I’ve often heard people say: “What’s the point in studying history?” This, to me, as someone who did study history at university (and who still studies it to a certain degree), is rather a stupid question, but then I would say that wouldn’t I? This is not, however, going to be a post about why there is a point to studying history as such. My GCSE history teacher answered that for me long ago in one sentence. “To know about the future, you must understand the present. To understand the present, you must learn about the past.” Simple. I like simple, what with my brain been so crowded and confused about 99.99% of the time.
No, this post will kind of touch on that, but more it is to blog about how knowing about history, and learning certain aspects of it, can help us to understand ourselves as humans. Which in a global society is, I’d say, pretty important.
Now history, as a scholarly pursuit, probably has a bad name because it was so often a subject in which dates were to be learned and committed to memory for no apparent reason. Fortunately we trashed this idea of what teaching history should be a while ago, well until Michael Gove stuck his oar in and decided to go all Victorian on us, wanting 10 year-olds to learn dates, facts and figures and understand the parliamentary constitution. Snore. Now, I love history, but even I find certain aspects of it as dull as dishwater. I certainly can’t be doing with the whole reeling off dates of battles thing. What is the actual point of that, other than to feel smug when you can answer a question in a pub quiz?
Anyway, I haven’t geeked out on any history for a while, but a few weeks ago, on the back of writing my V post for the A-Z blog challenge I watched The Bounty (the 1984 movie depicting the notorious mutiny on HMS Bounty in April 1789). Now, I’ve always loved the film, it’s simply a very good film. But it’s the real story which is fascinating for me, from a historical perspective. The circumstances under which it all happened and would things have been different if X hadn’t happened and Y had? The consequences upon far flung lands and cultures; the story of the people and their motives and the consequences of their actions. Isn’t this always what is most interesting about History? And what does it mean for us now and in the future? The history around how Christianity came about is a perfect example of this, or of how and why Henry VIII started the Reformation. These parts of history, the small human motives and ultimately actions behind things which then become so big without the people who were involved ever realising it, are far more interesting than knowing that Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar or that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings. Isn’t this the difference between good history teachers and the not so good ones? The ones who pepper their lessons with the human stories behind these big events?
Anyway, on the back of watching the film, I dug out a history book I first read about twelve years ago by Caroline Alexander entitled: The Bounty: The True Story of The Mutiny on The Bounty. And here the geek out began in order for me to compare the reality with what was portrayed in the film. Yes, I know, I know, films are there for entertainment and there will always be embellishment, but still, this is what I started off doing.
However reading it again became a revelation in different ways. First off ‘characters’ (they were real men after all) I had long held sympathy for in the film, I found I loathed having read the wealth of historical documentation presented, whereas others I was spot on about. It seemed the film did portray most of them as they really were. Moreover I realised this one thing. No one will ever know the entire truth of those events because, despite the historical documents presented (letters, diaries, biographies, ships logs, court martial records), most of these things are written from one person’s perspective. And humans always strive to cast themselves in the best light, even if guilty of terrible acts. William Bligh, the captain of the ill-fated ship, was for years cast as an ogre. A man who harshly disciplined his crew to the extreme. However, when you read the words of his log or of his personal journal, you realise Bligh was simply a man of duty. He was doing his best in the circumstances he was given. Whether right or wrong, he sought only to do that one thing; fulfill his duty. It turns out he never was one to like the floggings and took pride in the first leg of the journey to only have had to do so once. No, it seems it was his verbal rants which gave him such a bad name and this in the days corporal punishment was acceptable and expected, especially in an institution such as the Royal navy. My own view in reading the book was that perhaps he had been too lenient in some respects and when he did finally have to put his foot down, resentment grew. (Why teachers always say they start off hard on new classes and work their way down!) Some documents in the book support that view of Bligh, the duty bound, peaceable, humane officer whereas others give the view that he was an impatient, overbearing, tyrannical captain. And there’s the crux. Everyone he came into contact with would have had a different opinion. Some would have sympathised with his actions and ways. Others would have resented him for it. Everything we read or see (think media or even the work colleagues you interact with) has some form of bias attached. Yes, some forms will bare out the hard, raw facts, but even with those everyone will form their own conclusions as to what went on and why.
The other thing which was made clear to me from reading this book was that there has never been equality in terms of wealth and never will there be. In any society. This is something history can teach us. It won’t stop us striving for it I don’t suppose, but we are foolish to think we will ever achieve a world where all men are equal in terms of material wealth. (I use the word men as in mankind before any feminists start an uprising.) It fascinated me that the mutineers who were picked up off Tahiti two years later and faced court martial back in England, of those who were tried it was the ones from wealthier families, those with connections who received the King’s pardon and were not hanged. It was the poor and illiterate who were hanged. Money is extremely powerful. Words and the ability to use them in the right way is also very powerful. This was true then and it’s true now, and it will continue to be true. Depressing as that is. The historical documents bear this out undeniably. All of us who strive to gain equality in this way would be much happier in accepting there will always be a hierarchy. There I go simplifying things again to suit my own brain!
But the biggest point of this ‘delve’ into the history of this story became for me all about perspective. We are all wrong and we are all right, because we all hold our own view and opinion and really, if we are honest, we are all out for ourselves. Self preservation. I mean not all the time obviously, but if we find ourselves in the pooper as, say, Peter Heywood did, a few good connections and the right words would no doubt help us out of a sticky situation and hang the truth of the matter. Enough people gave evidence against Peter Heywood yet despite being found as guilty as, say, Thomas Ellison, Heywood was pardoned, whilst Ellison wasn’t. Both used their young age and inexperience as a form of defence for their actions in 1789, yet Ellison, poor and illiterate with no legal representation and no good connections, hung. Justice? Well that would depend on your point of view. When I watch the film, Heywood is portrayed as young and innocent, a likable character, somewhat in the background, on the fringes, but swept away by all events as they unfolded. I liked and sympathised with the character in the film, but when I read the historical documents I couldn’t stand him. Rich and privileged and embellishing facts to cover his own back. But would any of us be much different if faced with the hangman’s noose? I wonder.
The historical picture of the events of 1789 are still blurred because we rely, not on facts, but on the perspectives of human beings to tell the story and this is in itself fascinating. You ‘hear’ every man speak with their own biases and judgments, (James Morrison’s accounts are some of the most thought provoking as are what happens later on when Fletcher Christian’s brother publishes his own take on things bearing in mind he has money and interviews the pardoned mutineers), and you are left to make your own. Which only goes to prove it is never the facts of history which are interesting, more why these men did as they did, said as they said. The accounts from Pitcairn island are also deeply fascinating and accounts from just one person differ wildly which shows we often adapt a relating of events to suit our audience or our needs. What we can learn from this is that everything we see and hear even now in the present, in the media, from our friends, is presented with their own bias. That is what we can learn from studying history about ourselves as human beings.
This idea of bias and perspective then hit me again head on yesterday, when I was at my sister’s house. She had dug out some of her old diaries from around 1993-94. We were having a good old giggle at them. Unlike many diaries they were not full of really personal revelations about thoughts and feelings, but actually read more like a ship’s log detailing mainly events and facts. Interesting to me, as I remember that time in our family, but to anyone else it would be dull as dishwater in all probability. The same as Bligh’s log would have been without the mutiny and the subsequent navigation undertaken in the ship’s launch when the Admiralty, in 1790, and historians ever since have tried to look for clues and explain the actions of Fletcher Christian. My sister says she wrote like this as she was worried at the time I’d have a nose and read them, but only because she used to sneak and read mine and so tarred me with the same brush! What I found interesting about my sister writing a diary in this way is how, even when people are writing in something privately, they can write with an agenda. They don’t always write the whole truth down and of course they always write with a bias.
Anyway, looking at her diaries prompted me to look at my own from that time in order to compare. Would we record the same events? Would our perspective be the same? Well of course not. We were teenagers and teenagers are notoriously wrapped up in their own very ego-centric world. So other than a few key events and logs of what was at number one in the charts, you’d hardly think we lived in the same house. Or indeed that we had three brothers and parents! Her diary is all about her and her boyfriend (nothing dodgy, damn!) Mine is all about the intricacies and gossip of a very complicated network of friends and my pursuit of boys. Every now and then my family got a mention but not often.
Then this morning I read the back end of my diary from 1995. Wow. Talk about intense. Now I keep diaries because I don’t trust memory much. Memory is a truly fascinating thing. How it alters and changes and blurs things over time, or how it changes from person to person even when at the same event. Now having read about Christmas 1995 I’d love though to see (if the rest of the family had kept diaries) what they would have written. My sister had had a night away with her boyfriend. She was 18 at the time, I was 20. My mum went a bit mad about it and there was a whole slanging match between my mum and my sister’s boyfriend’s mum. It seems I’d taken my mum’s side, outraged by my sister’s behaviour! Gosh really? Who was I to judge? Here, in my own words from 20 years ago, I heard me, the oldest sibling, full of duty; Captain Bligh, ever duty bound even if misguided. (Actually if we’re going to assign Bounty characters to my family at the time we’d have to say Mum was Bligh: pretty verbally tyrannical, but having the whole picture in mind, trying to do her best with and for a motley rabble in the long run with no back up from the Admiralty, ie, my dad. I’d have been the insufferable John Fryer; wanting to be in command, always thinking I knew better than the captain and always eager to point out the faults of those below me, ie, my younger siblings. My sister would have been Fletcher Christian. Liked by everyone, but quietly rebelling against the captain with piercing her ears and off out clubbing with the natives; generally disillusioned and discontented, ready to jump ship any moment. Brother Number One would have been Quintal or Churchill or Purcell, the carpenter. A rebel without a cause and getting himself into fights with authority or picking them. Anyway er…that was a digression from what I was saying. Where was I? Oh yes..
Of course my sister’s point of view of the whole incident would be very different, and naturally so. My mum’s would be different still. Among all this going on apparently, around the same time, my brother hit my dad (unrelated I think) and my mum and dad were constantly rowing. (I’d imagine by this point my dad was having the affair which would split the marriage six months later). Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how they all related events around that time? Though only I, to my knowledge, have any written form of thoughts and they are all very much about me and how I felt or what I saw from my perspective. (Where my, at the time, 10 year-old and 15 year-old brothers fitted into this drama I have no idea as they don’t get a mention!) But this is the point. Seven people (plus others) would mean that, if any other written accounts of that time exists, there would be seven, eight, nine maybe more stories to tell and historians would have to build up a picture which would never really satisfy those involved. It would tell people something about our characters and how human beings react in different circumstances, but the truth of the events would always be clouded by bias and perspective. The chaos of the events and each individual bias, like that of the accounts of the morning of the mutiny on HMS Bounty, would cloud any account of what actually happened, so no one could ever really know. There would of course be things we would all agree on, but our own perceptions would be wildly different and the way we would report it would be wildly different. Even in diaries or letters.
So studying history is important, in my opinion of course. Understanding the bias of documents is important to help us navigate our way through this media saturated world for a start. However it also serves to help us understand, not the facts about what happened in any given event necessarily, but to understand human nature. To find out why and how we think and act as we do; to think about the consequences of past actions and how that may help us in the future and to find out if we, as humans really do ever learn from our past mistakes and glories.
As my last post was May the 1st, please forgive the epic length of this. Quietness clearly clogs me up! :) Thanks for reading. If you did manage to get to the end :)