04 January 2008

The problem of interpretation

History is replete with instances of political dogmatism (e.g. Communism in Russia and China), diktats from religion (e.g. The Crusades, Islamic jihad), cultural and social acceptance of a certain country or a certain period (e.g. the caste system in India). In spite of available hard facts, and human reason making sense of these facts, interpretations can change everything.

For instance, by most records, Vasco da Gama is considered a hero in Europe for having sailed across the seas to discover a route to India, bringing back with him riches in spices, cloth and gold. However, in India, Vasco da Gama is looked upon as an invader; an exploiter of Indian hospitality and wealth.

Which interpretation is true? Which interpretation of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of India will you believe in? Which interpretation should be published in the history books for all to read?

Perhaps, there is a middle path which presents a neutral picture of what happened in history; a path which recounts history in a narrative that best explains what truly happened.

Apparently, there is such a path – a ‘best histories’ path. I did not know about ‘best histories’ until a year ago. It was pointed out to me by a friend from Australia, Robert Edwards, who is some sort of an authority in history. The following paragraphs are quotes from Robert’s emails to me, when we discussed the issue of interpreting Vasco da Gama’s feats:

“The best histories tend to try to marry the two perspectives (or five, or ten!) into a narrative that tells each of the two, and tries to reconcile them.

For example, ‘To Europeans, and in particular the Portuguese, Vasco da Gama was a great maritime explorer who discovered India and established the spice trade between Europe and the Asian Subcontinent. However, to Indians, he was an invader who exploited the people of India and paved the way for their further exploitation and subjugation by the ensuing waves of European conquerors.’ might be a more balanced way of telling the story of Vasco da Gama, which puts the two narratives together.

Credit can be given where credit is due, so you could say that ‘while Vasco da Gama was an intrepid explorer of parts of the world that were previously unknown to Europeans, an excellent mariner with great bravery, he was also responsible for cruel deprivations and the exploitation of existing problems between Indian groups to establish trade by force with his Portuguese masters.’ or something like that. You need to be able to discuss the bad aspects of someone’s feats, provide all perspectives. This would be the right way to do it, rather than just a celebratory piece about how wonderful da Gama was.

While historians may agree on the hard facts, such as the date of the Treaty of Versailles, the date that Vasco da Gama arrived in India (depending, of course, on the calendar you use), it takes a lot of arguing to agree on the interpretation of those facts.”

[Thank you, Robert.]

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