What is historical truth?

To get at the truth of history, we must know it and we must understand it, and these are two very different things. We can know history by simply accessing a balanced set of facts, but to understand history, we must understand the people who made the facts. And to understand the history-makers, we must judge them on their own terms.

The facts, as difficult as it may be to ferret them out, are the easy part. Understanding the history-makers is hard. We must comprehend the beliefs, customs and knowledge of people in another time and place while at the same time suspending both our personal biases and the beliefs, customs and knowledge of our own time and place.

The challenge has been illustrated by the spate of statue-toppling that we are currently witnessing. Heroes of the past are being subject to scrutiny and their beliefs and behaviours found wanting when judged by the moral principles of the topplers. Often these latter claim they seek only that the truth of history be told. A noble goal indeed, but if they fail to comprehend those they so harshly judge, they may be far from the truth.

Consider, for instance, slavery, something very much on the mind of the statue molesters. Today, of course, we consider slavery to be a most grievous institution, condemned by all. But slavery has been with us since antiquity, even into prehistory, in all parts of the world, sometimes condemned, often accepted as a legitimate part of society. In the Bible, no less a personage than the Apostle Paul instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters.

In two or three hundred years, a practice commonly participated in today—eating meat, say—might be considered barbarous. Someone that we consider an exemplary citizen might be judged as harshly as we now judge yesterday’s slaveholders. “My god,” our virtuous descendants will say, “The man killed members of our fellow species, hacked flesh off them, and ate it. Disgusting. Tear down his statue.” True, there are those who even today condemn meat-eating on moral grounds, but we see such people as being on the fringe, just as in the past anti-slavers were often considered on the fringe. To us, a man is no less a hero because he likes the occasional burger.

A critical judgement of an historical figure without understanding the perspective of those who lived in that time and place is unfair and ultimately meaningless. Throughout much of history, a man could do good works and be honoured for them even while he kept slaves. To condemn him for an act neither he nor his contemporaries considered wrong is less than just.

A recent article on the BBC website illustrated this point. The article was written by the Nigerian author and journalist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani on the subject of her great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Her forebear bore a certain similarity to Edward Colston, the 17th century English merchant whose statue was rudely toppled into Bristol harbour. Like Colston, he was a successful merchant, trading in a variety of products, including human beings. He had agents in the interior who brought him people in chains who he then sold on the coast.

Nwaubani was not critical of her great-grandfather. He was, she reported, simply engaging in a trade long practiced by her people, the Igbo. Furthermore, she points out that “the concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was completely alien to traditional religion and law in his society.” She might have been talking about Edward Colston in the 17th century.

Oriaku was also similar to Colson in that he was a philanthropist, making generous contributions to schools and churches. Indeed, Nwaubani’s article was occasioned by a Nigerian church celebrating its centenary and offering her family a posthumous award on her great-grandfather’s behalf.

A modern woman who finds slavery repugnant, Nwaubani sees no hypocrisy in accepting the award. As she so wisely observes, “Assessing the people of Africa’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.”

Those who dragged Colson’s statue into the harbour, like those who splash paint on the statues of Canada’s historical figures, have no problem casting heroes as villains.

But then the self-righteous have no need to understand their “villains.” They see history only through their own perspective, a perspective of their own time and place, a perspective that may be irrelevant to those they judge. What they see is caricatures created by their biases, not the real, imperfect yet worthy human beings that lived and made history. They seek reassuring explanations, not the truth.

2 thoughts on “The truth about history”
  1. Thanks for this, you express my feeling about such destruction of history far better than I ever could.
    “Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.”

    George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist who also said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

  2. Bill, you might find the history of slavery in Canada very enlightening. While colonial Canada was one of the first places to abolish slavery it was a practice with roots that went back into pre-history.

    Slaves in Canada tended to be indigenous. Tribes would raid each other, kill off what they had to and often enslave the rest. In New France these slaves were a medium of trade. In the 1700s African slaves appeared but the practice ended, if I recall correctly, around 1760. That said, we made an exception for United Empire Loyalists who made an exodus to Canada after the American Revolution.

    It’s a fascinating if not often flattering part of Canadian history. To the extent we still teach history in our schools this should definitely be part of the curriculum.,

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