[As some of you know, I have for the last decade been trying to put together my ideas on a philosophy of history that attempts to do two things: first returning academic history to a place (if it ever had one) where it is taken seriously as an intellectual discipline rather than a bourgeois pastime or a service industry for popular entertainment; and second where it has a coherent ethical/political framework for those who, like me, think that the writing of history is inescapably political and that the politics of history should be emancipatory. The first part of this book (Why History Doesn't Matter) essays a deconstruction of the current practice of history by setting what seem to be uncontroversial ideas about the practice of history against the most frequent statements about its purpose and value, and finding them contradictory and incoherent.
This is the current draft of the projected chapter 1 ('The True Story Uncovered') of that book, which I want to share because discussions of the teaching of history (especially with regard to the British Empire) have come round again. I am fairly sure I have posted at least some of it before but if nothing else, this is an updated version. Here I have split it into two parts for ease of reading. In this first part, I set out why history is inescapably - always - about the writing of stories. I set out how histories are always shaped by various choices about where and when to start and end and about how they can always be read in any number of different ways, regardless of the writer's intention. They can't be pinned down. Then I use a medieval story to show how, as a narrative rather than an atomised collection of facts, history (as opposed to 'the past) never happens - that narratives are not in themselves facts. They are conected by imaginative, narrative, argumentative links which can be more or less plausible but are never empirical. None of this means that facts aren't important. Nor does any of this render history impossible; it is just how history is Indeed it is History's very condition of possibility. Think about it, if all this weren't the case, if explanations and narratives could be proved, the whole historical project would be finite. Finally in this part I try to demonstrate how the past cannot even be conceived of effectively without turning it into a story.
Note that this is still a draft and that the footnotes are neither complete nor consistent. Note also that for reasons to do with cutting, pasting and rearranging this text from it's original word document, the notes start again from i in the last section.]
But let us be wise enough to learn the true history so that we can recognise a myth when we see one.
- Dee Brown[i]
Zulus and Redcoats
Thurbrand and Uhtred: History never happened
a wood called Risewood and still today the place of his murder is marked by a small stone cross. Sometime later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, who was the son of his daughter, sent a large band of young men and avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter. For when the sons of Carl were feasting together at their elder brother’s house at Settrington, not far from York, the men who had been sent caught them unawares and savagely killed them together, except for Cnut whose life they spared because of his innate goodness. Sumerled, who was not there, survives to this day. Having massacred the sons and grandsons of Carl, they returned home bringing with them much booty of various kinds.
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
[i] D. Brown, The American West (London 2004), p.26.
[ii] Simon Schama, ‘My Vision for History in Schools’. The Guardian, 9 November 2010 (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/nov/09/future-history-schools accessed 8 July, 2017). Schama was educated at a public school (Habadashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School) and Cambridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Schama#Early_life_and_education. Schama is an exceptional historian by anyone’s definition but it takes that particular (and peculiarly British; as discussed below, p.000-n.000) kind of socio-cultural capital to take to the national newspapers to instruct teachers how to do their jobs, without having held any kind of educational post in the UK since 1980.
[iii] Dir. D. Hickox (1979). The movie culminates in a slaughter of Britain’s favourite character and TV actors (including – as well as token Hollywood star Burt Lancaster – Christopher Cazenove, Phil Daniels, Denholm Elliot, Bob Hoskins, Peter Vaughan, Simon Ward “and many more”) on a scale unsurpassed before the Great Celebrity Mortality of 2016. In other cinematic trivia, Zulu Dawn may have occasioned the first use of the term “prequel”, a film telling the back-story to an earlier movie (in this case Zulu, dir C. Endfield, 1964), though another 1979 move, the banal and unnecessary Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (dir. R. Lester), also has a claim to that title. I’ll have more to say about prequels.
[iv] I. Knight, ‘The Zulu Wars Part 3: 1879’, Miniature Wargames 18 (November 1984), pp.39-43, at p.43. Knight went on to be the pre-eminent authority on the Anglo-Zulu War (see p.000, n.000, above). Knight’s cinematic judgment was certainly not based on pro-British/Imperial sympathies.
[v] Zulu Dawn made focused its story on Lt the Hon Standish Vereker, whom it depicts escaping the battle and, with his (presumably) dying shot, killing the Zulu making off with the captured British flag. Vereker played a minor and little-documented role in the battle before being killed in the camp, shortly after having gallantly given a horse to an African soldier to escape on. Ironically, and somewhat cruelly to Vereker’s memory, this episode is obviously not depicted. “Boy” Pullen, played as a callow and nervous recruit by then twenty-year-old Phil Daniels was based on Quartermaster James Pullen. Pullen, though, enlisted in 1851 and thus, at iSandlwana, must have been well over twenty years older than Daniels’ character. Conversely, Zulu featured thirty-nine-year-old Nigel Green (a commanding 1.85m [6ft, 1”] tall) as a phlegmatic Colour Sergeant-Major Frank Bourne, who was actually only twenty-four at the time of Rorke’s Drift, only 1.6m (5ft, 4”) tall and nicknamed “the kid”! The decision by Zulu’s script-writers to portray the upright teetotaller Private Alfred Henry Hook VC as a dissolute, malingering drunk raises rather different ethical questions, even if it did provide James Booth with his career-defining role. Knight, Zulu Rising.
[vi] And, in so doing, doubtless condemned themselves to never getting beyond a screen-play. Rigorously historically-accurate portrayals of battles rarely make great cinema. See, e.g., Gettysburg (dir. R.F. Maxwell, 1993), which, while sometimes visually spectacular, doubtless represents four hours (244 minutes) irretrievably lost from the lives of viewers not interested in Civil War minutiae or typologies of mid-19th-century facial hair. I loved it.
[vii] This is especially true in periods like late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages which are heavily reliant upon archaeology for much of the “big picture”. This is not because of the “dramatic discoveries” beloved of the media but because the gradual assembly of information from excavations permits, in kaleidoscopic fashion, quite different pictures to emerge.
[viii] The point is nicely made satirically by The Onion’s review of Captain America: Civil War (https://www.theonion.com/the-onion-reviews-captain-america-civil-war-1819595940 accessed 17 November 2017) which notes that while some characters are known to viewers from earlier films, the directors had failed to make the other 2,500 films necessary to explain the back-stories and motivations of all the other people who appear in the movie, thus (allegedly) rendering the latter entirely confusing.
[ix] See below, ch.2
[x] To adapt Jacques Rancière’s account of Furet’s view of the significance of Louis XVI’s execution. J. Rancière, The Names of History, trans. H. Melehy (Minneapolis, 1994), p.39. On Rancière and history, see O. Davis, Jacques Ranciere (Cambridge, 2010), pp.36-73
[xi] Explain Whig history
[xii] Above, pp.000-000.
[xiii] I have no idea whether or to what extent this would be feasible; I’m not a schoolteacher.
[xiv] It seems to me that most arguments for the value of “cultural literacy” have in any case been undermined by the existence of Google.com and 4G wifi technology
[xv] Probably nearer 3,000 for what it’s worth; it still left the defenders facing odds of nearly 30:1.
[xvi] One episode in the film that, broadly, conforms to the accounts of what happened.
[xvii] Three Zulu amabutho (loosely, regiments) at Rorke’s Drift – the uThulwana, the nDloko, and the iNdlondlo – were formed of men born between c.1830 and c.1835, so in their mid- to late forties. The other imbutho, the iNdluyengwe were comparative youngsters in their early thirties. I. Knight, The Anatomy of the Zulu Army from Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879 (London, 1995), pp.265-7. Before launching their attacks, these men had walked and (mostly) run 18km and crossed a flooded river, on an empty stomach. Knight, Zulu Rising, p.594.
[xviii] The story comes from an anonymous source called the De Obsessio Dunelmi – Concerning the Siege of Durham (a misleading title as the siege of Durham hardly features in this short but interesting tract). Refs
[xix] See further, below, ch.5.
[xx] Compare Geschichte, histoire, storia, historía, história, etc.
[xxi] See above, p.000, n.000.
[xxiii] See, further, below, pp.000-000