am a product of my culture. No matter how independent, critical, and questioning my reading of history is, I cannot help but be influenced by my education and socialization. The “truths” they taught me at school and the “facts” I glean from television and news constantly need to be interrogated and viewed from a multitude of perspectives. History, it would seem, depends on who is telling the story. The version which often holds the greatest currency is the version recounted by the victors. The terms we use and the labels we give to events and protagonists from the past are always skewed and dependent on perspective. How something is labeled influences how it is viewed.
I am British and of an age where my schooling goes back to a time of the last throws of empire. I grew up when Britain’s overseas colonies were gradually gaining independence. It was a time, post-Suez when Britain needed to re-evaluate her position on the world’s stage. A process still in motion today. However, the history that teachers from an older generation taught me at school still reflected a previous paradigm.
Let me give an example. During one lesson recounting glories of the past, we were told about the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The detail which remains with me all these years later is how the British East India Company offended and upset all the Indian soldiers who were employed by them, whether they were Hindu or Muslim. The last spark for the rebellion was the introduction of a new Enfield Rifle.
Loading the rifle required paper cartridges which were pre-greased during manufacture. They had to be bitten open to release the gunpowder. The rumor spread that the paper contained tallow made from beef or lard derived from pork. To the Hindu soldiers, the cow was a sacred animal, and to have to bite into a cartridge derived from cattle was deeply offensive. The Muslim soldiers were equally upset by the notion of putting pork into their mouths.
When I was given this lesson at school, there was no alternative way of looking at the events. It was known by various names, all of which were from the perspective of the British. They called it the “Indian Mutiny” the “Indian Rebellion” or the “Sepoy Mutiny”, Sepoys being the name given by the rulers to their colonial troops. They did not refer it to as a war of independence. However, from an Indian perspective, the events of 1857 and 1858 were the first in a long line of struggles that eventually led to independence from British rule in 1947.
The label given to an event or to a group of people reflects the position of the label giver.
These are a few of the many examples which show this.
The Boer War to the British, Tweede Vrijheidsoorlog (Second Freedom War) in Afrikaans or just the South African War, as they officially call it in South Africa.
Before the end of apartheid in South Africa, the African National Congress were considered and labeled terrorists by the government and yet today they are the governing party. The organization and its members are not officially removed from the US terrorism watch list until 2008.
When Captain Cook landed in Australia, he declared the land to be terra nullius, a Latin term meaning “empty land.” To the indigenous people who had been there for thousands of years, it was anything but empty.
In Russia, they know the Second World War as the Great Patriotic War. This is a term that reflects the fact that at least 26 million Soviet citizens and military personnel died pushing the Nazi armies back from the Soviet Union all the way to Berlin.
Everything, it would seem, is a matter of perspective. How can there ever be universal truths? It is not just the telling of the story which is always open to interpretation but the labels given to the story and the names by which we know the participants of the narrative, which will slant how the story is viewed.
Dave Eldergill travels the long distance paths of the UK. He writes about art, music, history and the encounters he finds interesting on his journeys.