ADELAIDE- When I was a small child I was a precocious reader. By the age of 12 I had ploughed through Edward Gibbon’s ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. This made me unusual amongst my peers.
Mind you, I also devoured, just as avidly, ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Coral Island’, the entire series of Biggles books and pretty well anything written by Gerald Durrell.
But history was and remains my first love. I can never remember not being fascinated by it.
Thus my history lessons at school were always of riveting interest to me. This did not pass unnoticed by my history teachers, who judiciously steered me towards books that, while relevant to the curriculum, were regarded as too difficult for most students to read and understand.
As a child of the immediate post war era, I was taught a version of history that extolled the virtues of the British Empire which, even then, was in the process of being dismantled.
British prime minister Harold MacMillan’s famous “winds of change” were whistling loudly through the corridors of the Colonial Office in London, and across the globe the Union Jack was being lowered and new flags raised in its place.
My lessons on the history of India invariably cast the British presence there in the most favourable possible light.
The thrust of my lessons was that the intrepid British had by determined and courageous efforts, brought good order, just government and the rule of law to India, not to mention English, railways and cricket.
An important British figure in the history of India is Robert Clive (1724–75). The man I learnt about was brave, intrepid and resourceful.
Almost single handed, I read, Clive brought the bulk of India under British control. For this great feat, he was richly rewarded with both a vast fortune and a peerage.
Recently, I have, after a very long hiatus, again turned my attention to the history of India.
Specifically, I have read a book by William Dalrymple called ‘The Anarchy’, which describes the process by which Clive and others subjugated India on behalf, not of the British nation, but of the British East India Company.
Importantly, Dalrymple draws extensively upon contemporary Indian sources, not just British and French material.
I had known that Clive was connected to the company, being a Major-General in its private army. What was not taught to me in my youth, though, was that the company ruled India entirely for its own benefit and manifested the very worst excesses of unbridled capitalism in doing so.
To say that many of its officers were greedy, ruthless and cruel would hardly understate just how venal and corrupt they were.
Clive, in reality, was a gifted opportunist who realised earlier than most that the company had the military technology, skills and resources to effectively take over India in its entirety.
He deftly exploited the serious divisions within Indian society following the fall of the Mughal Empire to progressively bring the country under the effective control of the company.
This process was not uncontested. India had a rich and sophisticated culture and its leaders were not without talents and abilities of their own.
Sadly, they could never put aside their own quarrels for long enough to expel the British interlopers, although they came close several times.
Eventually, a combination of technological superiority, better leadership and a ruthless determination to succeed allowed Clive and others to do the unthinkable and utterly dominate the entire Indian sub-continent.
In doing so, they were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians, whether as a consequence of war, economic exploitation or the famines they induced with their rapacious demands for trade and wealth.
So, rather belatedly, I have come to understand that the history I was taught was true in many respects but decidedly misleading about how British rule in India was actually achieved and maintained.
I will do my teachers the courtesy of believing that they either did not know the whole story themselves or felt that telling the unexpurgated and complex truth might be too hard for teenagers to properly comprehend.
It seems that it takes considerable time for historians to either uncover the truth about events or, perhaps, muster the courage to reveal that truth knowing that it conflicts with the accepted orthodoxy and thus will attract considerable criticism.
Authoritarian states have a well established propensity to suppress the truth about historical events if that conflicts with their ideology or political needs.
Thus the Chinese government continues to refuse to either acknowledge the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or allow any mention of it. Even talking in private about the events that occurred there can result in arrest and imprisonment.
In a similar way, the Turkish government not only refuses to acknowledge its predecessors’ role in the Armenian Genocide carried out between 1914 and 1923 but insists that it never happened despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
To admit the truth of these events would be intolerable for many Turks, whose concept of Turkish nationalism prohibits any admission of an evil comparable with the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jewish Europeans between 1941 and 1945.
Of particular relevance to the people of Papua New Guinea, particularly Bougainville, is Bill Brown’s illuminating history, ‘A Kiap’s Chronicle’.
It reveals the plain truth about the greed, ambition, arrogance and willingness to trample over people’s rights that was exhibited by the Australian government and mining company Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) as they pressed on with the creation of the Panguna copper mine in the face of clear evidence of fierce local resistance to it.
Now, at last, the unpleasant truth is being revealed, albeit some 50 years after the event.
Also, Mathias Kin has recorded a Papua New Guinean perspective on the Australian pacification of PNG, which casts our efforts in a rather less favourable light than we may have hitherto believed.
It is very important that he and others continue with their work so that, over time, a history of colonial PNG can emerge that reflects perspectives other than just those of the colonial power.
Australia, of course, has other ugly truths to confront, notably the appalling history of the dispossession, abuse and murder of Aboriginal people during the process of settlement by Europeans.
This is a work in progress, but slowly and surely it is entering public consciousness that some of the supposed heroes of our history after 1788 were guilty of serious crimes, knowledge of which was suppressed and denied for generations.
In this, though, Australia is hardly alone. There remain many Americans who cannot bring themselves to admit that their union was founded upon a great lie: being that all men were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This powerful statement in the US constitution was made when its authors and signatories all knew that it would not apply to the millions of black slaves held in captivity, mostly in the southern states.
Their noble statement was, in truth, an act of monumental hypocrisy and sowed the seeds for the American Civil War and the eventual emancipation of America’s huge population of slaves.
The Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge the infamous Nanking Massacre, in which its troops murdered at least 200,000 Chinese men, women and children.
This remains a source of friction between Japan and China to this day and reflects a continuing Japanese preference to see themselves as the victims of a nuclear atrocity at the end of World War II, rather than as the perpetrators of many unspeakable horrors during that war.
In fact, there is hardly a country in the world where the national mythology does not either exclude or under play or otherwise air brush out of history events and facts that it is inconvenient to remember.
So, whose history do we believe?
I think that the answer to this question is rather complicated, but my advice is that it is best to assume that any history, however beautifully researched and written, is likely to carry within it certain assumptions that reflect the author’s personal belief system.
This can result in very subtle, possibly unconscious, bias in the interpretation of the facts or, at the other end of the spectrum, a history that consciously seeks to present a very particular view of events.
This is why understanding the past remains hotly contested territory, with some historians in vehement disagreement with each other about how the same basic set of facts can be interpreted and understood.
What many people imagine as a rather stuffy and dry discipline is, in fact, a source of sometimes almost violent contention and dispute. Australia’s ongoing “history wars” about what happened to its indigenous people is a case in point.
The main implication of this is that you must read several different histories on any given topic in order to arrive at your personal understanding of the truth.
The ideas and views of historians who are deemed to be “outliers” can be immensely useful in doing this because the orthodoxy is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the truth.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that the truth is seldom pure and never simple. This is a good aphorism to keep in mind next time you are reading a history book.