03 January 2008

Inventing history

As we step into 2008, we look at the events of the past year and the years before that as history. We take it for granted that that’s what really happened in history. But, how much of it is true? How much of it can we rely on as not an invention of the facts?

Historians, too, rely on their imagination while documenting history.

Finding and deciphering fragments of past data, most of which is destroyed, is a difficult task. As far as prehistory and ancient history go, even dating fossils and artefacts accurately is a problem. Historians have no choice but to use their imagination to piece together what they think history is (or was).

That’s not all. When historians rely on available records – even in cases of eye-witness reports – there is an issue of ideologies and prejudices to overcome, or neutralise. This includes the historian’s own ideology/prejudice, as well as the ideologies/prejudices of the people (and the period) prevalent at the time.

There is also the issue of version – or point of view – of history which is determined by those in power. Those in power – emperors, kings, sultans, political parties, etc. – write history in their own voice of authority. They record history and publish history books, making their version of history the definitive one.

For instance, in India, history was not recorded (i.e. was not available in writing – I’m not too sure about this; there must’ve been some recorded history) for thousands of years… almost until the time the Moslems came into the country in the 12th century. Since the Moslems were (and still are) great at documenting history, much of Indian history has a Moslem bias, which present-day historians are trying to set straight.

Later, when the British arrived in India in the 18th century, something similar happened and much of modern Indian history was written – and re-written – by the British with a colonial bias. Once again, present-day Indian historians are trying to set those records straight. So, you can imagine the confusion and debate in constructing actual Indian history!

The point is, there’s always an element of invention in writing history. I feel this makes history interesting. However, ‘inventing’ history can be a dubious exercise. We don’t want to build civilisations on lies. As new evidence emerges, historians have a responsibility to set the records straight. Rewrite the history books, if that’s what needs to be done, to give us a more correct picture of what really happened in history.

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