Cabbages & Kings: What must we treat as history?

A wise Greek said victors write history. In our times academics argue over it.

“Wise men believe in luck-
Only fools rely on it.”
From The Proverbs of Bachchoo-ka-adda

At the end of each year I receive a number of long mails outlining what friends and acquaintances did or achieved over the 365 days of their historically inconsequential lives. Obviously, if I received such blogs from Narendra Modi or Donald Trump (I don’t do Twitter) they might be notes to record.

To read six pages about the arthritis, its treatment and the inconveniences it causes to someone I hardly know is not, I think, historically important. But that is a subjective judgement. Later generations may judge that Jagdish Blogmantri’s account of his arthritis are a priceless contribution to the 56th century’s understanding of the state of the human body before ultimate-genetic-diversion (UGT) was discovered and everyone began to live for as long as they liked, including forever.

So what must we treat as history? And what evidence separates “history” from opinion, and even from fantasy and myth?

I am sure eminent universities set that as a philosophical question, expecting well-argued answers. But are there really any answers?

A wise Greek said victors write history. In our times academics argue over it. Shashi Tharoor writes An Era of Darkness assessing the exploitation of India by the British. My friend, the renowned historian Roddy Matthews, assures me that the book, while containing some detailed research, is fundamentally wrong-minded and perhaps a political move with some current electoral strategy in mind.

As Pope Francis said, when asked if homosexuality was a sin: “Who am I to judge?”

But shouldn’t all of us have a historical view of where we come from or how, and through the influence of which forces, we have inherited the world we live in? If someone says that ancient Indians knew about surgical transplanting of organs because Lord Shiva transplanted an elephant’s head on his son Ganesh, it should make me proud to be an Indian. I could think “Yeah, bro’ we were there before you!” but then the fact that Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh were not human, but were gods, impresses itself upon me and I think the person who said “ancient Indians were, millennia ago, acquainted with surgical transplants” meant precisely that!

He wasn’t saying humans carried them out. He was only saying that humans knew about it as the gods had carried it out in swarg! He could have added that humans, Indians and the rest, would have to wait till Christiaan Barnard did the first heart transplant in South Africa in the 1960s — but then that’s factual history and we can choose to include it, believe it or ignore it. Most historians do all three.

The latest and absolutely necessary historical endeavour is the one to which Mr Tharoor has contributed. Now Nigel Biggar, a Regius professor of theology at Oxford, joined the debate with the first publication of a five-year project called “Ethics and Empire”. It seeks to reappraise the pros and cons of colonialism — not from the point of view of the material profits made by the East India Company in India, but with a view on the long-term effects of the colonial episode in history.
The first paper published by his project leaned towards saying that colonialism in India, the West Indies and Africa was not all exploitative, destructive and bad. It brought with the exploitation of the raw materials and wealth, the benefits of modernisation, the introduction of democratic ambitions and systems and a language that history has turned into a sort of lingua franca (irony noted!). As is par for this course,

Mr Biggar was attacked on all sides — not least by his colleagues and a vociferous lobby of Oxford university undergraduates.

Then one Trevor Phillips, a Briton with roots in Guyana, a former head of the researching, opinionating foundation, the Runnymede Trust, and lately a chief of the Commission For Racial Equality (and, I should declare, a long-standing friend), launched into the debate in support of Professor Biggar.

Mr Phillips felt Mr Biggar was being more objective in assessment than those whose view of history was filtered through the political lenses of our time.
Mr Phillips will no doubt, being of Afro-Caribbean origin, face a barrage of denunciation and he’ll certainly be banned from speaking about anything, even his personal blog and where he went on his holidays, on any British university platform.

I have no intention or ability, gentle reader, to distinguish between the views of, say Mr Tharoor or Professor Biggar. I have noticed in the past that a few, very few, Afro-American, radically outrageous voices have said that had it not been for slavery they wouldn’t today be American citizens demanding democratic rights under a by-and-large liberal Constitution. Afro-Americans would still be Africans living under the conditions and regimes of Africa.

It would be an unconscionable leap to conclude therefore that slavery was a good and redeeming thing. Professor Biggar’s project, making an assessment of the pluses and minuses of colonialism, is subject to the same ambivalences, the same process of history or happenstance.

History may provide certainty about facts and events — such and such a date, such and such a war, so many dead — but there is no certainty about evaluation.
So back to Jagdish Blogmantri’s blog about his arthritic year. I don’t do blogs and accounts of my doings, but who knows, if I put something significant down it may become history. I can but try:

Every Christmas — and other times of the year — I cook delicious Indian meals and inevitably get yellow haldi stains on my clothes and hankies. No bleaches or stain-removers get rid of these. However, my mum told me to wet the stains with some mild acid — vinegar, lime or even lactic acid from milk — and put the clothes out in the bright sunshine. The stain disappears.

The truth, my friends, is that there is no sunshine in December in Britain, so one has to wait for British summer for the sun to chase the yellow. History?

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