history that compounds the legal problems of Australian Aborigines and native Americans. Which people lived where, when? These are the details of historical questions. The selection of documents, manipulation of evidence and difficulties in translating the terms used in documents lead to the conclusion, in many instances, that there are no descendants through whom restitution can be claimed. The plight of the Aborigines may raise pangs of guilty conscience in some white Australians, but their voices as witnesses to their own genocide and suffering has no special claim before the Australian judiciary.

There are and have been many awful events in history that have not left such extensive paper trails, such obscene mounds of physical evidence as the Nazi death camps. If routine mass murder, so amply documented, can become embroiled in historical disputation, what chance of illumination on horrors with scantier documentation? Or no documentation at all, as in the case of Australia. Captain Cook was instructed to make a treaty with any inhabitants he encountered. He considered the Aborigines to be no better than wild animals, and claimed the entire continent for Britain -- without any treaty. This allowed for the ethnic clean sing and mass murder of all Aborigines with legal impunity and no paper trail. Indeed, the last mass murder was as recent as 1958 at Coniston, Northern Territory. The belated, recent acknowledgement that Australian Aborigines were the original inhabitants is far from giving them a legal right to reclaim their land.

Proper remembrance should teach us that the abuses of history are merely the flip side of its normal usages. History is always selective, constantly manipulated, customarily prone to mistranslation and uniformly written with an ideological bias -- frequently with racial undertones.

Take selection. Our contemporary understanding of British history has gone through many revisions. The entire thesis of E P Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) and Christopher Hill (The English Revolution) turns on the faulty selection of previous historians. Available material that documents the activities, ideas, concerns and nature of important sections of the population, such as the working classes, had been selected out of proper historical consideration. To change the selection is to alter the historical perspective on events.

Consider manipulation. When we study the history of European expansion, we consider it as a contest between European nations.

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