The necessity of rewriting history

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson ‘warns’ that “Britain cannot ‘photoshop’ its long and complicated cultural history.” His comments refer to the boarding up of the statue of his beloved Winston Churchill in Parliament Square ahead of threatened Black Lives Matter protests at the weekend, and the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol the weekend before. His choice of metaphor, however, seriously misrepresents the process that creates our, or any, history. In fact it reveals a serious lack of understanding as to what ‘histories’ actually are.

“Photoshopping” refers to the editing and / or manipulation of images – images originally taken of an actual event. So, is an original photograph (or any artefact) a history? Well, obviously, no – not on its own. The best we could say is that it is a piece of historical evidence. But even as a piece of historical evidence we can’t claim it to be a definitive description of its subject. We first need to ask a series of questions: Who took it? Why did they take it? Why did they choose this angle as opposed to another? What did they decide not to photograph or record? Why? And even then we don’t produce a history. Even a whole collection of photographs spanning many years do not constitute a history – not without some narrative that connects them together.

On this point, the Home Secretary’s comments the week before reveal a greater understanding of the historical process. Also writing in the Daily Telegraph, Priti Patel wrote: “I profoundly dislike the rewriting of history through a twenty first century lens.” However, whilst acknowledging that histories are written, she seems unaware that we have no choice but to rewrite history, any history, each and every time we revisit or think about them, and that we have no choice but to do this through a twenty first century lens.

Histories, all histories, are stories. They are narratives. Hopefully these narratives are constructed from actual evidence and are not complete works of fiction, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate all elements of fiction from them. Think about it. The past is a seamless flow of events. Even the selection of particular events out of this flow is problematic. For example, both the start and the end of the First World War are contentious points. Did it start with the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand, or was this just a tipping point in a process that had many origins? Did it end with the armistice on 11th November, 1918, or, as one general predicted, was this just a pause in proceedings? Proceedings that recommenced in 1939?

The First World War was not a single event. It was a very complex collection of interrelated events. However, it is impossible for all the events that occurred, events that could legitimately be regarded as being related to the war, to be included in its history. And events that are included in this history are linked together by a narrative that relates them to one another and to the war as a whole. It is, then, a matter of judgement as to which events to include and how to interpret them in terms of the overall narrative. Both the inclusion and the interpretation (and therefore the narrative as a whole) is open to revision (to rewriting) when either fresh evidence is uncovered or methods of interpretation change. For example, the psychological condition of ‘post traumatic shock’ was in its very early stages of being described during the period 1914-18. So rather than offer this as a diagnosis of the symptoms displayed by many who refused to return to the trenches after recovering from their injuries, these soldiers were regarded as deserters and shot. With hindsight we can view this as wrong. So we rewrite what happened. We don’t eradicate the events from the narrative, but we do change the narrative to tell a different story. In the original they were deserters. In the rewrite they were victims of an actual psychological illness and of an unfair justice system.

Likewise with both the history of the British Empire and our involvement with the slave trade. Many of the atrocities committed by British troops in these colonies were not, for a long time, included in the official histories. They happened – but were not part of the narrative until certain historians either uncovered evidence of their occurrence or started to interpret events in a different way due to a change in values. Historically, for many people in this country, the slave trade was regarded as a legitimate business. It wasn’t until people like William Wilberforce started to argue that this trade in human beings was deeply wrong and should be abolished that opinions started to change. Changing our interpretation of events involved in the slave does not airbrush out any historical event, but it does both rewrite that history and allow a wider range of evidence to be included. The trade in human cargo that was once regarded as legitimate, and was a cause of celebration, is now regarded as immoral and a cause of deep regret. The once excluded experiences and suffering of the slaves are now included. How could this not require a rewrite?

The statue of Colston has acted as a reminder of the slave trade to all who pass it. This was deeply offensive to Bristol’s black community. It should have been deeply offensive to us all. That it had not been removed earlier is a disgrace. Its peaceful removal by BLM protesters should be seen as positive acknowledgment that we are not proud of our historic involvement with the slave trade, and that commemorating its main proponents by, quite literally, placing them on a pedestal, is immoral. Yes, it’s removal is yet another edit to our national history. It is a rewrite. But if we do not make these edits we include interpretations that no longer apply.

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