Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Keys to History

Recording History


Newspapers from years gone by serve historians as valuable sources. Much that is known about the history of Trinidad and Tobago today, about events, personalities, relationships between people, attitudes and values of the last century, and even about goods and services which were advertised by businesses that have long since vanished, can be found in the country’s press archives.

An old but often neglected concept is that looking back is an important element of going forward, of growing and developing. As Pierre-Gustave-Louis Borde wrote in the preface to his ‘History of Trinidad’ in 1876:

“Without this teaching, there is no patriotism. Little by little we become strangers to our country, and following our weaknesses or our inclinations, we make ourselves British, Indian, African, Syrian, Chinese, Portuguese, French or Spanish, when, in spite of everything, we are Trinidadians!

Ignorance of our history is the cause of all our misunderstandings and discords. In breaking with the past, ignorance deprives us of the lessons of wisdom which are always drawn from earlier misfortunes. It is ignorance which breaks the links of fraternity which exist naturally between children of the same country. No matter what has been said, it is not by erasing history that we arrive a unity.”


Myth and History


Modern mass media are often accused of being sensationalist. Propagated by fast-paced television, reporting of the actual reality has given way to influencing reality under the mere pretext of reporting it. Frequently, there are political and financial benefits to be gained for either the media or somebody involved in the ‘story’.

For historical research, it has always to be kept in mind that history not only consists of the facts and dates, but also of the attitudes and ideas that surround events at any given point in time.

“It can be argued - and has been argued - that all written or recorded history is essentially a form of myth. Any historical account is oriented towards the needs, attitudes and values of the time in which it is composed, not the time to which it refers. Any historical account is necessarily selective, including certian elements, omitting others.

History consists not only of facts and events. It also consists fo the relationships between facts and events and the interpretation, often imaginative, of such relationships. In any such act of interpretation, a mythic element necessarily comes into play. Myth is not thus distinct from history. On the contrary, it is an inseparable part of history.” (Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in: ‘The Temple and the Lodge’)


Tribal Myths


Imagine a historical researcher in the year 2100. What will she or he glean from the press archives of our outgoing 20th century? Wouldn’t the person interpret the articles of these years as reflecting a time of hatred and dissens in the country, where people are divided along religious, ethnical and economical lines? Maybe. But there is a slight chance that the researcher will take everything with a grain of salt, knowing that Trinidad and Tobago’s public discourse in those years were coloured by strong tribalism, much more so than reality itself was. The wise person today already knows that much what is said or done in this country is in fact an expression of ‘tribal myths’. Hopefully, we will soon overcome that tribalism.

“Tribal myths emphasise not what men have in common, but what divides them. They serve to extol an exalt a specific tribe, culture, people, nation or ideology, - necessarily at the expense of other tribes, cultures, peoples, nations or ideologies. Instead of leading inwards towards self-confrontation and self-recognition, tribal myths point outwards, towards self-glorification and self-aggrandisement. Because they lack an internal core, they must create a scapegoat, an outside adversary with whom to contend.

Tribal myths reflect a deep-rooted uncertainty about inner identity. They define an external identity by means of contrast and negation. White thus becomes identified as everything that is not black, and vice versa. Everything that the enemy is, one is not. Everything that the enemy is not, one is.” (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in: The Messianic Legacy)

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